This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 01 table of contents.

Constructs and the Problem of Reification

Concepts like happiness and intelligence and personality are sometimes called constructs . We cannot see them directly. They are ideas. Although researchers believe these words refer to something real inside people, the concepts of happiness, intelligence, and personality are literally constructions in our heads. Psychologists use all sorts of constructs: they refer to motivations, personality traits, and attitudes as if they were real. In other words, these concepts supposedly refer to events in the real world that cannot be measured directly but which truly exist and are not only fantasies or ideas in the heads of scientists. This raises an obvious question. How do we know whether a construct refers to something real or is just an idea in the head of some human?

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

The answer lies in the concept of convergent (or converging) operations. If a concept refers to something real, if it labels a thing or process that exists independently of the observer, then one should be able to be measure it in different ways, using different tests, and the different tests should agree. Consider temperature as an example. You cannot see temperature directly; it is just a scientific idea or construct. But you can measure temperature in many different ways, and all the different tests agree. They all produce the same results. Therefore we are confident in speaking about temperature as something real, not just a concept made up by a researcher.

What is reification?

However, in some cases a construct can be measured only in one way, yet people still treat it as something real in the world. This is the problem of reification. It occurs when a word or concept takes on a life of its own, in people's heads. The construct becomes treated as something concrete and independently existing, even though there is no independent verification of its existence. This may unduly limit the thought processes of researchers.

An example involves the construct of hypnosis. For nearly two centuries people have watched demonstrations of hypnosis and marveled at the strange behaviors it could produce. Few people stopped to ask whether "hypnosis" is a meaningful construct. To answer that question, we must ask: (1) how is hypnosis defined, and then (2) is there any other independent way to measure it?

The answer to question #1 is that hypnosis is defined by giving people suggestions and observing to see whether they are affected by the suggestions. A widely used test of hypnotizability, the Stanford Hypnotizability Scale, involves asking subjects to imagine things like a strong wind blowing from left to right. If the subject begins to lean over, this is scored as a positive response. The scale involves a progression of increasingly demanding suggestions, ending with hallucinations such as seeing a fly buzzing around the room…something that only the most hypnotizable people can imagine.

The problem with this operational definition of hypnotizability is that it constitutes a hypnosis procedure in itself. In fact, I stopped including the Standard Hypnotizability Scale in this book after a student told me he used the scale on a friend and hypnotized her! Hypnosis itself is widely defined as a tendency to respond to suggestions of the hypnotist. So the Stanford Hypnotizability Scale is indistinguishable from a hypnotic induction procedure. It measures whether people respond to suggestions, yes. But this is no different from hypnosis itself.

The next logical question is whether there is another, independent way to measure hypnosis, distinct from measuring suggestion, since they seem to be the same thing. Is hypnosis a natural process which might be measured by appropriate instruments, the way sleep can be defined with EEG stages or alcohol intoxication can be measured with blood levels of alcohol?

The answer might surprise many students. Apparently there are no markers of hypnosis that distinguish it from a relaxed state, and there is nothing a hypnotized person can do that cannot be done through simple suggestion without a hypnosis procedure! The whole construct of hypnotism that we inherited from the 1800s is apparently unnecessary. Hypnosis is not "based upon" suggestion. It is suggestion. There is no way to tell the two apart. In other words there are certain people out there who can imagine things vividly, if this is suggested to them, whether or not they are hypnotized. A formal hypnotic procedure is not necessary.

In what sense is hypnosis an unnecessary construct?

Does this mean hypnosis is a fraud? No, the behaviors we label as hypnosis really do occur, and sometimes they are quite remarkable. That is why we devote a section of Chapter 3 (States of Consciousness) to hypnosis. Some people are amazingly suggestible and they can enter into vivid imagined experiences by following the instructions of another person (or by themselves, using "self-hypnosis"). So hypnosis exists in the sense that what people have called hypnosis for over 100 years actually does happen. People can lie between chairs, imagine alternate realities, and so forth. But none of this requires an induction procedure, and none of it produces biological markers distinct from ordinary imagination.

Therefore hypnosis should not be reified or treated as a psychological state distinct from ordinary imagination and suggestion. Hypnosis is an unnecessary construct. The word suggestibility is adequate to cover all the phenomena of hypnosis, and it has the advantage of covering many other phenomena (such as persuasion of a crowd by a charismatic speaker). That is a useful insight! It means that a psychologist studying suggestibility can relate any sort of suggestibility to the huge literature on hypnosis, without making the mistake of "comparing apples to oranges." For many psychologists, that is food for thought.


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