Psychology and the social sciences: An atheoretical, scattered, and disconnected body of research

A new article in Nature Human Behaviour (NHB) points toward the need for better theory and more rigorous mathematical models in psychology and the social sciences (Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2019). The authors rightly say that the lack of an overarching cumulative theoretical framework makes it very difficult to see whether new results fit well with previous work, or if something surprising has come to light. Mathematical models are especially emphasized as being of value in specifying clear and precise expectations.

The point that the social sciences and psychology need better theories and models is painfully obvious. But there are in fact thousands of published studies and practical real world applications that not only provide, but indeed often surpass, the kinds of predictive theories and mathematical models called for in the NHB article. The article not only makes no mention of any of this work, its argument is framed entirely in a statistical context instead of the more appropriate context of measurement science.

The concept of reliability provides an excellent point of entry. Most behavioral scientists think of reliability statistically, as a coefficient with a positive numeric value usually between 0.00 and 1.00. The tangible sense of reliability as indicating exactly how predictable an outcome is does not usually figure in most researchers’ thinking. But that sense of the specific predictability of results has been the focus of attention in social and psychological measurement science for decades.

For instance, the measurement of time is reliable in the sense that the position of the sun relative to the earth can be precisely predicted from geographic location, the time of day, and the day of the year. The numbers and words assigned to noon time are closely associated with the Sun being at the high point in the sky (though there are political variations by season and location across time zones).

That kind of a reproducible association is rarely sought in psychology and the social sciences, but it is far from nonexistent. One can discern different degrees to which that kind of association is included in models of measured constructs. Though most behavioral research doesn’t mention the connection between linear amounts of a measured phenomenon and a reproducible numeric representation of it (level 0), quite a significant body of work focuses on that connection (level 1). The disappointing thing about that level 1 work is that the relentless obsession with statistical methods prevents most researchers from connecting a reproducible quantity with a single expression of it in a standard unit, and with an associated uncertainty term (level 2). That is, level 1 researchers conceive measurement in statistical terms, as a product of data analysis. Even when results across data sets are highly correlated and could be equated to a common metric, level 1 researchers do not leverage that source of potential value for simplified communication and accumulated comparability.

And then, for their part, level 2 researchers usually do not articulate theories about the measured constructs, by augmenting the mathematical data model with an explanatory model predicting variation (level 3). Level 2 researchers are empirically grounded in data, and can expand their network of measures only by gathering more data and analyzing it in ways that bring it into their standard unit’s frame of reference.

Level 3 researchers, however, have come to see what makes their measures tick. They understand the mechanisms that make their questions vary. They can write new questions to their theoretical specifications, test those questions by asking them of a relevant sample, and produce the predicted calibrations. For instance, reading comprehension is well established to be a function of the difference between a person’s reading ability and the complexity of the text they encounter (see articles by Stenner in the list below). We have built our entire educational system around this idea, as we deliberately introduce children first to the alphabet, then to the most common words, then to short sentences, and then to ever longer and more complicated text. But stating the construct model, testing it against data, calibrating a unit to which all tests and measures can be traced, and connecting together all the books, articles, tests, curricula, and students is a process that began (in English and Spanish) only in the 1980s. The process still is far from finished, and most reading research still does not use the common metric.

In this kind of theory-informed context, new items can be automatically generated on the fly at the point of measurement. Those items and inferences made from them are validated by the consistency of the responses and the associated expression of the expected probability of success, agreement, etc. The expense of constant data gathering and analysis can be cut to a very small fraction of what it is at levels 0-2.

Level 3 research methods are not widely known or used, but they are not new. They are gaining traction as their use by national metrology institutes globally grows. As high profile critiques of social and psychological research practices continue to emerge, perhaps more attention will be paid to this important body of work. A few key references are provided below, and virtually every post in this blog pertains to these issues.


Baghaei, P. (2008). The Rasch model as a construct validation tool. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 22(1), 1145-6 [].

Bergstrom, B. A., & Lunz, M. E. (1994). The equivalence of Rasch item calibrations and ability estimates across modes of administration. In M. Wilson (Ed.), Objective measurement: Theory into practice, Vol. 2 (pp. 122-128). Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.

Cano, S., Pendrill, L., Barbic, S., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). Patient-centred outcome metrology for healthcare decision-making. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1044, 012057.

Dimitrov, D. M. (2010). Testing for factorial invariance in the context of construct validation. Measurement & Evaluation in Counseling & Development, 43(2), 121-149.

Embretson, S. E. (2010). Measuring psychological constructs: Advances in model-based approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fischer, G. H. (1973). The linear logistic test model as an instrument in educational research. Acta Psychologica, 37, 359-374.

Fischer, G. H. (1983). Logistic latent trait models with linear constraints. Psychometrika, 48(1), 3-26.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1992). Reliability statistics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 6(3), 238 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008). The cash value of reliability. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 22(1), 1160-1163 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2016). Theory-based metrological traceability in education: A reading measurement network. Measurement, 92, 489-496.

Green, S. B., Lissitz, R. W., & Mulaik, S. A. (1977). Limitations of coefficient alpha as an index of test unidimensionality. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37(4), 827-833.

Hattie, J. (1985). Methodology review: Assessing unidimensionality of tests and items. Applied Psychological Measurement, 9(2), 139-64.

Hobart, J. C., Cano, S. J., Zajicek, J. P., & Thompson, A. J. (2007). Rating scales as outcome measures for clinical trials in neurology: Problems, solutions, and recommendations. Lancet Neurology, 6, 1094-1105.

Irvine, S. H., Dunn, P. L., & Anderson, J. D. (1990). Towards a theory of algorithm-determined cognitive test construction. British Journal of Psychology, 81, 173-195.

Kline, T. L., Schmidt, K. M., & Bowles, R. P. (2006). Using LinLog and FACETS to model item components in the LLTM. Journal of Applied Measurement, 7(1), 74-91.

Lunz, M. E., & Linacre, J. M. (2010). Reliability of performance examinations: Revisited. In M. Garner, G. Engelhard, Jr., W. P. Fisher, Jr. & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 1 (pp. 328-341). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Mari, L., & Wilson, M. (2014). An introduction to the Rasch measurement approach for metrologists. Measurement, 51, 315-327.

Markward, N. J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). Calibrating the genome. Journal of Applied Measurement, 5(2), 129-141.

Maul, A., Mari, L., Torres Irribarra, D., & Wilson, M. (2018). The quality of measurement results in terms of the structural features of the measurement process. Measurement, 116, 611-620.

Muthukrishna, M., & Henrich, J. (2019). A problem in theory. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-9.

Obiekwe, J. C. (1999, August 1). Application and validation of the linear logistic test model for item difficulty prediction in the context of mathematics problems. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering, 60(2-B), 0851.

Pendrill, L. (2014). Man as a measurement instrument [Special Feature]. NCSLi Measure: The Journal of Measurement Science, 9(4), 22-33.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, 71, 46-55.

Pendrill, L., & Petersson, N. (2016). Metrology of human-based and other qualitative measurements. Measurement Science and Technology, 27(9), 094003.

Sijtsma, K. (2009). Correcting fallacies in validity, reliability, and classification. International Journal of Testing, 8(3), 167-194.

Sijtsma, K. (2009). On the use, the misuse, and the very limited usefulness of Cronbach’s alpha. Psychometrika, 74(1), 107-120.

Stenner, A. J. (2001). The necessity of construct theory. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(1), 804-5 [].

Stenner, A. J., Fisher, W. P., Jr., Stone, M. H., & Burdick, D. S. (2013). Causal Rasch models. Frontiers in Psychology: Quantitative Psychology and Measurement, 4(536), 1-14.

Stenner, A. J., & Horabin, I. (1992). Three stages of construct definition. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 6(3), 229 [].

Stenner, A. J., Stone, M. H., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). The unreasonable effectiveness of theory based instrument calibration in the natural sciences: What can the social sciences learn? Journal of Physics Conference Series, 1044(012070).

Stone, M. H. (2003). Substantive scale construction. Journal of Applied Measurement, 4(3), 282-297.

Wilson, M. (2005). Constructing measures: An item response modeling approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wilson, M. R. (2013). Using the concept of a measurement system to characterize measurement models used in psychometrics. Measurement, 46, 3766-3774.

Wright, B. D., & Stone, M. H. (1979). Chapter 5: Constructing a variable. In Best test design: Rasch measurement (pp. 83-128). Chicago, Illinois: MESA Press.

Wright, B. D., & Stone, M. H. (1999). Measurement essentials. Wilmington, DE: Wide Range, Inc. [].

Wright, B. D., Stone, M., & Enos, M. (2000). The evolution of meaning in practice. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 14(1), 736 [].

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