Measuring life events: The problem of variability within event categories

Bruce P. Dohrenwend, Bruce G. Link, Rochelle Kern, Patrick E. Shrout, Jeffrey Markowitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One approach to measuring the magnitude and other characteristics of stressful life events has been to obtain subjective ratings of the events from the individuals whose stress experiences are being studied. Unfortunately, while useful for a number of purposes, subjective ratings are not independent of the personal dispositions of the individuals. This problem is especially severe in case/control studied of mental health outcomes, where it is highly likely to confound the measurement of supposed cause and effect. Two other approaches have been developed. One is Holmes and Rahe's use of rating by judges of lists of various categories of events. The other is George Brown's use of ratings by research team members of detailed material on the nature and circumstances of each event to determine its ‘contextual threat’. While the Brown approach, like the subjective rating approach, deals with the problem of intracategory variability in the Holmes and Rahe and other list methods, it has problems of its own. In this article, we examine the nature of these problems and recommend another approach to reducing intraevent category variability. Our recommendations are based on the results of an interview study of a general population sample consisting of 429 adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-187
Number of pages9
JournalStress Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1990


  • Stressful life events
  • intracategory variability
  • measurement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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