What Can Operational Definition Tell You About Yourself?

Updated June 17, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

Can you think of some terms that are used interchangeably, but you’re not sure if they are precisely the same thing? For example, some people may not know the differences between psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and therapists but use the terms interchangeably. As one might imagine, it is critical in the psychology field for professionals to have a common agreement regarding the meaning of certain terms, treatment guidelines, and diagnostic criteria for various mental health disorders. That’s where operational definitions can be helpful. 

Ahead, we’ll explain the concept of an operational definition, provide examples where operational definitions are useful, and discuss recommendations for seeking online counseling if you feel you could benefit from support.

What is an operational definition?

Getty/MoMo Productions
Operational definitions distinguish normal v. abnormal symptoms

An operational definition is what a researcher will use to describe what they mean in the most precise, succinct way possible. These definitions are applied when someone needs to learn the exact meaning of a term. An operational definition needs to be measurable and have firm boundaries. This can help ensure that someone’s research has validity and whether the researcher measured all the variables that matter.

In other words, an operational definition entails what procedures a researcher will implement. We need operational definitions because some words may have multiple definitions that change as the context changes. The context can be cultural or situational. This is why it’s important to clarify what you mean when you use a term.

What are examples of operational definitions?

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of operational definitions in psychology is to review some relevant examples.

Operational definition in addiction psychology

Let’s say that a researcher wants to learn if someone’s level of addiction correlates with their age. Maybe they are wondering if an older person is more likely to be addicted than a younger person. We have two variables in this context, which are addiction and age. The researcher must reveal how they will measure addiction and age. Both of these may sound straightforward, but here’s why clarification may be needed:

  • Age seems like something is obvious. Someone’s either their age or they aren’t. Some studies focus on a precise age, while other researchers may use blocks of years (18-21, 22-30, 31-40, etc.). These nuances can change the study outcomes. 
  • How do we define addiction? Are the participants self-described as addicted? Do they have an addiction to a legal or illegal substance? One or more addictions? What if addiction is measured by whether a person has withdrawal symptoms? It’s hard to tell, and that’s why there needs to be an operational definition. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

To summarize, the study will have an age defined in years, and addiction will be defined as if the person meets the criteria in the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition). This will help narrow the study sample to people who meet the precise criteria.

Operational definition in aggression psychology

Now, let’s look at a second example. A researcher wants to see if there is a correlation between violent crime and the temperature. The hypothesis is that hot weather will cause an increase in crime. The two variables are established – the weather and crime. Now, it’s time to clarify what these variables mean in their context?

  • What is the hot weather? People who live in a colder climate may think that 80 degrees Fahrenheit is hot, and someone who lives in a hot area may think that’s comfortable. Also, what is the temperature going to be measured in? Fahrenheit or Celsius? Also, the temperature changes throughout the day. To clarify, a researcher may decide to measure the peak temperature of that day in Fahrenheit.
  • What is classified as violent crime? Is violent crime any crime that involves physical violence, or is it a crime that involves murder, rape, or makes a person bleed? Someone may look at the definition of violent crime from the FBI standards, where violent crime is murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.


To summarize, the study will look at the peak temperature that day in Fahrenheit and not look at any other times of the day or any other measuring degrees. The violent crimes will involve people arrested for murder, rape, assault, robbery, and other crimes as defined by the FBI. The people arrested will be limited to what was reported by the police locally.

How to write an operational definition

Now, let’s look at how you can write an operational definition clearly and get your point across. Think of a study. It doesn’t have to be serious. It can be something goofy, like studying how many biscuits it takes to get a stomachache. You can also try something more serious, such as seeing the effectiveness of group therapy in treating social anxiety.

Getty Images

Let’s discuss group therapy first. What is group therapy? Well, you may imagine it’s therapy but in a big group, but that is still a broad definition. There are still so many factors you can think about. What kind of group therapy is it? Who leads the group? How long will the group therapy session last, and how many people need to be in it? There are a lot of questions one must answer before setting a clear operational definition.

When it comes to writing the operational definition, there’s no right way to do it. You could claim that it’s a weekly group that teaches cognitive behavioral group therapy. The counselor must be licensed, and the session must last ten weeks. You can adjust these variables if needed, but this is the gist of it. If your definition is effective, a researcher will be able to look at your research and add a similar variable centered around what you defined.

Now, let’s look at the second variable: effectively treating social anxiety. There may be different variables that can change the definition. What is social anxiety? Is it a severe fear of people and crowds? Does it include people who are a bit afraid of crowds that are otherwise fine? How do you measure one’s anxiety? What about its effectiveness? What defines an effective treatment? The complete eradication of social anxiety, or simply an improvement? These are the questions one must ask if one wants to find the answers one needs.

There is no wrong or right way to do it. Someone should be able to recreate your study and use your definition. If you want to operationalize the definitions, you may say that social anxiety is based on the DSM-V criteria that defines social anxiety disorder. As for effective treatment, that’s when there is a reduction in social anxiety symptoms during the ten-week session.

Once you have decided on your definition, write it in the clearest possible way. Your definition can be as long or as short as you need it to be.

Getty/AnnaStills
Operational definitions distinguish normal v. abnormal symptoms

Why are operational definitions important?

Operational definitions are important for many reasons. You need them to make the study valid and replicable. When looking at a study, the operational definition can tell you whether or not the researchers succeeded at their job in measuring what they needed to, or if their study needs greater clarity when it comes to definitions.

In the context of replicability, this means that the research is set so that another person can recreate the study if needed. Replicating a study is how we can verify if the findings are true or not. If the study cannot be repeated, there is a chance that the study is bunk and it needs more work to be measured properly.

Then, there is the generalizability of the findings. This means that we know for a fact that these findings will apply to most people and not just a small group. For example, a study of a local community may not reflect the rest of the world. Measuring the largest, most diverse group when making a study yields a more generalizable study. That is, unless the study is devoted to a certain group of people.

Operational definitions are also important to help with the dissemination of information. In other words, will a study be published in a peer-reviewed publication, and the people who will read it include psychologists, journalists, students, or people who are interested in its contents?

Online therapy for mental well-being

Perhaps you looked up this article on operational definitions because you came across the term in a search for some symptoms you’re experiencing. Maybe you’re curious to know if you’re experiencing typical emotions or if you might be living with a mental health condition. Other people seek therapy for help in improving their social skills, setting goals, and managing family relationships. You may find that online counseling is especially flexible in helping you reach your goals.

By using online therapy platforms like MyTherapist, you can collaborate with a licensed counselor who will be able to provide operational definitions of any terms where you’re unclear of the meaning. They can explain to you, for example, the difference between psychology and psychiatry, cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, or borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder.

Once you are matched with your online therapist, you can decide how and when you will meet on your terms. Videoconferencing, phone calls, and text messages are all enabled through the platform. Many people also consider online therapy to be a cost-effective approach to obtaining quality mental health care.

Just like you might look up the operational definition of a psychology term, so can you search for studies demonstrating the efficacy of certain types of therapy, including online CBT, online parenting therapy, and online mindfulness-based counseling. You will find results showing how online CBT is effective in treating a variety of conditions, sometimes even more effectively than face-to-face counseling!

Consider a recent study investigating the efficacy of internet-based CBT in helping participants manage the symptoms of depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD (among other commonly diagnosed mental health conditions listed in the DSM-V). The results yielded strong evidence of iCBT as effective in treating the aforementioned disorders while also being cost-effective.

Takeaway

If you have a question about a psychological term or process, do not hesitate to reach out to a licensed professional for clarification. No one will judge you for that which you do not know; in fact, a counselor’s role is to empower the people they support. Do you feel like having a dedicated online therapist on your team is a great step for you to take right now? If so, reach out to the compassionate online counselors at MyTherapist. They will be with you every step of the way as you work to overcome your challenges and improve your outlook on life.

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.