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Is it correct that a subjective question is not a psychological question? I.e. for a question to be psychological, must it be an objective question? E.g. a question about an objective probability instead of just what you like or don't.

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closed as not a real question by Jeff, Chuck Sherrington, Artem Kaznatcheev, zergylord, H.Muster Apr 3 '13 at 8:30

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Are you talking about the research process in general or science or...? This needs to be fleshed out, as it stands it's more suited for a pub conversation, and I don't mean that as an insult. –  Chuck Sherrington Mar 31 '13 at 19:40
The only real requirement is that the answer must be derived through the scientific method. It's okay to talk about subjective perceptions, etc. because they are in fact 'real' phenomenon that may differ from person to person. –  Jeff Mar 31 '13 at 20:07
Then it seems any question can be labelled "psychology" if you label even subjective questions like "What is your favorite color?" –  Programmer 400 Mar 31 '13 at 20:22
@NickRosencrantz There is an objective answer to the question of what my favorite color is (blue, thanks for asking). This attribute is 'subjective' across the population (each person has their own). However it's not a very interesting question as is-- unless, perhaps, favorite color correlated with intelligence, or everyone had the same favorite color (which begs the question of why). It's possible to ask uninteresting questions in any domain, not just psychology. –  Jeff Mar 31 '13 at 20:46
@Nick People have different heights. People have different favourite colours. Individual differences does not define subjectivity. Of course you could scientifically explore the meaning of "favourite colour". E.g., are people consistent in their rating? Does it vary by culture? Does it correlate with other behavioural evidence of colour preference? –  Jeromy Anglim Apr 1 '13 at 7:50

2 Answers 2

There are many granulations of the objective-subjective distinction. The most objective would be the behaviorism which says it is meaningless to reason about anything except how environmental stimulus leads directly to observed behavior. This camp was popular in psychology during the time of B.F. Skinner, but now is seldom followed by people outside of biology.

In modern treatments of cognitive psychology, the scientists attributes internal private states to the people they study. These states are subjective, but are assumed to be (to some extent) analogous across individuals. The scientist then collects statistics about these internal states from many different individuals, this is one of the reasons why some view psychology as a 'statistical science'. Conducting a survey of people's subjective states is perfectly admissible methodology in this view.

The subjective experience is taken most seriously in clinical psychology. When working in this field, it is very important for the scientist (or doctor) to be very familiar with the fact that the patient's subjective experience of the world around them could not be very dissociation from what we typically view as objective reality.

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Then it seems any question can be labelled "psychology" if you label even subjective questions like "What is your favorite color?". I don't think arbitrary information is science –  Programmer 400 Mar 31 '13 at 20:23
Of course a physical pain or so is sceintific but what your favorite color is should perhaps not be a science –  Programmer 400 Mar 31 '13 at 20:25
@NickRosencrantz If you have an answer of your own in mind, I think everyone would encourage you to post it here, but the site isn't designed for discussion of others' answers--that's what voting is for. Post an alternative if you've got the right answer. :) –  Christian Hummeluhr Mar 31 '13 at 21:19
A science would have 2 different observers get same results from same experiment. If the answer depends on who you ask, I wouldn't call it science. –  Programmer 400 Mar 31 '13 at 21:54
Color perception and taste can be an important aspect of psychology. It's more on the cognitive scientific side than the clinical medical side, but its still science. Think of it as asking a rock how fast it falls then asking a feather. You get different answers, but you're still asking scientific questions. –  Keegan Keplinger Apr 1 '13 at 2:55

Your question potentially raises philosophical questions, but for it to have meaning, there are several definitional issues.

What is a psychological question?

Presumably a psychological question is any question that concerns the domain of psychology.

There are many criteria that could be used to evaluate whether it is a scientifically interesting question in psychology. Failure to be interesting, does not stop it from being psychological. A few criteria might include:

  • Generality: Interesting psychological questions tend to have a generality of cover. Thus, they often apply to many situations and contexts.
  • Importance: Importance can be pure or applied. Important pure questions tend to interlink with many other aspects of psychology (e.g, fundamental importance of learning, cognition, etc.). Applied questions tend to be important if the answer is likely to help people live better, healthier, more productive lives (e.g., research on work, education, depression, etc.).
  • Clarity: An interesting question will be clear and answerable. Thus, the meaning of the question should be clear or at least operationalised to be clear.
  • Gap: More broadly, if you are doing research yourself, then you want their to be a gap in the literature (i.e., the answer to the question is not yet known). I discuss this a little more here.

You used the example of asking someone about their favourite colour. Thus, asking about how people choose their favourite colour or how stable is favourite colour over time or whether favourite colour is related to other psychologically relevant variables would be moderately interesting psychological questions (they are at least general, but perhaps not that important). Asking an individual person what is their favourite colour, is a question that concerns the psychology of one individual, but it lacks generality and is of almost know importance to the general public.

What is a subjective question?

This could mean that the topic of the question concerns evaluations. For example, plenty of researchers study aesthetics, attitudes, values, which are in some sense subjective evaluations. Much research in psychology use measures that involve an element of subjectivity (e.g., personality measures, many self-report measures, qualitative ratings of performance, and so on).

This could mean that the topic of the question is concerned with theoretical states that are not readily observable. As @Artem has mentioned, the distinction between cognitive psychology and behaviourism readily captures this distinction, whereby cognitive psychology acknowledges both the existence and the value of theorising about internal cognitive states such as goals, cognitions, mental representations, information processing systems, etc. Much of psychology is concerned with such phenomena. Often several steps are required to move from the empirical phenomena to the theoretical concepts. Theories develop over time based on whether the theory is supported by the empirical evidence.

In both the above cases, asking such subjective questions seems both productive, interesting and legitimate.

Another way that questions can be subjective is that the meaning of the question is not clear and thus requires subjective interpretation. In psychological science attempts are made to link into existing literatures and use accepted terms. Clarity of the meaning of the question is important.

What is a subjective answer?

I think this may reflect what you are referring to. A subjective answer is presumably one that depends on the person answering the question. Much of the scientific method in psychology is designed to increase objectivity in the results obtained. E.g., using established measures of constructs, linking into existing terminology and theories, following good practice in study design, performing appropriate analytic techniques, drawing reasoned inferences in light of the data and the established literature.

There is a lot to the art of psychological science. There are better methods and worse methods. There is certainly a degree of subjectivity in the scientific method, perhaps more so in psychology than in the hard sciences.

However, there are many critiques that can be made of answers to psychological questions. In general the scientific method attempts to provide answers that are more rigorous and part of that rigour is achieved through the removal of subjectivity.

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