Operational Definition Psychology – Definition, Examples, and How to Write One

Operational Definition of Variables

Every good psychology study contains an operational definition for the variables in the research. An operational definition allows the researchers to describe in a specific way what they mean when they use a certain term. Generally, operational definitions are concrete and measurable. Defining variables in this way allows other people to see if the research has validity. Validity here refers to if the researchers are actually measuring what they intended to measure.

Definition: An operational definition is the statement of procedures the researcher is going to use in order to measure a specific variable.

We need operational definitions in psychology so that we know exactly what researchers are talking about when they refer to something. There might be different definitions of words depending on the context in which the word is used. Think about how words mean something different to people from different cultures. To avoid any confusion about definitions, in research we explain clearly what we mean when we use a certain term.

Operational Definition of Variables

Operational Definition Examples

Example One:

A researcher wants to measure if age is related to addiction. Perhaps their hypothesis is: the incidence of addiction will increase with age. Here we have two variables, age and addiction. In order to make the research as clear as possible, the researcher must define how they will measure these variables. Essentially, how do we measure someone’s age and how to we measure addiction?

Variable One: Age might seem straightforward. You might be wondering why we need to define age if we all know what age is. However, one researcher might decide to measure age in months in order to get someone’s precise age, while another researcher might just choose to measure age in years. In order to understand the results of the study, we will need to know how this researcher operationalized age. For the sake of this example lets say that age is defined as how old someone is in years.

Variable Two: The variable of addiction is slightly more complicated than age. In order to operationalize it the researcher has to decide exactly how they want to measure addiction. They might narrow down their definition and say that addiction is defined as going through withdrawal when the person stops using a substance. Or the researchers might decide that the definition of addiction is: if someone currently meets the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for any substance use disorder. For the sake of this example, let’s say that the researcher chose the latter.

Final Definition: In this research study age is defined as participant’s age measured in years and the incidence of addiction is defined as whether or not the participant currently meets the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for any substance use disorder.

Example Two

A researcher wants to measure if there is a correlation between hot weather and violent crime. Perhaps their guiding hypothesis is: as temperature increases so will violent crime. Here we have two variables, weather and violent crime. In order to make this research precise the researcher will have to operationalize the variables.

Variable One: The first variable is weather. The researcher needs to decide how to define weather. Researchers might chose to define weather as outside temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. But we need to get a little more specific because there is not one stable temperature throughout the day. So the researchers might say that weather is defined as the high recorded temperature for the day measured in degrees Fahrenheit.

Variable Two: The second variable is violent crime. Again, the researcher needs to define how violent crime is measured. Let’s say that for this study it they use the FBI’s definition of violent crime. This definition describes violent crime as “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault”.

However, how do we actually know how many violent crimes were committed on a given day? Researchers might include in the definition something like: the number of people arrested that day for violent crimes as recorded by the local police.

Final Definition: For this study temperature was defined as high recorded temperature for the day measured in degrees Fahrenheit. Violent crime was defined as the number of people arrested in a given day for murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as recorded by the local police.

Examples of Operational Definitions

How to Write an Operational Definition

For the last example take the opportunity to see if you can write a clear operational definition for yourself. Imagine that you are creating a research study and you want to see if group therapy is helpful for treating social anxiety.

Variable One: How are you going to define group therapy? here are some things you might want to consider when creating your operational definition:

  • What type of group therapy?
  • Who is leading the therapy group?
  • How long do people participate in the therapy group for?
  • How can you “measure” group therapy?

There is no one way to write the operational definition for this variable. You could say something like group therapy was defined as a weekly cognitive behavioral therapy group led by a licensed MFT held over the course of ten weeks. Remember there are many ways to write an operational definition. You know you have written an effective one if another researcher could pick it up and create a very similar variable based on your definition.

Variable Two: The second variable you need to define is “effective treatment social anxiety”. Again, see if you can come up with an operational definition of this variable. This is a little tricky because you will need to be specific about what an effective treatment is as well as what social anxiety is. Here are some things to consider when writing your definition:

  • How do you know a treatment is effective?
  • How do you measure the effectiveness of treatment?
  • Who provides a reliable definition of social anxiety?
  • How can you measure social anxiety?

Again, there is no one right way to write this operational definition. If someone else could recreate the study using your definition it is probably an effective one. Here as one example of how you could operationalize the variable: social anxiety was defined as meeting the DSM-5 criteria for social anxiety and the effectiveness of treatment was defined as the reduction of social anxiety symptoms over the 10 week treatment period.

Final Definition: Take your definition for variable one and your definition for variable two and write them in a clear and succinct way. It is alright for your definition to be more than one sentence.

Why We Need Operational Definitions

There are a number of reasons why researchers need to have operational definitions including:

  • Validity
  • Replicability
  • Generalizability
  • Dissemination

The first reason was mentioned earlier in the post when reading research others should be able to assess the validity of the research. That is, did the researchers measure what they intended to measure? If we don’t know how researchers measured something it is very hard to know if the study had validity.

The next reason it is important to have an operational definition is for the sake of replicability. Research should be designed so that if someone else wanted to replicate it they could. By replicating research and getting the same findings we validate the findings. It is impossible to recreate a study if we are unsure about how they defined or measured the variables.

Another reason we need operational definitions is so that we can understand how generalizable the findings are. In research, we want to know that the findings are true not just for a small sample of people. We hope to get findings that generalize to the whole population. If we do not have operational definitions it is hard to generalize the findings because we don’t know who they generalize to.

Finally, operational definitions are important for the dissemination of information. When a study is done it is generally published in a peer-reviewed journal and might be read by other psychologists, students, or journalists. Researchers want people to read their research and apply their findings. If the person reading the article doesn’t know what they are talking about because a variable is not clear it will be hard to them to actually apply this new knowledge.

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