We all know what critical thinking is when we see it – it is the ability not to stop at the seemingly obvious, but to look at the several possible meanings and probable explanations behind it. It involves analysis and synthesis of ideas and explanations. Without critical thinking, psychology becomes a list of studies to learn and boxes to tick, with no engagement and argument. The command terms at the beginning of the essays you write (Discuss, Evaluate, To what extent, Contrast) all require more than a list of research.
Next time you write an essay if you are a student, or mark one if you are a teacher, stop at the end of each sentence and ask ‘So what?’ This should trigger some critical thinking. Think of these statements:
The results of the experiment lack ecological validity. Thousands of students will write this in the upcoming exams this May. So what? Does this matter? Does it affect what we can do with the results? Well, yes it does. If the experiment was carried out in a lab with all variables controlled apart from the manipulated one (independent variable) and the measured one (dependent variable) then this unnatural situation could have led to all sorts of changes in participants’ behaviour. In this case the results may not be a true reflection of how they would have behaved under natural conditions.
Researchers at the biological level of analysis sometimes use lab experiments on animals to investigate the effects of certain neurotransmitters on human behaviour. This is another common point made in answers about either neurotransmitters or research methods. The critical thinker will then go on to point out that this is because they believe that, as some animals have similar brain structures to humans, then they use brain chemicals in the same way. These experiments are used when it would be impractical or unethical or plain impossible to test hypotheses on humans in the same way, but of course, the assumption of parity of brain processes between human and non-human animals is a contested belief and certainly not all results from animal studies can be successfully be applied to gain a better understanding of human behaviour. However, it is significant that it was initially in rodents that the link between acetylcholine and memory was discovered, which has been verified in adult humans with Alzheimer’s disease.
So, while it is important to revise studies for your exams, don’t forget to use them to make an argument, look at why they are relevant and always explain the explanations!