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Measuring Affect, Behavior, and Cognition

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

One important aspect of using an empirical approach to understand social behavior is that the concepts of interest must be measured (Figure 1.7). If we are interested in learning how much Sarah likes Robert, then we need to have a measure of her liking for him. But how, exactly, should we measure the broad idea of “liking”? In scientific terms, the characteristics that we are trying to measure are known as conceptual variables, and the particular method that we use to measure a variable of interest is called an operational definition.

For anything that we might wish to measure, there are many different operational definitions, and which one we use depends on the goal of the research and the type of situation we are studying. To better understand this, let’s look at an example of how we might operationally define “Sarah likes Robert.”

Figure 1.7 The Operational Definition.  
An idea or conceptual variable (such as “how much Sarah likes Robert”) is turned into a measure through an operational definition. 

One approach to measurement involves directly asking people about their perceptions using self-report measures. Self-report measures are measures in which individuals are asked to respond to questions posed by an interviewer or on a questionnaire. Generally, because any one question might be misunderstood or answered incorrectly, in order to provide a better measure, more than one question is asked and the responses to the questions are averaged together. For example, an operational definition of Sarah’s liking for Robert might involve asking her to complete the following measure:


I enjoy being around Robert.


Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree


I get along well with Robert.


Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree


I like Robert.


Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree


The operational definition would be the average of her responses across the three questions. Because each question assesses the attitude differently, and yet each question should nevertheless measure Sarah’s attitude toward Robert in some way, the average of the three questions will generally be a better measure than would any one question on its own.

Although it is easy to ask many questions on self-report measures, these measures have a potential disadvantage. As we have seen, people’s insights into their own opinions and their own behaviors may not be perfect, and they might also not want to tell the truth—perhaps Sarah really likes Robert, but she is unwilling or unable to tell us so. Therefore, an alternative to self-report that can sometimes provide a more valid measure is to measure behavior itself. Behavioral measures are measures designed to directly assess what people do. Instead of asking Sarah how much she likes Robert, we might instead measure her liking by assessing how much time she spends with Robert or by coding how much she smiles at him when she talks to him. Some examples of behavioral measures that have been used in social psychological research are shown in Table 1.3.

Table 1.3 Examples of Operational Definitions of Conceptual Variables That Have Been Used in Social Psychological Research

Conceptual variable

Operational definitions


Number of seconds taken to honk the horn at the car ahead after a stoplight turns green

Number of presses of a button that administers shock to another student

Interpersonal attraction

Number of millimeters of pupil dilation when one person looks at another

Number of times that a person looks at another person


Number of hours of volunteering per week that a person engages in

Number of pieces of paper a person helps another pick up

Group decision-making skills

Number of seconds in which a group correctly solves a problem

Number of groups able to correctly solve a group performance task


Number of inches that a person places their chair away from another person

Number of negative words used in a creative story about another person