Construct (philosophy of science)
A construct in the philosophy of science
Philosophy of science
The philosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods and implications of science. It is also concerned with the use and merit of science and sometimes overlaps metaphysics and epistemology by exploring whether scientific results are actually a study of truth...

 is an ideal object
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

, where the existence of the thing may be said to depend upon a subject's mind
The concept of mind is understood in many different ways by many different traditions, ranging from panpsychism and animism to traditional and organized religious views, as well as secular and materialist philosophies. Most agree that minds are constituted by conscious experience and intelligent...

. This, as opposed to a "real" object, where existence does not seem to depend on the existence of a mind.

In a scientific theory
Scientific theory
A scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules that express relationships between observations of such concepts...

, particularly within psychology, a hypothetical construct is an explanatory variable which is not directly observable. For example, the concepts of intelligence and motivation are used to explain phenomena in psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

, but neither is directly observable. A hypothetical construct differs from an intervening variable
Intervening variable
An intervening variable is a hypothetical internal state that is used to explain relationships between observed variables, such as independent and dependent variables, in empirical research.- History :...

 in that it has properties and implications which have not been demonstrated in empirical research. These serve as a guide to further research. An intervening variable, on the other hand, is a summary of observed empirical findings.

The creation of constructs is a part of Operationalization
In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations...

, especially the creation of Theoretical definition
Theoretical definition
A theoretical definition gives the meaning of a word in terms of the theories of a specific discipline. This type of definition assumes both knowledge and acceptance of the theories that it depends on. To theoretically define is to create a hypothetical construct...

s. The usefulness of one conceptualization over another depends largely on construct validity
Construct validity
In science , construct validity refers to whether a scale measures or correlates with the theorized psychological scientific construct that it purports to measure. In other words, it is the extent to which what was to be measured was actually measured...


Construct versus object

Concepts that are considered constructs by this definition include that which is designated by the symbol "3" or the word "liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

". Scientific hypotheses and theories (e.g., evolutionary theory, gravitational theory), as well as classifications (e.g. in biological taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

) are also conceptual entities considered to be constructs.

Some simple examples of real objects
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

 (that are not constructs) are lawyers and undershirts.


Cronbach and Meehl (1948) define a hypothetical construct as a concept for which there is not a single observable referent, which cannot be directly observed, and for which there exist multiple referents, but none all-inclusive. For example, according to Cronbach and Meehl a fish is not a hypothetical construct because, despite variation in species and varieties of fish, there is an agreed upon definition for a fish with specific characteristics that distinguish a fish from a bird. Furthermore, a fish can be directly observed. On the other hand a hypothetical construct has no single referent; rather, hypothetical constructs consist of groups of functionally related behaviors, attitudes, processes, and experiences. Instead of seeing intelligence, love, or fear we see indicators or manifestations of what we have agreed to call intelligence, love, or fear. Other examples of hypothetical constructs include gravity, creativity, menopause, and guilt.
McCorquodale and Meehl (1948) discussed the distinction between what they called intervening variables and these hypothetical constructs. According to McCorquodale and Meehl (1948) intervening variables are defined solely in terms of their antecedents and consequences. Thus, intervening variables are operationally defined congruent with the philosophy of Positivism
Positivism is a a view of scientific methods and a philosophical approach, theory, or system based on the view that, in the social as well as natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment are together the exclusive source of all worthwhile information....

 that was popular at the time. In contrast, McCorquodale and Meehl (1948) describe hypothetical constructs as containing surplus meaning, as they imply more than just the operations by which they are measured.

In the positivist tradition, Boring (1923) described intelligence as whatever the intelligence test measures. As a reaction to such operational definition
Operational definition
An operational definition defines something in terms of the specific process or set of validation tests used to determine its presence and quantity. That is, one defines something in terms of the operations that count as measuring it. The term was coined by Percy Williams Bridgman and is a part of...

s, Cronbach and Meehl (1955) emphasized the necessity of viewing constructs like intelligence as hypothetical constructs. They asserted that there is no adequate criterion for the operational definition of constructs like abilities and personality. Thus, according to Cronbach and Meehl (1955), a useful construct of intelligence or personality should imply more than simply test scores. Instead these constructs should predict a wide range of behaviors.


Boring, E.G. (1923) Intelligence as the tests test it. New Republic, 36, 35-37.

Cronbach, L.J., and Meehl, P.E. (1955) Construct validity in psychological tests. Psychological Bulletin, 52, 281-302.

MacCorquodale, K.,& Meehl, P.E. (1948). On a distinction between hypothetical constructs and intervening variables. Psychological Review, 55, 95-107.
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