On a scale of one to ten

I started this blog back in February when I thought there was going to be a spring Stoic week.  It has been dormant since the week was postponed. But, at last there is a Stoic week starting next Monday.

My reason for participating is that I’ve been interested in Stoicism for many years, and use it as a tool in my own life.  I’ve also been writing a novel about a Stoic philosopher.

I have rather less interest in, and respect for the “science” of Psychology than I have for Stoicism.

The last post on the Stoicism Today blog, by Donald Robertson, nicely illustrates why I find it difficult to take Psychology seriously.  This is not a criticism of Mr Robertson, but the discipline he studies:

A lot of psychological research seems to consist of setting the subjects questionnaires. Only psychologists don’t seem to be very good at using language. Rubbish In Rubbish Out. Of what value are the answers if the questions are vague, ambiguous or meaningless?

Since the Exeter Stoicism project is a collaboration between philosophers and psychologists, I would have thought the philosophers could have made a valuable contribution by teaching the psychologists some rules of verbal logic, but from Mr Donaldson’s questionnaire, it would seem that this hasn’t happened.

The inaccuracies start with the title of his blog post “on a scale of one to ten“, but maybe an accurate title: “How Stoic are you on a scale of -29 to 85” just didn’t sound good to Mr Donaldson.

It’s the multiple choice answers which make me question the value of the results:  “Strongly agree; Slightly agree; Agree; Neither agree nor disagree; Disagree , Slightly disagree, Strongly disagree”.

I can agree with a statement.  I can disagree with it.  I can have no opinion (neither agree nor disagree), or if it is a complex statement I can partially agree with it, disagree with it, or have no opinion.

But for the life of me, I cannot see how I can “slightly agree” with the  statements posed, any more than I can be slightly pregnant, or slightly human, or slightly believe in God.

Take question 4, for example: “It can sometimes be a good thing to get angry when people are really rude selfish or inconsiderate”. I happen to agree with this statement (one way in which I am not Stoical). But how could I “slightly agree” with it? What would that mean?  That I only agreed with it at weekends? That I only agreed with it in the afternoons, but never before breakfast?

The “How Stoical Are You”   questionnaire  poses an interesting conundrum. Stoics are supposed to be logical.  To tick the “Strongly” or “Slightly” boxes is to accede to the illogicality of the questionnaire.  So if someone ticks the”Strongly disagree” box in answer to the above question, are they more or less Stoical than someone who ticks the more logical “disagree” box?

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4 Responses to On a scale of one to ten

  1. Hi, just got the link to your post. Hope you don’t mind if I correct a few inaccuracies.

    1. My name’s Robertson not Donaldson!
    2. I did post a blog link to the questionnaire but, although I worked on the first draft, this version was completed by Tim Lebon.
    3. I’m a psychotherapist not a psychologist.
    4. The format for rating is a standard Likert scale, which is the established convention for use in questionnaire research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likert_scale
    5. The title I gave to the post wasn’t meant to be taken literally. Most readers appear to have understood it as humorous.

    I understand your point about finding it difficult to “agree strongly” or “agree slightly”. I don’t agree with your claim that this is illogical, though. It makes perfect sense to me for people to rate strength of belief. It’s a very common practice in the social sciences generally. The truth or falsehood of a belief may be binary but that’s quite different from the strength of conviction we have in it. To take your own analogy: You may well argue that someone cannot be “slightly pregnant” but I think most people would take it for granted that someone can indeed have varying levels of conviction in (=agreement with) the belief that they’re pregnant, ranging from total uncertainty to total certainty. They don’t necessarily just jump from one end of the scale to the other. 🙂

  2. Jane says:

    I’m very sorry about getting your name wrong. As someone whose own name is frequently got wrong, I know how irritating that is.

    Your explanation about the Likert scale was enlightening. I now understand why a questionnaire on pain management I was once asked to fill in, asked whether I agreed with the statement “I suffer extreme pain in my joints” “strongly”, “slightly” etc. At the time I was baffled.

    I don’t agree with you. There is a difference between the statements “I am pregnant” and “I think I might be pregnant”. One is a statement of fact, the other of belief, but the statement “I agree slightly that I am pregnant” is just nonsensical.

    • I think we could discuss this at length. However, maybe it’s worth just putting this conversation in context… Nearly a thousand people altogether have now completed this or the previous version of the Stoic attitudes questionnaire online. We actually collected feedback on how they felt about the design of the questions because we wanted to avoid any confusion over the wording. As far as I can recall, out of all of the respondents, I think you’re probably the only person to have expressed this particular concern over the wording. 🙂

      • Mira says:

        Sorry for the delay in approving your last comment Donald. I had not got the settings right to alert me when there was a new comment, so I didn’t notice it.

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