Planning your course effectively – the biological approach and development

Overlaps Dev_Bio green

The biological approach to children’s cognitive development is well-established, as it seems obvious that learning must be directly related to neurogenesis (growth of new synapses connecting neurons) and neural pruning (‘cutting back’ of synapses no longer needed).  But of course this development through neuroplasticity requires not only good nutrition and nurturing to prevent injury, but also social stimulation, so a lot of research has looked at how trauma and deprivation may affect the cognitive development of the child, by delaying or preventing brain development in crucial areas like the hippocampus and amygdala.

The techniques used to study the brain and neuroplasticity topics under the biological approach can be successfully taught using material from the developing as a learner and the influences on social and cognitive development topics within the developmental psychology option. Recommended studies are Chugani’s (1998) PET scans of children from birth to late adolescence; Gotgay et al’s (2004) longitudinal study mapping brain development using MRI scanning; Luby et al’s (2013) research into the effects of poverty on the brain and the mediating effect of caregiving.

More help with planning is coming in the following weeks!

References (summaries of these studies can be found in Psychology Sorted Book 2):

Chugani, H. T. (1998). A critical period of brain development: studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventive Medicine, 27(2), pp. 184-188.

Gotgay, G., Giedd, J., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K., Greenstein, al. (2004). Dynamic Mapping of Human CorticalDevelopment During Childhood Through Early Adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(21), pp. 8174-8179.

Luby, J., Belden, A., Botteron, K., Marrus, N., Harms, M. P., Babb, C.,et al. (2013). The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(12), pp. 1135-1142.


Planning your course effectively – the sociocultural approach and health


The sociocultural approach is increasingly used in health psychology, as it became obvious that not all disorders could be explained through a biological etiology.  For example, addiction can be caused and sustained through our position in social groups, and treated through the support of social networks. Pegg et al. (2018) conducted a survey that investigated social identity and alcohol use in teens and found that higher levels of exposure to alcohol-related content on social networking sites was associated with higher levels of alcohol use, as the online social identity was maintained through an alignment of behaviour with other members of the online social group. Many health promotion programmes are underpinned by social cognitive theory, with its focus on the interaction of behaviour, internal personal factors (biology and individual cognition) and environmental influences and the key concepts of agency, self-efficacy, vicarious reinforcement and motivation.

More examples on the way!


Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education & Behavior, 31(2), 143-164.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Pegg, K. J., O’Donnell, A. W., Lala, G., & Barber, B. L. (2017). The role of online social identity in the relationship between alcohol-related content on social networking sites and adolescent alcohol use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21, 50-55

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178

Wenzel, S. L., Green, H. D. Jr, Tucker, J. S., Golinelli, D., Kennedy, D. P., Ryan, G. & Zhou, A. (2009). The social context of homeless women’s alcohol and drug use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence105(1-2), 16–23.


Planning your course effectively – more overlaps

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Similarly to the biological approach, there are many overlaps between the cognitive approach and the options of abnormal psychology, development, health and human relationships.  For example, the psychology of cognitive processes and their reliability can explain clinical biases in diagnosis of disorders, debates regarding the etiology of  disorders and also inform their treatment.

Watch out for more of these!

Planning your course effectively – exploiting the overlaps

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Here is some support when planning for the new school year. This is one of the most useful exercises I have ever done before teaching a course on psychology. Using a table, or a simple Venn diagram, as above, identify the overlaps between the core approaches and the options. Putting these posters around your class, sharing them with students, and using them for your own planning can clarify and structure your thinking and theirs. This is so useful when it comes to revision.

For example, as we can see, the biological approach to human relationships comprises mainly evolutionary psychology arguments. The same overlaps mapped between biology and abnormal psychology would identify brain neurochemistry as a key conceptual argument. The biological approach to childhood development looks at brain development and neuronal networking.

Doing this helps immensely with understanding the big picture, and also minimising the studies one needs to cover. If teaching the human relationships option later in your course, when students are learning about evolutionary psychology in the biological approach earlier in your course – here are their examples.

I will be mapping more of these over the following weeks, so watch out for them before term starts!

Experimental methods explained

brain-153040_640True experiment, field experiment, quasi-experiment or natural experiment? The answer is often a wild look in the eyes and a shrug of the shoulders.  It is not always easy to be certain! See below for an explanation of the differences. All sources used are referenced at the bottom of the page, and linked study summaries are, of course, from Psychology Sorted.

The easiest one to define is the true experiment. 

Often called a ‘laboratory/lab’ experiment, this does not have to take place in a lab, but can be conducted in a classroom, office, waiting room, or even outside, providing it meets the criteria.  These are that allocation of participants to the two or more experimental (or experimental and control) groups or conditions is random and that the independent variable (IV) is manipulated by the researcher in order to measure the effect on the dependent variable (DV).  Other variables are carefully controlled, such as location, temperature, time of day, time taken for experiment, materials used, etc. This should result in a cause and effect relationship between the IV and the DV. Examples are randomised controlled drug trials or many of the cognitive experiments into memory, such as Glanzer and Cunitz_1966.

A field experiment is similar, in that individuals are usually randomly assigned to groups, where this is possible, and the IV is manipulated by the researcher. However, as this takes place in the participants’ natural surroundings, the extraneous variables that could confound the findings of the research are somewhat more difficult to control.  The implications for causation depend on how well these variables are controlled, and on the random allocation of participants.   Examples are bystander effect studies, and also research into the effect of digital technology on learning, such as that conducted by Hembrooke and Gay_2003.

A quasi-experiment is similar to either or both of the above, but the participants are not randomly allocated to groups.  Instead they are allocated on the basis of self-selection as male/female; left or right-handed; preference for coffee or tea; young/old, etc.  or researcher selection as scoring above or below and certain level on a pre-test; measured socio-economic status; psychology student or biology student, etc.  These are therefore, non-equivalent groups.  The IV is often manipulated and the DV measured as before, but the nature of the groups is a potential confounding variable.  If testing the effect of a new reading scheme on the reading ages of 11 year olds, a quasi-experimental design would allocate one class of 11 year olds to read using the scheme, and another to continue with the old scheme (control group), and then measure reading ages after a set period of time.  But there may have been other differences between the groups that mean a cause and effect relationship cannot be reliably established: those in the first class may also have already been better readers, or several months older, than those in the control group. Baseline pre-testing is one way around this, in which the students’ improvement is measured against their own earlier reading age, in a pre-test/post-test design.  In some quasi-experiments, the allocation to groups by certain criteria itself forms the IV, and the effects of gender, age or handedness on memory, for example, are measured. Examples are research into the efficacy of anti-depressants, when some participants are taking one anti-depressant and some another, or Caspi et al._2003, who investigated whether a polymorphism on the serotonin transporter gene is linked to a higher or lower risk of individual depression in the face of different levels of perceived stress.

Finally, natural experiments are those in which there is no manipulation of the IV, because it is a naturally-occurring variable.  It may be an earthquake (IV) and measurement of people’s fear levels (DV) at living on a fault line before and after the event, or an increase in unemployment as a large factory closes (IV) and measurement of depression levels amongst adults of working age before and after the factory closure (DV). As with field experiments, many of the extraneous variables are difficult to control as the research takes place in people’s natural environment. A good example of a natural experiment is Charlton (1975) research into the effect of the introduction of television to the remote island of St. Helena.

The differences between quasi experiments and correlational research, and between natural experiments and case studies are sometimes hard to determine, so I would always encourage students to explain exactly why they are designating something as one or the other. We can’t always trust the original article either – Bartlett was happy to describe his studies as experiments, which they were not! Here’s hoping these examples have helped.  The following texts are super-useful, and were referred to while writing  this post.:

Campbell, D.T. & Stanley J.C. (1963). Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (ISBN 9780528614002)

Coolican, H. (2009, 5th ed.). Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology. UK: Hodder (ISBN 9780340983447)

Shadish, W.R., Cook, T.D. & Campbell, D.T. (2001, 2nd ed.). Experimental and Quasi-experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference. UK: Wadsworth (ISBN 9780395615560)

Ethics of animal research

monkey-3512996_1280A few months ago, we posted about how we could use animals for research.  Today we are looking at the ethics surrounding the decision to conduct research using nonhuman animals. Most students can reel off the ethics involved in conducting research on humans (informed consent, lack of harm, right to withdraw, privacy, etc.) but when we talk about the ethics of conducting research using nonhuman animals as proxies for humans, they are less clear. Often the argument gets stuck at the level of “It’s OK for medical research, but not for cosmetics.”  This is not good enough for an understanding of the complexities (nor for an exam answer).  For students that wish to argue that conducting research on nonhuman animals in order to avoid causing pain or distress to humans can never be ethical, point out that this is a worthy philosophical question, and could even be a counter-argument in a psychology debate on the topic, but again, it cannot constitute the main argument of an exam essay on ethics.

The APA,  BPS and Australian government publish guidelines for conducting nonhuman animal research ethically. What emerges from the guidelines are the ‘3 Rs’ of animal research:

  • Replace animals with other alternatives – such as computer simulations, use of lesser species (such as single‐cell amoebae and nematode worms),  use micro-dosing, CRISPR DNA editing, or human cell cultures – known more colloquially as ‘patient in a dish’ or ‘body on a chip’.  But animals are used to generate new hypotheses, so CRISPR editing was tried out on animals first, as was stem cell research. 
  • Reduce the number of individual animals used, by using data from other researchers, or by repeated micros-sampling on one animal in a repeated measures design.
  • Refine procedures to minimise suffering, by using appropriate anaesthetics and painkillers, and training animals to cooperate with procedures to minimise any distress. Imaginative research, where faecal matter is analysed to investigate stress levels, rather than drawing blood from an obviously stressed animal, has a part to play here.

In Psychology Sorted Book 1, we provide summaries of studies by Xu et al. (2015) and Stanton et al. (2015) which show how nonhuman animals may be used more ethically, to contrast with others such as Barr et al. (2004) and Weaver et al. (2004) which cause more stress to the animals used. These will help to keep your students more closely focused on the complexities of whether and how we should use nonhuman animals in psychological research.

Social networks are good for your health.


One of the options in IB Diploma Psychology is Health – how to stay healthy, the relationship between biology, cognition and health, and of course, how social factors affect our health. More and more psychologists are concluding that social support is one of the main factors in maintaining good mental and physical health.

A recent longitudinal study conducted into the effect of work stress on health found that men with pre-existing diseases like heart disease, stroke or diabetes who also had stressful jobs with little control over their workload were at a much higher risk of mortality. (Interestingly, there was no similar relationship found between stress at work, heart conditions and early death in women – maybe female social networks are more protective?)

The Guardian summarised these results: “Men…who experienced job strain had a 68% greater risk of premature death than men in more manageable jobs. A greater risk remained even when the men exercised, controlled their weight and blood pressure, and did not smoke.”  It is therefore no use telling men under stress  who have a pre-existing heart condition to get out and exercise more and not smoke, unless we also provide social support, teach positive coping mechanisms, and encourage employers to provide more flexible working hours.

This would provide a good introduction to the Determinants of Health section of the Health option.  In Psychology Sorted Book 2, we summarise Haslam et al’s study into the tendency to underestimate the role of social factors in ill-health, and to also underestimate the ability of social support to keep us healthy. So, be social and stay healthy!