Objective vs subjective experience

I was having a discussion recently with a student about the pit falls of using self report questionnaires. She had always been dubious about their value, and after having recently used them in some research, she was even more skeptical.

I agreed and disagreed with her.

I have swung back and forth over this issue over the years. Yes, self report methods are subjective which undermines their reliability as a tool to measure what the experimenter is interested in. Are they actually measuring what you think they are measuring? This is where validity, reliability and test-retest come into it (note to self: must check whether I’ve given them the right names!).

But, BUT, is not subjective experience important to the person having the experience? Have you ever had to deal with someone telling you they are having a panic attack RIGHT NOW, but they are the calmest one in the room? If you feel pain, but your doctor can’t measure it objectively, does that mean you’re not really in pain? That it is fictitious? Even if it were psychosomatic it is still important that this is what you experience, this is how you interpret it, this is how you react to it, and this is how it affects your life, your well-being.

On one hand, we have the behaviourists, who tend not to think that internal experience is important because it cannot be measured objectively (hence the lack of cognitive research in early modern psychology), and some of them take a very extreme view of it, while on the other we have the cognitive psychologists and philosophers who think that your internal world is important, although in the case of the former, usually only as a tool for developing a theory based on mental representations. Your actual experience, the content of your thoughts and your actual feelings tend to get glossed over and reduced to boxes and arrows.

Likewise, there is very little room in the biomedical model of illness (whether physical or psychological) for subjective experience. If your symptoms don’t fit nicely into a pigeon hole, they eventually give up and suggest you see a counsellor as you are neurotic/hysterical/psychosomatic/hypochondriac/Munchausen’s. Even psychiatrists diagnosing schizophrenia ask “do you hear voices?” not “what do your voices say” or “what do your voices mean to you?”.

Surely, how you experience something, how you interpret it, and whether you are distressed by it, are equally as important as whether there is some objective evidence for it?

It might all be in your head, but that is no reason to devalue something.

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