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Operational Definitions: Not Always "Good"

Some students develop a misconception about operational definitions. They think all operational definitions are "good" or scientifically approved. This is not the case! An operational definition is just a decision about what operations to carry out in order to measure something. The decision may be bad!

What misconception do some students develop, and why is it incorrect?

For example, suppose one wanted to study happiness. To study it, one must measure it somehow. One might decide the easiest way to operationalize happiness (make an operational definition of it) is to count smiles. This can be done. Happiness can be measured by counting the number of smiles a person emits during an observation period of specified length .

However, this is a poor operational definition of happiness. In one study, psychologists from Cornell University analyzed video recordings of bowlers and fans at a hockey game. They found that smiling seldom occurred when people were happy, such as when the home team scored. Instead, people smiled mostly for social reasons, such as when they bumped into somebody accidentally (Rubenstein, 1980).

If "counting smiles" is not a good operational definition of happiness, then what is a good operational definition of happiness? How does one come up with a good measurement procedure, when a psychological process is involved? This is never an easy question to answer. Happiness or subjective well-being (SWB) is actually the subject of decades of research. Researchers do the best they can, using "life satisfaction" ratings and reports of personal happiness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).

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