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Constructs and the Problem of Reification

Concepts like happiness and intel­ligence and personality are called constructs. We cannot see them directly. They are labels, concepts, literally constructions in our heads.

A construct is a socially agreed-upon way of labeling processes happening inside people. By giving complex processes a label, we can discuss them.

Psychologists use all sorts of constructs. Phrases like achievement motivation or introverted personality or cognitive restructuring are discussed as if they were real and tangible things.

How do we know whether a construct refers to something real? What does that even mean?

If something is real (existing outside somebody's conceptual world) then it should have consequences. Researchers should be able to measure or detect it in multiple ways.

On the last page, we described measuring something in multiple ways as a search for convergent operations or converging operations. If there are convergent operations for a construct such as introversion (and there are) then the construct has high construct validity.

What is a construct? What are converging (or convergent) operations?

Consider temperature as an example. You cannot see temperature directly; it is just a scientific idea or construct. You cannot even feel temperature directly; the temperatures you feel depend partly on whether your own skin is hot or cold.

But many instruments can measure temperature. The highest quality instruments all agree. They produce compatible results.

Therefore we can be confident in speaking about temperature as something real, not just a concept made up by a researcher. Temperature has high construct validity.

If a construct can be measured only one way, or independent measurements produce contradictory results, then the construct might have low construct validity. We cannot assume it exists apart from people's ideas about it.

That is not unusual. People have ideas about all sorts of things that lack construct validity.

Ghosts are in that category. There is no scientific evidence for them. They cannot be measured or detected using specified procedures. That does not prevent people from believing in ghosts.

Treating an abstract construct like a real-world thing, when it is not actually a distinct thing in itself, is called the problem of reification. Reification might be called concrete-ification.

The word intelligence is an example. People treat it as if it is a single dimension like height that a person can have in varying degrees.

However, most people realize that intelli­gence refers to a wide range of skills and abilities. Intelligence is not a "thing" and treating it like a single quality is an example of reification.

What is reification?

Sometimes a concept becomes popular and reification occurs before scientists can investigate it. That happened with hypnosis.

In the popular stereotype, hypnosis occurs when a person is told to feel very, very sleepy, perhaps while a shiny object is dangled in front of the eyes. A series of suggestions is presented. Eventually the person acts out strange things.

For nearly two centuries people watched demonstrations of hypnosis. However, in the 1960s, T. X. Barber (himself a hypnotist) questioned whether hypnosis was a meaningful construct.

Barber argued that hypnosis was not distinct from other phenomena called suggestion. Illusionists such as The Amazing Kreskin agreed.

Kreskin made a point of duplicating common hypnotic stage tricks using suggestion alone. For example, he would call students to the stage and have them lie between two chairs without any hypnotic induction. He told them they could do it, and they did it.

To investigate whether hypnosis is distinct from ordinary suggestion, one must define both terms. How is hypnosis defined differently from suggestion? Once defined, is there any other independent way to measure it?

A widely used test of hypnotizability, the Stanford Hypnotizability Scale, asks a person to imagine things. If a person is told to imagine a strong wind blowing from left to right, and the person leans over slightly, that is scored as a positive response.

How is hypnosis operationally defined (i.e. measured)?

The Stanford scale involves a progression of increasingly demanding suggestions. It ends with hallucinations such as seeing a fly buzzing around the room. Only the most hypnotizable people can hallucinate.

One might say, therefore, "Here we have an operational definition of hypnosis. Give the person the Stanford Hypnotizability Scale and determine the score."

The problem is that administering the scale constitutes a hypnosis procedure. The Stanford Hypnotizability Scale is no different from hypnosis itself. It is not an independent measurement of hypnosis.

Brain scans provide a different measuring technique. However, no brain scanning studies have established that hypnosis is different from ordinary suggestion or imagination during a restful state.

This could change. Somebody could publish a study tomorrow showing a peculiar pattern of brain activation that only occurs in states resembling stage hypnosis, not in other states of relaxation and suggestion. So far that has not happened.

How could brain scanning research lend construct validity to hypnosis?

Lacking any independent way to measure hypnosis, we might agree with Barber that the construct of hypnotism inherited from the 1800s is unnecessary. Hypnosis is not "based upon" suggest­ion. It is suggestion. So far, there is no way to tell the two apart.

Does this mean hypnosis is a fraud? No. It occurs, and it is a remarkable phenomenon. That is why we devote a section of Chapter 3 (States of Consciousness) to hypnosis.

Until a way is found to measure hypnosis as something distinct from suggestibility, scientists will be on guard against reifying the concept of hypnosis. They will think of hypnosis as an interesting example of suggestion, not as a unique state in itself.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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