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Constructs and the Problem of Reification

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

Constructs refer to processes suspected of happening inside people. The con­cepts of happiness, intelligence, and personality are constructs.

Psychologists use all sorts of constructs. Words like motivation, personality traits, and attitudes are discussed and treated as real.

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

Something real (in this context) is something that exists independently of the observer. In that case, researchers should be able to be measure it in different ways, and the different tests should agree.

You might recognize this as related to validity-testing as discussed on the last page. If different operational definitions measure the same thing-in-the-world and agree, they are called convergent operations (or converging operations). A construct successfully measured with several independent techniques is said to have 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 depends partly on whether your own skin is hot or cold.

But many instruments can measure temperature, and they all agree. They all produce the same 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 is measured in only one way, or if multiple attempts to measure it independently fail to agree, the thing being measured might have no independent existence outside people's conceptual systems. That does not prevent people from using a label, or believing in something, but it means there is no scientific evidence for it.

Ghosts are like this. Nobody has ever measured a ghost or provided a way of detecting ghosts that can be repeated by skeptics. That does not prevent many people from believing in ghosts.

If a construct is treated like a real-world thing, even though there is no independent evidence for its realtiy, this is called the problem of reification. Reification might be called concrete-ification.

Reification occurs when an abstraction is treated as if it has independent existence in the world, when it might only be an idea. It might have no counterpart in the so-called outside world (the world outside people's conceptual systems).

What is reification?

An example involves the construct of hypnosis. We all know the stereotype. A shiny object is dangled in front of the eyes, or a person is told to feel very, very sleepy. A series of suggestions is presented. Eventually people act out strange things.

For nearly two centuries people watched demonstrations of hypnosis. In the 1960s, researchers finally asked whether hypnosis was a meaningful construct.

T. X. Barber (himself a hypnotist) made a strong case that hypnosis was an unnecessary construct. He argued that hypnosis is not distinct in any meas­urable way from other phenomena labeled as suggestion. Other hypnotists such as The Amazing Kreskin agreed.

To investigate this, one must ask: (1) how is hypnosis defined, then (2) is there any other independent way to measure it?

Hypnosis is defined by giving people suggestions and observing to see whether they act out the suggestions. A widely used test of hypnotizability, the Stanford Hypnotizability Scale, asks people to imagine things like a strong wind blowing from left to right. If the subject began to lean over, that is scored as a positive response.

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

The scale involves a progression of increasingly demanding suggestions, ending with hallucinations such as seeing a fly buzzing around the room. That is something only the most hypnotizable people can imagine.

The problem with this operational definition is that it constitutes a hypnosis procedure. The Stanford Hypnotizability Scale measures whether people respond to suggestions, yes. But this is no different from hypnosis itself. It is not an independent measurement of hypnosis.

Brain scans provide one approach. There are numerous studies showing brain effects of hypnosis, but they do not establish that hypnosis is different from ordinary suggestion, which also alters the brain.

That could change. Somebody could publish a study tomorrow showing that a particular activation pattern on brain scans can only be explained by a construct we call hyphnosis. But is is more likely that what we call hypnosis will be subsumed by a larger cateogory that might be labeled "imaginative creations" or "possible fuurees." They are alway impossible to penetrate, by definition.

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. Some people areadily accept beliefs or commands from another person, under the right conditions.

This would explain, for example, why thousands of people in the 1990s believed they had been beamed up into UFOs and sexually examined. Many had been hypnotized first, but some had not been.

If hypnosis and suggestion are identical, then suggestion might be enough to create such memories. Simply seeing a story about UFO kidnapping in media such as movies might be enough to plant the ideas and stir the imagination. That is what most psychologists who studied the phenomenon concluded.

If brain scanning was to show (for example) that hypnosis could be defined as a distinct state, perhaps involving the same areas as an REM dream but during wakefulness, then scientists could study how that state was different from other acts of imagination or suggestion. They might learn to manipulate it, turn it on and off, and so forth.

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 be reluctant to treat it as something distinct from ordinary imagination and suggestion.

We know suggestion occurs, and we know imagination occurs, so hypnosis might be an unnecessary construct. The word suggestibility is adequate to cover the well-known phenomena of hypnosis, and it has the advantage of covering many other phenomena as well.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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