Operational Definition

Operational Definition

How to measure the immeasurable — and why it can sometimes go wrong.

Different  people have different swearing habits. Some people spew out expletives  at the drop of a hat, while others feel uncomfortable hearing one, let  alone speaking it.

Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I rarely swear — but thats because I’m saving the words for when I really need them.

Actually,  studies have shown that bad language can actually be useful. Dr.  Richard Stephens is a senior lecturer at UK’s Keele University. His area  of interest is swearing, though he also studies other things like  alcohol, hangovers, and the correct way to apologise.

In a 2009 experiment, Dr. Stephens found that yelling curse-words improves pain tolerance.

But wait a minute…how do people even measure something like “pain tolerance”?

Does such a measurement even have a meaning?


Swear  words are something you have to pick up on your own. You won’t learn  them in school (except maybe a lecture about why you shouldn’t use  them). That’s because school only teaches things that are useful in  life, and people don’t think swear words are useful.

Actually, the first part of that sentence is questionable. Does school only teach useful things?

Let’s  pause a bit and listen to what Dr. Kalanidhi Veeraswami, Indian  lawmaker, had to say to the assembled Parliament last month:

“I  am sure that many of the Honourable Members present here would have  studied [eleventh and twelfth grade] with Physics, Chemistry,  Mathematics and Biology.

“I  would be very much surprised if anyone remembers what Coulomb’s Law is,  or what Frank Starling’s Law is in Physics, or the various valences of  various chemical compounds like magnesium and manganese or chemical  formulae in Chemistry; or differentiation, integration, trigonometry in  Mathematics which are forced upon children in schools but have not been  of any use neither in our college nor in our lives.”

While  that’s a bit dramatic, it’s true that the education system teaches a  lot more than you need to know. After all, why would you need a  high-school diploma just to get a job as a street sweeper?

(Don’t  get me wrong: street sweeping is skilled job, but you don’t need to  know the chemical structure of manganese compounds to do it).

Are these certifications really measuring how suited you are for the job? Or are they doing something else?


When  scientists want to track something that can’t be measured directly,  they use an “operational definition”. Instead of tracking the thing  directly, they track something they can measure which is related to the thing they can’t.

Take  health, for example: You can easily say whether you’re healthy or not.  Sometimes, you can decide whether you’re more or less healthy than  another person. But how healthy are you, exactly? Can you provide a precise numeric value?

No. You can’t.

So how do people say “declaring a car-free zone increased the overall health of the people here (or didn’t)”?

They’ll measure something that does  have a number, like “number of times people visited their doctor this  month”. If that number goes down, the people’s health has probably gone  up — and vice versa.


In  Dr. Stephens’ experiment, “pain tolerance” was measured not in visits  but in seconds. More specifically, on how long you can keep your hand  dipped in an ice-cold bucket.

If you think that’s not painful, try it. (Better still, don’t).

In  Stephens’ experiment, people were divided into two groups. The first  group was told to repeat an actual swear-word while dipping their hands.  The second group got just an ordinary word like “sturdy”.

Everyone  was told to keep their hands in the cold-water bucket for as long as  they could tolerate it. And, the “swearing” people managed to hold out  for full 50% longer than the “no-swearing” group.

So  there you have it — an experiment telling you how swearing affects  pain-tolerance, without having to decide what “pain tolerance” actually  is.


One  thing to remember about operational definitions is that they’re  temporary. Scientists aren’t saying “pain tolerance is the same as how  long you can put your hand in cold water”. They’re saying, “We’re using  seconds-in-water to get an idea of pain tolerance, because that’s the  best method we have at the moment”.

The  former is like saying “time is what it shows on your clock”. If that  were true, people could get extra hours just by winding back their watch  — and I, for one, would be very happy.

So  that’s one stumbling block, though it’s easy to get the hang of. Not so  easy is another rule about operational definitions: never use them  backwards.

Or use them, but be careful. Things could go very wrong.


In 1937, economist Simon Kuznets came up with a new and flashy term, to measure all economic output in one number: the GDP.

Expanded  as Gross Domestic Product, GDP measures the total amount of money spent  in the country. It’s one indicator of how “well” a country is doing: if  the GDP is high, then people are spending more — which means they’re  buying more stuff for themselves — which means they must be happier,  right?

Kuznets’  presentation also came with a warning. “The welfare of the nation,” he  said, “can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as  defined above.” It was only one of many indicators.

World  leaders, however, didn’t listen. Here was a simple number they could  use to decide their country’s worth; a number they could flash around,  and compete to keep pushing higher.


Why  doesn’t GDP always work? Let’s pretend there’s a huge tornado and  hundreds of homes get destroyed. People spend more on home repairs and  hospital bills.

The GDP goes up — but is that a good thing?

Or  take the common policy of governments to build new roads, buildings,  and infrastructure. Spending money on highways through the jungle  increases GDP, yes, but is it really a good idea? When truncated  habitats lead to man-animal conflict, that’ll probably increase GDP even  more.

In  recent years, some countries have taken steps to have more sensible  measures. It started with Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” in 1972,  and more alternatives like China’s “green GDP” followed.

The  GDP of a country is like the speedometer of a car: it tells you if  you’re moving fast enough — but not if you’re moving in the wrong  direction.


Incidentally, cars give a perfect example of operational definitions gone wrong.

As  part of its Clean Air Act, the United States bans cars that pollute  beyond a certain level. To enforce this, all cars go through an official  “emissions test”, where things like fuel efficiency are measured while  the car drives round a track.

That’s the operational definition for you: non-pollution equals scores on test.

But then, the car maker Volkswagen did something. They took their polluting cars and installed a “Defeat Device”: a piece of software that detects whether the car is going through an emissions test or not.

If  it is, the car goes into super-efficient, fuel-saving, non-polluting  mode. If not, it reverts to the just-go-fast, pollute-all-you want mode  that keeps all the customers happy.

The Defeat Device was trying to pass the test, rather than passing what the test was supposed to represent. Instead of reading the value to get an idea of what was going on, it decided what the value should be, and worked towards it — much like turning back the clocks when you’re late for a meeting.

It was using the operational definition backwards.


With  over 25,000 students, the Maotanchang Middle School is probably the  largest of its kind anywhere in the world — but it’s not an exception

Students  are placed in a strict, almost military environment. They’re isolated  from technology, entertainment and distractions, and given a scheduling  routine that emphasises round-the-clock work.

The purpose? To drill in facts and questions for passing the gaokao, China’s edition of higher secondary exams.

Does  mugging up answers help one actually learn stuff? Usually, no. And yet,  this is the method education systems round the world seem to encourage.  All the effort spent, all the hours of work, are in preparation for  that one single moment known as “exam day”.

Instead of chasing education, they’re only chasing its operational definition.


Things  get worse, because employers and universities use exams as a kind of  filter. They can only take in so many people, so they pick the highest  scorers. If more people start doing well, they’ll have to raise the cut  off. And so, exams just keep getting harder.

As  Dr. Kalanidhi pointed out, this means people are made to learn extra  things they don’t really need to. It’s not about adding to your  knowledge: it’s about finding ways to filter people out.

This leads to “tuitions” and “cram schools” like the Maotanchang — the educational equivalent of a Defeat Device.


If  there’s one lesson to be learnt from this, it’s that a single  measurement can’t tell you everything. Even Dr.Richard Stephens realised  that, during a follow-up on his swear-words experiment.

If swear-words help you tolerate pain, you should use them more often, right?

Wrong.  In a new experiment, two years after his original one, Dr. Stephens  repeated the “ice water” procedure. But this time, he sorted  participants according to how often the used swear-words in daily life.  The result? Those with a higher “daily swearing frequency” found  swear-words less effective in dealing with pain, than those who didn’t  swear very often. Using expletives too much reduced their effectiveness

So it turns out my strategy was right, after all. Don’t use swear-words too often, but save them for when you really need them.


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