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When designing a study, how do you make sure that everyone knows what you’re talking about? How do you measure things that seem difficult to measure? In this lesson, we’ll look at two key steps in research: conceptualization and operationalization.

Measurement

Vicky has a problem. She works in human resources at a large company, and her boss wants her to figure out how to make the workers in her company more productive.

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How does she do that? Does she just start implementing programs?Imagine that you’re a psychologist, and Vicky hires you to figure out what would make employees more productive. She wants to start with goal-setting for everyone in the company, but she needs you to figure out how to go about that. Should she have everyone set their own goals? Should she set goals for them? Should the goals be really, really hard, or should she encourage people to just try their best?In order to figure out what types of goals will work best, we have to design a study. Let’s say that we decide to compare specific, challenging goals with ‘do your best’ goals and see which work better.

So, we divide the workforce in half and give half of them specific, challenging goals and the rest ‘do your best’ goals. Then we send them off to work.But, how will we know which worked better? In psychological research, measurement is the process by which we assess thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

In our example, we will want to measure productivity in order to see if people with specific, challenging goals are more productive than those given ‘do your best’ goals. We are assessing behaviors – how productive the employees are.In order to design a study and measure your variables, there are two important concepts you need to know: conceptualization and operationalization. Let’s look closer at each of these.

Conceptualization

Vicky is hiring some new people for her company. One man, Charlie, seems pretty good. His resume is just what she’s looking for, and he seems nice when she interviews him. But, when she follows up with his former boss, the boss tells her that he is lazy.Inside Vicky’s head is a file folder labeled ‘lazy.’ That folder is filled with everything that she knows about laziness: what people have told her and what she’s experienced.

She knows that people who are lazy often stay in bed in their pajamas. They don’t do any work they don’t have to do. They tend to leave work unfinished, so that the people around them have to do extra work.

Even if Charlie doesn’t do all of those things (say, for example, he never stays in bed in his pajamas), Vicky knows that Charlie and other lazy people do most of those things.Conceptualization is the process whereby an abstract concept is defined.For example, when Charlie’s old boss uses the word ‘lazy,’ she has her own mental file folder of images and ideas about what lazy means. She can’t share those mental images, so she uses the word lazy, and Vicky gets the idea. They have a concept of what lazy is.Of course, the problem is that conceptualization doesn’t always mean that people will have the same concept. Maybe Vicky thinks ‘lazy’ means that Charlie won’t do the work he’s required to do, whereas Charlie’s old boss thinks that it means that he’ll do what’s required of him but nothing more.

For this reason, in psychology and other sciences, conceptualization requires that a scientist explain exactly what the concept means in the real world of the study they are doing.

Operationalization

Let’s go back to our study on goals for a moment. We know that we want to compare the productivity of workers given specific, challenging goals with the productivity of workers given ‘do your best’ goals. In the conceptualization phase of our research, we will define the concept of productivity. Perhaps we say that productivity means getting more done than the average employee, while unproductivity means getting less done than the average employee.

But, we still have to figure out how to measure productivity. Because it is a concept, it is abstract. That means that we can’t get out a ruler and say, ‘This employee has about 17 inches of productivity.’So, how do we measure productivity? Operationalization is the process whereby a researcher defines how she will measure a variable.For example, perhaps we decide that productivity is based on the number of work-based emails an employee answers in one day. Perhaps it is the number of sales a person makes or the number of satisfied customers they help. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things.

In order to operationalize a concept like productivity, we have to be very clear and specific about how we will measure it. We could say, ‘We will count the number of work-related emails each employee answers in a week and average it out so that each employee has a mean number of emails answered per day. The higher the mean number of daily emails answered, the more productive the employee is.

‘Essentially, conceptualization involves defining what an abstract concept means, while operationalization involves specifying how it will be measured.

Lesson Summary

Measurement is how psychologists measure thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Two important steps in measurement are conceptualization and operationalization. Conceptualization involves defining abstract ideas with specific characteristics.

Operationalization involves specifying how a variable or concept will be measured in a specific study. Both are necessary when designing a research study.

Learning Outcomes

Finishing this video lesson could prepare you to:

  • Outline the way in which psychologists can measure thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Sum up the concepts of conceptualization and operationalization in terms of psychological measurement

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