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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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Badri Sunderarajan

Badri Sunderarajan

Books reader, Websites coder, Drawings maker. Things writer. Occasional astronomer. Alleged economist. Editor@Snipette.