SPSS Basics: Why Syntax Beats Point and Click

Consider yourself very, very lucky: It wasn't that long ago that researchers were calculating all of their statistics by hand, without the use of powerful statistical programs like SPSS, SAS, and Excel. But just because software running on powerful computers allows anyone to spit out statistics doesn't mean that you don't have to know what you're doing and to conduct your analysis in a meaningful way. Because, after all, the numbers that your software program of choice quickly hurls back at you after a few short commands is only as good as (a) the data itself and (b) what you told it to do in terms of analysis. It seems that different academic disciplines gravitate toward different software programs, and many researchers in industrial/organizational psychology, organizational behavior, and human resource management tend to use SPSS. And that's just fine for the majority of the types of analyses we like to conduct (with structural equation modeling being a notable exception). One of the big differences between SPSS and other statistical programs is that it has a variety of "point and click" options, meaning that one can tell the program to run a variety of types of analyses without having any knowledge of the program's programming language simply by using drop-down menus. While that may sound nice to beginners, it has its pitfalls. Most notably, it encourages a haphazard approach toward data analysis that in the end leaves users wondering, "What did I just do?" So I strongly encourage anyone getting started with SPSS to quickly learn to start doing all of their analyses with syntax.

What's syntax? Syntax is what we call the programming language used to conduct data analyses in SPSS without using the “point and click” method. It's useful for a multitude of reasons, including:

  • It helps us conduct our analyses in a meaningful, systematic manner
  • It is a lasting record of what analyses we conducted
  • If something does not work, we can easily find out why
  • It can perform operations that are laborious or impossible using the drop-down menus
  • It is easily transferred among collaborators

Future posts on this forum will further expand upon the basics of using syntax for analyzing data in SPSS. But for now, consider abandoning the "point and click" method. You'll be glad you did.