The Human Spark

The science of human development

Words II

Questionnaire replies do not have transparent meanings.

This second essay on words deals with the meaning and validity of verbal reports because they are so popular in research with human participants. The psychologists who rely only on answers to questionnaires or interviews to draw conclusions about a person’s traits, symptoms, or past experiences assume that the descriptions correspond to the individual’s actual behaviors, beliefs, or moods. Unfortunately, verbal reports are not a close match to behavior or private experience because respondents habitually impose two abstract dimensions on their descriptions. The first dimension refers to the desirability of a trait. Because almost everyone wants to present a desirable picture of themselves, they automatically bend their replies in the direction of a more favorable description and avoid words that imply undesirable traits. Constantine Sedikides of Southampton University notes that incarcerated prisoners who had committed serious crimes reported on a questionnaire that they were more moral, trusting, and honest than the average English citizen. 

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There is a surprisingly modest relation between a questionnaire measure of conscientiousness gathered on American students and their grade point averages. I suspect that if the student’s actual behaviors had been the basis for evaluating conscientiousness, the relation would have been much higher. The reason for the poor relation between grades and the questionnaire evidence is that many non-conscientious students say they are conscientious because they regard it as a desirable trait, and many highly conscientious students report only modest levels of the trait because they do not want to describe themselves as a nerd.

More than 1.5 million Americans filled out the popular questionnaire for the Big Five personality  traits. The typical informant was white, middle-class, and between 20 and 30 years old. Moreover, the state they called home affected their answers, even though there is no reason why a white, middle-class, 25-year-old living in Minnesota should possess a different personality than his or her counterpart from Massachusetts. Adults from the upper Midwest were most likely to say they were  agreeable and extraverted, whereas New Englanders were likely to report that being tense and open to new ideas.  

Americans generate assumptions about the personality of the typical person in their state or region. College graduates in Massachusetts socialize with peers who believe it is mature and ethically correct to be open to radical views. By contrast, young adults in Minnesota believe it is important to be agreeable. Informants from Georgia and South Carolina celebrate a conscientious attitude. Each person’s self-description is biased to correspond to their understanding of the traits that a majority of  their peers regard as desirable. The French regard melancholy as a sophisticated mood and, therefore, report that they are unhappy. Adults from the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, and Slovakia agreed on the salient traits of the average German, but this stereotype did not correspond to the traits that Germans ascribed to themselves.

A patient’s verbal report is usually the only basis for evaluating the effectiveness of a form of therapy. More objective assessments often fail to correspond to the person’s evaluation. One team of British psychologists compared the reports of older adults suffering from insomnia being treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with objective indexes of sleep using measures of their brain as they slept in their own bedroom at home. Although the patients said the therapy helped their sleep quality, the objective measures of their sleep failed to confirm the private judgment. A patient who invested time, energy, and money by participating in a therapeutic ritual would naturally be biased to say that it was helpful in order to please the therapist and to protect the self against a private accusation of foolishness for agreeing to the therapy. The questionable accuracy of a person’s verbal reports even applies to a man’s evaluation of the length of his erect penis. There was no relation between these reports and the length measured by a urologist.

The validity of questionnaire data is also flawed by the person’s wish to be semantically consistent. A team at Stockholm University reported that adults who hold a particular belief are vulnerable to inventing events that are consistent with the belief. Moreover, verbal reports of the past, especially for events that occurred many years earlier, are subject to distortion. Daniel Schacter described some common mistakes when people remember their past. Individuals often recall an event that is similar to the one that actually happened. Adults who had toured a part of a museum of natural history were shown two days later pictures of some scenes they had seen and others they had not seen. They said they had seen one-third of the scenes they had never  witnessed.

The writer Julia Blackburn captured the slipperiness of words: “I’ve often mistrusted the spoken word. You give a quick tug on a line and out they come from the dark continent of the mind, those little rasps of sound that jostle together, shoulder to shoulder, that are supposed to be able to give shape to what you really think, feel, or know. But words easily miss the point. They drift off in the wrong direction, or they insist on providing a clear shape for something that, by its nature, is lost when it’s pinned down.”

The story of an adolescent boy in a small town with one church who wondered how the man who rang the church bells each day at noon knew when it was noon is appropriate to this critique of sole reliance on one source of evidence. The boy climbed the hill to the church one day and asked the ringer of the bells how he could be certain of the correct time. He told the boy that each morning after breakfast he went down to the town and checked his watch against the time on the clock in the watchmaker’s window. The boy visited the watchmaker and asked him how he knew how to set the hands on his clock in the window. “Oh”, he answered, “I always set my clock by the ringing of the church bells at noon.”  

Words  can enlighten, inform, and reassure, but they can also misinform and generate corrosive uncertainties that could not be products of  the first reality. The power of ethnic and religious stereotypes, political ideologies, and the belief that one is subordinate to and exploited by another require semantic networks. The task for every generation is to distinguish between the words and sentences that describe events that occurred, or at least have a reasonable probability of  occurring, on the one hand, and semantic inventions that do not cross the border separating  imagination  from nature’s products. This claim does not deny the power of imagination to produce benevolent consequences and powerful theoretical ideas. It only asks that we acknowledge the profound differences between semantic networks and the schemata that are products of experience.   

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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