A construct, also known as a hypothetical construct or a psychological construct, is a scientific tool used to facilitate understanding of human behavior. All sciences are built on systems of constructs and their interrelations. The natural sciences use constructs such as gravity, temperature, phylogenetic dominance, tectonic pressure, and global warming. Likewise, the behavioral sciences use constructs such as conscientiousness, intelligence, political power, self-esteem, and group culture.
The simplest way to think about a psychological construct is to consider it a label for a cluster or domain of covarying behaviors. For example, if we observe someone sitting in a classroom before an examination biting his or her nails, fidgeting, lightly perspiring, and looking somewhat alarmed, we might say that he or she is experiencing test anxiety. In this case, test anxiety is a label for the covariation that we attribute to these behavioral observations. Some scientists extend this conceptualization and suggest that test anxiety is an underlying cause of the behaviors that we observed. Used in this way, a construct is a hypothesized cause for the behavioral covariations that we observe.
A construct derives its name from the fact that it is a mental construction. In other words, science is built on the general process of (a) observing natural phenomena, (b) inferring the common features of those observations, and (c) constructing a label for the observed commonality or the underlying cause of the commonality. Any given construct derives its scientific value from the shared meaning it represents for different people. That is, if a construct is clearly articulated and the phenomena it encompasses are clearly defined so that different people think similarly about it, then it becomes a useful conceptual tool that facilitates understanding and communication. Once defined, constructs become objects of conceptual scrutiny in their own right. In other words, psychologists hypothesize both (a) whether certain behaviors will covary and (b) whether the clusters of covarying behaviors (i.e., constructs) tend to covary in meaningful ways with other constructs.
Constructs summarize behavioral domains and allow extrapolations to unobserved behaviors. For example, after telling your friend that a classmate had test anxiety, your friend might assume the occurrence of or attribute many more behaviors to the classmate than you actually observed (e.g., skin rash, grinding teeth, sweaty hands, or crying). This extrapolation underlies much of the psychologist’s predictive power. If certain behaviors can be observed, then other unobserved behaviors can be predicted to occur in the future. Of course, the accuracy of these predictions depends largely on the quality of the conceptual and psychometric foundations of the construct in question (i.e., construct validity).
Constructs are hypothetical. They exist as concepts but not as tangible entities. Yet some constructs become so familiar and ingrained in common use that most people assume their manifest existence. To illustrate this, bet someone that he or she cannot show you gravity. The person will probably take you up on the bet, and then he or she might pick up a pencil or some car keys and drop them on the floor and look at you smugly, as if to say, “There, I showed you gravity.” You can respond by authoritatively saying that you have been shown a falling pencil or keys but not gravity. Gravity is a label for the hypothetical cause of the falling pencil and keys, but it is not the observable events. The same scenario can be built around any psychological construct—for example, extraversion, quantitative ability, and finger dexterity. We never see extraversion, except in our mind’s eye. We see extraverted behaviors, and we summarize these by evoking a construct label and inferring that the person who exhibited those behaviors is extraverted to some degree or another.
Constructs are the building blocks of scientific theories. Psychologists who are interested in studying and understanding human behavior are interested in identifying behavioral regularities and their causes. Constructs help research and applied psychologists to summarize the complex array of observed behaviors, emotions, and thoughts that people produce in their day-to-day activities. Research may focus on identifying and clarifying construct boundaries, or determining which constructs relate to other constructs, as a basis for theorizing functional relationships between systems of constructs. Applied psychologists use constructs to make decisions about how to treat people with certain psychological disorders or whom to select, train, and promote for certain jobs or careers in organizations.
The discussion thus far has focused on psychological constructs as naturally occurring domains of behavior, and this is the most common way to conceptualize constructs. However, organizations also create domains of covarying behaviors. This is how different jobs and tasks are defined. These performance domains are constructs, but in a conceptually different sense than we have discussed. Performance domains are conceptually distinct from psychological constructs in that rather than natural covariation, behavioral covariation is induced by organizational designers and employment specialists collaborating to translate broad organizational objectives into domains of valued behaviors and outcomes. Viewed either way, constructs are useful tools for simplifying our understanding of human behavior.
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