You learned in the previous section that, as scientific researchers, we must carefully define our concepts because these definitions determine two things:
- how we think about the concepts;
- what actions we take with respect to them.
For example, if we define the concept of intelligence as the score obtained on a particular IQ test — one that measures the kinds of information learned in school — then we will think about intelligence in narrow ways (i.e., in ways that leave out other aspects of intelligence, such as creative thinking) and we may take actions that limit unfairly the opportunities given to those who receive low scores.
The definitions of concepts are important for another reason: they affect how reliably and validly we observe instances of these concepts. Reliability refers to the degree to which our observations are repeatable over time. For example, if intelligence is defined as the score on an IQ test such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, test-takers will tend to get very similar scores each time they take the test. In this case, the test is said to have high reliability. Validity refers to the degree to which our observations allow us to say something meaningful about the concept being studied. In the case of an IQ test, validity refers to the degree to which the test measures intelligence: if the test measures this concept well, then a person’s score should allow us to say something meaningful about that person’s intelligence.
Definitions of concepts can be divided into two general types: subjective and objective. In this section, you will learn about subjective definitions.
Subjective Definitions and Suggestion
If I were to put together a list of Things That Human Beings Enjoy, my list would include the following: pizza topped with sausage and mushrooms, novels by William Faulkner, playing with dogs, talking with children, and writing about psychology. Of course, many of you don’t enjoy at least some of those things. That’s because the list isn’t really about what human beings as a whole enjoy, it’s about what one human being enjoys. In other words, the list represents a subjective definition of “things that human beings enjoy.”
Subjective definitions specify phenomena that are only privately observable — phenomena experienced in ways unique to the individual observing them. Descriptions of privately observable phenomena tend to be affected by a person’s beliefs, preferences, attitudes, emotional states, etc. In other words, subjective definitions refer to impressions influenced not only by reality but also by how one interprets that reality, which allows personal biases, attitudes, etc., to affect the observations. For example, Potter Stewart, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1958-1981, provided a subjective definition of pornography in a 1964 ruling. Theaters in Ohio were not allowed to show a French film titled Les Amants (The Lovers) because of an obscenity law in effect in that state. Nico Jacobellis, a manager of a theater outside of Cleveland, decided to show the film anyways, and was arrested and convicted. His case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the law had been incorrectly and unconstitutionally applied to the film. In his contribution to the majority decision, Stewart stated:
I have reached the conclusion … that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments[,] criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know [hard-core pornography] when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. (JACOBELLIS v. OHIO, 378 U.S. 184, 1964; emphasis added)
Stewart admitted in his decision that his understanding of the concept pornography was subjective — that, in essence, his “gut” told him when something was pornographic and when it was not. But his statement also implied that most people probably would agree with his opinion, just as we all agree on which objects are red without being able to objectively define what “red” is. Stewart, however, was undoubtedly wrong about this: moral values and standards of conduct differ widely among individuals, and these determine whether or not an individual would think a film (or anything else) is obscene. Stewart himself eventually realized this and changed his mind on the matter.
The more subjective the definition of a concept, the greater becomes the influence of “suggestion” on our observations. Suggestion is the automatic and uncritical acceptance by an individual of an idea, which then unconsciously influences that individual’s experience of the world. In other words, what people say to you (or what they simply imply by their actions) can influence how you interpret your experience of an event or situation and, thereby, how you respond to it.
Suggestion affects two things:
- our beliefs about an event or situation;
- our perceptions of an event or situation.
In most cases this influence is thought to occur at either the preconscious or unconscious level. A famous scientific example of suggestive influences occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1903, soon after the discovery of X-rays — a previously unknown type of electromagnetic radiation that was invisible to the human eye — an eminent French physicist by the name of René Blondlot discovered what he called N-rays, named after the University of Nancy, which was where he worked. According to Blondlot and his colleagues, N-rays increase the brightness of things. For example, they claimed that N-rays cause electric sparks to appear to be brighter. Blondlot also found evidence that N-rays are emitted by any glowing object, such as the sun or candle flames, and that certain substances absorb N-rays and then emit them later. Because the fluid within our eyes is one of the substances that does this, Blondlot claimed that when N-rays are beamed into people’s eyes, they become better able to see in dark rooms.
Many physicists around the world accepted Blondlot’s claims after dozens of studies were published reporting similar results — studies performed by different researchers in different laboratories. Nevertheless, as you will learn in this course, there are always skeptics. This is a good thing because doubts about scientific claims motivate researchers to perform additional research to see if the evidence continues to support the claims. In the case of N-rays, a number of physicists became very skeptical after they were unable to replicate the findings. In trying to understand their failure to replicate the findings of other physicists, they pointed to a basic problem in the research: Blondlot and the other researchers judged by sight (that is, subjectively) whether or not the brightness of an object increased. The skeptics argued that suggestion alone — that is, the belief that N-rays were hitting an object — affected researchers’ perceptions of the object’s brightness.
How could we test the claim that suggestion affected the perceived brightness of objects in these studies? The only way to do this would be to use deception: we would need to make observers believe incorrectly that (a) N-rays were being beamed at an object when they really were not and (b) were not being beamed at the object when they really were (see Table 1).
|Observer Told||N-Rays Present||N-Rays Absent|
Table 1. The design of a study of the effects of suggestion on observations made in an N-Ray experiment
If the actual presence or absence of N-rays is the primary influence on what observers perceive, then the observations made for Cell A and Cell C (where N-rays really are being beamed at objects) will be perceived as brighter than the observations made for Cell B and Cell D (where N-rays are not being beamed at objects). On the other hand, if suggestion is the primary influence on what observers perceive, then the observations for Cell A and Cell B (where the observers believe that N-rays are being beamed at objects) will be perceived as brighter than the observations made for Cell C and Cell D (where the observers believe that N-rays are not being beamed at objects).
An American physicist by the name of Robert Wood performed this study in Blondlot’s laboratory in 1904. Hines (2003) described what Wood did to see if suggestion explained Blondlot’s results:
N-ray experiments had to be carried out in a darkened laboratory…. This gave Wood an opportunity to make several observations that proved Blondlot’s judgements of brightness changes were a function of his beliefs [suggestion], and not of the presence or absence of N-rays. In one experiment, Wood was to block an N-ray source by inserting a sheet of lead between the source and a card with luminous paint on it [Blondlot had “discovered” that N-rays could not penetrate lead]…. Without telling Blondlot, Wood changed the experiment in one slight but vitally important way. He would indicate to Blondlot that the lead sheet was blocking the N-ray source when it really wasn’t, or vice versa…. [Wood found that if Blondlot] believed the screen was present (blocking N-rays), but it wasn’t, he reported the paint to be less luminous. If he was told the screen was not present (allowing N-rays to pass), but it really was, he reported the paint to be more luminous. (pp. 23-24).
Thus, Wood concluded that the observers’ beliefs about what was happening, not what actually was happening, was the primary influence on their judgments of brightness. Further manipulations performed by Wood, similar to the one described above, also failed to support the claim that N-rays existed. Wood concluded that the evidence published by Blondlot in support of the existence of N-rays was contaminated by the effects of suggestion, and that this suggestive influence resulted from the subjective definition of brightness: an object’s brightness was defined in terms of whether it looked brighter to the observer, instead of being defined in terms of something that did not require the observer to judge the object’s brightness (e.g., measuring its brightness with a light meter).
What is most interesting about this story is that Blondlot never gave up his belief in the existence of N-rays: “convinced until the end that N-rays were real, [Blondlot] pursued his research on the topic until his death in 1930” (Hines, 2003, p. 25). Personal experience — in Blondlot’s case, perceiving an increase in an object’s brightness under certain conditions — is very compelling evidence for all of us, even when nonsubjective observations provide clear evidence for a different conclusion. Furthermore, once we believe something to be true, we sometimes continue to believe it even when the evidence shows that the belief is false. This is called belief perseverance , which is defined as the tendency to continue to hold on to a belief once it has been accepted as likely to be true (belief perseverance is related to the confirmation bias). We all hold such “delusional” beliefs, partly because personal experiences can lead us astray. This is why scientific research that takes account of the limitations of personal experience is so important. We will return to this issue several times in this textbook.
Study Questions for Section 2-3
- How would you define “reliability” and “validity in your own words?
- How would you define “subjective definition” in your own words?
- What is an example of a subjectively defined concept from your everyday life?
- What would be an example of a subjective definition of an individual’s
(a) amount of intelligence,
(b) amount of hunger,
(c) degree of interest in a visual stimulus,
(d) level of sexual desire.
- How would you define in your own words the concept of “suggestion”?
- What is an example from your everyday life of an experience you had with suggestion?
- How can a suggestion influence what you perceive?
- In what way are subjective definitions and suggestion associated?
- What did the evidence for the existence of N-rays consist of?
- What was the main problem with this evidence; and how did the notion of “subjective definitions” enter into this?
- How was the evidence supporting the existence of N-rays shown to be inadequate?
- Have N-rays been proved not to exist? Why or why not? (The answer to this question was not provided above. If you are unsure of how to answer it, ask in class.)
Practice Quiz for Section 2-3
See answers to the study questions for this section here.
Click HERE to find the details about the articles, books, etc., referred to in this section.