If ever you’ve taken a mental health diagnostic or research survey, it’s possible you’ve encountered a question here or there that stymied you a bit. I’ve mentioned this before in regards to empathy. It’s something tiramisú notes having encountered with regard to loneliness.

I feel like I occupy a bit of a strange space in this loneliness epidemic, since most studies that try to measure loneliness base analyses on time spent with family and friends. By these metrics, I don’t qualify as very lonely, since I live at home with my parents and spend lots of time with family, but in spite of all this time around others I do frequently feel lonely.

In surveys discussing sociality I come at this from the opposite end but experience similar issues. Too many surveys ask questions with quantitative answers they apparently somehow mean to analyze qualitatively. To wit: I’ll be asked about time spent with others, but not about my subjective sense of satisfaction with this time.

Such poorly designed surveys therefore will take the simple fact that I spend the vast majority of my time alone as a qualitative deficit despite only having been asked a quantitative question. The results of the study in question will be to some degree a falsehood.

Neither diagnostic nor research surveys should be written entirely from the standpoint of a normative value system, and quantitative questions cannot and must not be used to make qualitative judgments about quality of life.

Late last year, I referenced a paper that looked at autistic experiences of research questionnaires. The takeaway: “questions needed context, often questions themselves were unclear and difficult to understand, […] and how measures could have questionable validity for autistic people”.

I’ve little doubt that this isn’t just an autistic experience. There are normative assumptions about things such as quality of life that inherently skew such diagnostic tools and research surveys, and this, in small part, is how we manage to pathologize things that maybe aren’t pathologies.