What Is… a Psychological Construct

Psychological constructs: represent intangible things that are distinct from other things, e.g. worry, rumination, emotions

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is psychological construct.

In psychology, constructs are ways to describe patterns of behaviour or experiences so that they can be explored, investigated, and discussed. It’s a way of putting a name to things that don’t exist in a physical sense.

Types of constructs

Consider emotions, for example. Emotions aren’t physical entities, and you can’t measure them physically (at least not directly), but it’s still useful to consider them as a thing. Essentially, creating a construct is creating a “thing”, and once we’ve established that thing, we can talk to one another about it.

Some constructs are considered natural, as they correspond to something that is naturally occurring. The fact that certain emotions are recognizable universally across cultures suggests that psychology has hit the nail on the head of a construct that matches up with what happens in nature.

Some constructs are practical for academic or research purposes even if they don’t translate into any sort of concrete thing. For example, socioeconomic status is useful for understanding social positioning related to wealth, but there isn’t an actual thing that one could say was socioeconomic status.

Construct validity

Constructs are important in research so that people can be sure they’re all talking about the same thing. To be useful, a construct must be clearly defined and differentiated from other similar constructs. Psychological testing is a way to clearly delineate a construct, and an important element of validating a test for resilience, for example, would be checking that it’s actually measuring resilience alone rather than resilience in combination with a different construct like self-esteem.

While certain constructs, like emotional intelligence, may seem self-obvious, that doesn’t mean they’re actually valid or useful. Within the field of psychology, there’s disagreement around whether EI is a valid construct. It’s not that people don’t have different levels of skill in managing emotions; the issue is that it’s not clear that there is actually a discrete entity that we can call emotional intelligence.

Sometimes, people will propose new constructs that don’t actually differ very much from existing constructs. In a paper in the European Journal of Psychology, the authors criticized the “grit” construct that has become popular recently, arguing that grit can be fully explained by the construct of conscientiousness, which is part of the five-factor model of personality. While this may seem like academic nitpicking, these constructs only exist in the first place because people say they do. If there isn’t some degree of clarity and validation, the whole system just starts to collapse.

Imprecision in common use

In common parlance, we tend to use constructs a lot less precisely than experts do within their respective fields of study. For example, people may use the terms shame and guilt, or jealousy and envy, synonymously, when they’re actually distinct constructs.

I might call someone a psychopath because I interpret their behaviour as meaning they lack a conscience, but my idea of what a psychopath is may have very little to do with the most commonly accepted construct of psychopathy that’s based on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. At that point, I’m making more of a value judgment than anything. Constructs involve applying labels, but they shouldn’t involve value judgments.

Mental disorders

The arbitrariness of diagnostic labelling in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is perhaps not that out of the ordinary when you consider that those diagnostic labels are just another form of construct, as are many things in the field of psychology.

Mental disorders can also be viewed as “homeostatic property clusters,” which are clusters of characteristics that tend to occur together because of some sort of underlying biological characteristics. This clustering of features is based on probabilities rather than being predetermined, leading to variability within clusters. Personality characteristics appear to occur in the same way.

Social constructs

Besides psychological constructs, there are also social constructs, with socially agreed-upon definitions. Gender is a type of social construct that often overlaps with biological sex, but it isn’t the same thing. What we associate with maleness or femaleness, aside from the machinery, is about those constructs, although people commonly misattribute these social definitions to the associated biology.

Narcissistic abuse is a construct that’s arisen in pop culture and gotten a lot of attention in recent years. It’s used to describe a pattern of behaviours associated with a particular type of abuse. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a valid construct (and I’m only talking about the validity of the construct, not the validity of the experience of abuse).

To be useful, several things would need to be established, including whether there’s a clear distinction between this form of emotional abuse and other forms of emotional abuse, and between this type of abuse perpetrated by people with or without a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis, and between someone with NPD perpetrating this type of abuse vs. another type of abuse. If these distinctions can’t be made, then it’s probably not a valid construct, or at least not yet.

Compensating for our own doofusness

Again, this may seem like academic nitpicking, but we humans are lousy at intuiting things like this. Part of why research needs to exist is to compensate for our uselessness at intuiting the nature of our world. Think about it, how well has society done with stereotypes? Those are social constructs that often have a tiny little nugget of truth buried under a massive pile of crap, yet we believe them to be true no matter how much damage they cause.

I think there are a couple of take-away messages here. One is that many things that we hold to be true only exist because we’ve given a name to them. Also, precision matters. Because there’s no tangible thing called resilience, for example, if you and I are each using our own definitions, we may be using the same word to talk about entirely different things. And finally, just because we think that something is a thing really doesn’t mean all that much. For all of this, I think being aware that constructs exist is a good starting point.

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

7 thoughts on “What Is… a Psychological Construct”

  1. Thank you, Ashley, for writing this interesting post, especially with the nuancing of the DSM V and differentiating between the diagnosis and the popular usage of terms.
    Stay safe,
    -Shira

  2. I somehow missed this most important post earlier. Interesting that the concept of a “construct” somewhat parallels the idea of an “abstract noun” as opposed to a “concrete noun.” (Not sure if that is still standard grammatical terminology, as it was in the 60’s when I learned all my grammar lol).

    There is no measurable physicality with an abstract noun the way there is with a concrete noun. So we have to define it in terms we agree upon; and it seems to me that this is tantamount to a “construct.” At least, that’s part of what I gain from this, at an early stage.

    1. Sounds right to me. And I think the important bit is “terms we agree on.” Because a lot of people casually talk about constructs without using those agreed upon terms, and then it all gets rather fuzzy.

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