Extended Essays made easier

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It’s that time of year again, when students who have only been studying psychology for a few months are asked to think of an area of research in which they are interested.  And out come the titles, and questions: ‘What makes a psychopath?’  ‘Does the media cause eating disorders?’ ‘Why do more girls than boys get depressed?’ Aaargh!

Teachers sigh and raise their eyebrows, because none of these is a good question for an extended essay, though of course all are potential topics, and students’ interest in them is understandable.

This is where Psychology Sorted can help.  Underneath the overview tables are links to stimulating news articles, journal discussions and TED talks that will extend the students’ thinking beyond the superficial.  The hyperlinks and QR codes are included, and an hour or two of browsing can help direct students’ interests. For example, if students are interested in the area of new biological treatments for mental disorders, see this page.  If they would like to research the effects of digital technology, see here, and if they are interested in strategies of acculturation and immigrants, see this section.

Even if some students are determined to stick to eating disorders, the book can give them a new approach  – to opportunistic eating and obesity, for example.  Preface any of these topics with ‘To what extent?’ and you get much more nuanced, in-depth and interesting questions to research:

  • To what extent can neural feedback techniques treat phobias?
  • To what extent can artificial intelligence enhance working memory?
  • To what extent may marginalisation be responsible for terrorism?
  • To what extent can brain chemical dysfunction explain overeating?

It is not that there are any ‘off-bounds’ topics; just that a new approach is needed, to get your students out of the trees and on the sunlit route to extended essay success!

 

 

Contrast two theories of altruism ERQ.

This is a useful task to get students to focus on the command term of ‘contrast’ which they tend to find quite tricky. I give them the essay that I’ve written and they have to highlight all of the phrases/sections that really address the ‘contrast’ aspect of the question i.e. those which explicitly point out the differences between theories/studies/evaluation issues. I also ask them to fill details in the right-hand column so that they know why the essay works. This is a good active learning task, particularly for year 13s and they seem to really engage with it. I have highlighted some examples of explicit ‘contrast’ terms below:

The two theories of prosocial behaviour that will be contrasted in this essay are reciprocal altruism which takes the biological approach and the negative-state relief model which views prosocial behaviour using the cognitive approach. Research into prosocial behaviour is problematic in that it is difficult for psychologists to operationalise prosocial behaviour as a variable and to measure it precisely because it is a very subjective variable which may differ from person to person. Investigating it from a biological perspective (RA) involves using different methodology to that of a cognitive approach (NSR).

Reciprocal altruism is a biological theory that is based on the principles of evolutionary psychology, namely that altruistic acts are performed in order to gain some future benefit from the recipient. The basis of reciprocal altruism is that the donor’s fitness is temporarily compromised in order to help another, fellow organism. This help is given with an expectation of future help from the recipient to the original donor. It is difficult to find empirical support for evolutionary theories – unlike lab-based NSR studies – so psychologists use the idea of ultimate causes to account for current behaviour that may be rooted in primeval instincts.

In contrast to reciprocal altruism, the negative-state relief model considers the extent to which personal discomfort at the sight of another’s distress motivates altruistic acts. The assumption of this model is that when someone witnesses another in need of help they experience a negative mood such as concern, anxiety, guilt. This negative mood may then prompt the individual to offer help in order to improve their own mood, so prompting an egoistic motivation to help rather than being a purely altruistic act. This is a cognitive approach to prosocial behaviour which does not assume evolutionary instincts as the basis to behaviour (which is RA), rather researchers can use the model to draw inferences about behaviour.

Reciprocal altruism is based on the idea that there is a reasonably good probability that two organisms (e.g. two unrelated individual human beings) will meet again at some point in the future, making reciprocity possible. The negative-state relief model, however, focuses on a here-and-now approach, with the individual seeking relief from negative feelings in the moment rather than for some future gain. This is a real point of contrast between the two theories as reciprocal altruism assumes that human beings are programmed to instinctively help someone in need as a way of storing up future favours whereas the negative-state relief model is possibly easier to relate to as it identifies egoistic motivation as a factor in prosocial behaviour. In other words, most people are unlikely to believe that by helping a stranger in the street they are protecting themselves against future misfortune: they may never see this person again, their paths may never cross.

Axelrod & Hamilton (1981) devised a computer-based model of chess games involving two players to test reciprocal altruism. Batson et al (1989) in contrast, used a lab experiment with some manipulation of naïve participants. Axelrod & Hamilton took the unusual route of analysing a range of strategies used in chess games that had been provided by economists, sociologists, political theorists and mathematicians. This contrasts to Batson et al’s more conventional use of a lab experiment involving 44 students taking an introductory psychology course at the University of Kansas. Batson et al’s sample represents a typical group of participants for psychological research whereas Axelrod & Hamilton’s represents a more diverse and less ethnocentric population.

In Batson et al half of the participants were told that they would be watching a video that would make them feel sad; the other half were told that the video would make them feel happy. The experimenter left the room and a confederate entered and asked the participant if they would be willing to give some time to help make phone calls related to blood donation. There were more offers of help from participants in the sad mood condition than in the positive mood condition. The researchers concluded that the participants in the sad condition may have helped in a bid to feel better (self-reward), thereby supporting the Negative State Relief model. Axelrod & Hamilton did not implement an independent variable, unlike Batson et al but their results, they claim, supported reciprocal altruism: the most successful way of achieving the highest average chess score was to employ a strategy known as tit for tat which may ultimately be more beneficial to an individual than pure self-serving acts.

There are limitations to each study, mainly linked to the operationalising of prosocial behaviour, for different reasons. Axelrod & Hamilton assumed that the players were drawing from evolutionary instincts to derive the most successful strategy but they may simply have been playing cautiously and using cognitive decision-making processes to plan their moves. This is the major flaw with reciprocal altruism: it is very difficult to use Axelrod & Hamilton’s research as evidence of a biological approach as chess is a highly skilled game at which players must constantly think, process information, form judgements and make decisions.

Batson et al’s research also has limitations but these are not at the level of the approach used (cognitive) but rather they are concerned with the issue of demand characteristics as a possible source of bias. The sample in this study were psychology students, (contrasted to Axelrod & Hamilton’s sample of experts) so they might have guessed the aim of the study or behaved in an artificial way due to the contrived nature of the procedure. It is also possible that individual differences affected the result (more likely with a small sample) i.e. some participants may be naturally less caring than other participants. It would be very difficult therefore, for the researchers to be confident that they had successfully operationalised the negative-state relief model in their study.

To conclude, the main points of contrast between the two theories is that reciprocal altruism assumes that people behave prosocially for an expected future benefit – and that they do so without real, conscious thought – whereas the negative-state relief model assumes that help is given in the moment for egoistic reasons. The main source of difficulty in accepting reciprocal altruism as a valid theory of prosocial behaviour is the paucity of evidence to support it whereas for the negative-state relief model the main problem concerns the operationalising of the negative state and its subsequent ego-driven motivation towards prosocial behaviour.

[1236 words]

 

The new IA process for IB Diploma – get started!

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Let’s get started! This is a useful summary for teachers and students of the process for the new IA (internally-assessed student-conducted experiment…now you see why the name is shortened 🙂  This will first be assessed in May 2019, and I’m sure some of you are getting started soon.

Group work is mandatory.  Up to 4 students in a group, and preferably each group conducting a different experiment, so you don’t run out of participants.  The experiment is run together by the group to collect the raw data, but every section, and all data calculations, have to be performed and written about individually.  

Statistical Analysis must be conducted by everyone.  Descriptive statistics identify if there is a difference between the two conditions and inferential statistical analysis tells you whether or not this difference is significant at the p<0.05 level.  Unless you are an expert statistician, it is easier to just manipulate the independent variable once to give two conditions under which you measure the dependent variable. Plan how you are going to do this, and which tests you need to use before even starting your experiment.

Ethical Considerations – be sure that your experiment will cause no harm or stress to the participants, who may not be animals or young children.  Conformity experiments are not allowed, because they are stressful, and you may not ask your participants to eat or drink anything in order to test the effects. Neither may you deprive them of sleep.  Your appendices at the very end of your report should contain a blank copy of the informed consent form, a copy of your briefing and debriefing notes, raw data tables and your calculations for the analysis.

IA Report – This needs a header containing the following information:  title; your IB candidate code and the codes of all group members; date, month and year of submission; no. of words.

__________________________

The Report should be between 1800 and 2200 words and split into the following 4 sections:

Introduction  (6 marks) –  Contains the aim of the experiment, and explains the link between the experiment and the model or theory on which it is based.  (Most likely your experiment will be based on another study or experiment, but you need to know the underlying theory and show the link).  The hypotheses should be written out carefully, and contain the operationalised independent and dependent variable.  It is probably easier to write these separately first and then combine them to make the hypothesis.

Exploration (4 marks) – This is where you describe your procedure, including the design, sampling technique, participant characteristics, controlled variables and materials.  Write it very carefully, as you will want to refer back to it later in your last (Evaluation) section.

Analysis (6 marks) – Consists of correctly chosen and applied descriptive and inferential statistics.  The descriptive statistical analysis results should be shown in a bar chart (graph) that is carefully labelled.  The inferential statistics results need to be interpreted in terms of what they show about the hypothesis.  Do you have to accept or reject your null hypothesis, and why?

Evaluation (6 marks) – This is where you explain your results, in relation to the theory/model and study on which you based your experiment.  You need to explain the strengths and limitations of your design, sample and procedure and suggest how you could have improved upon what you did.  We cannot always anticipate the effect of decisions we made earlier when deciding how to conduct the experiment, but we can explain their effect at the end.

All IAs need a list of references at the back, and the appendices follow this.  They do not count towards the word count.

__________________________

Remember – it doesn’t have to be a complex experiment.  The simpler the better.  Old ‘favourites’ from Cognitive Psychology always do well: Loftus and Palmer, Stroop, Peterson & Peterson and Bransford & Johnson are all tried and tested studies from the area of memory.

 

 

Online research

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Most of the studies you will want to read can be found online, but some will be behind what is called a ‘pay wall’.  This means that your school librarian should be able to help you with access, in that most school libraries will subscribe to at least one online data repository of resources.  However, that is no guarantee of availability, and you may have to do some online searching of your own.

The best place to start your search is Google Scholar, where you can type in key words, or the study title and authors, and a list of versions will come up.  If one of these is a ‘pdf’ then you are in luck.  If it is not, sometimes a site like Researchgate will have a pdf version for free. If they don’t, then they may have the abstract and, unlike other sites, if you join them (it’s free, and also spam-free) you can then request the full text direct from the author.  (This works for teachers, who can declare their interest in Psychology, but I am not sure if students would be able to join). I have put in 65 requests over the past few years, and received 12 texts, so while it’s not a sure method, it’s worth pursuing.

Finally, while most teachers will say steer clear of Wikipedia because of sometimes inaccurate information, the list of references at the end of the entry may prove very useful.  For example, it is well known that in 1986 researchers Yuille and Cutshall published research into eyewitness testimony of a crime that can act as a useful critique for Loftus and Palmer.  However, it is behind a pay wall, though may be requested through Researchgate.  But, if you go to Wikipedia and find Canadian psychologist John C. Yuille, scroll down and look at the references, you will find some that can be tracked and are freely available – such as this one on the effect of alcohol on eyewitness memory.  All of the hyperlinked articles at the bottom of Yuille’s Wikipedia page come up in PsycNET first, where they must be paid for, but by taking the article title and typing it into Google Scholar, or even into your usual search engine, the pdf can often be found.

This does take time, but once you have these items, you have them forever, which is a useful thought for teachers, or for students hoping to take their study of Psychology further. And if you don’t want all of your online searching to be tracked by Google, try using DuckDuckGo as a search engine.  Happy hunting!

What is a ‘key study’?

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Key studies are studies that are the most useful for any Psychology course, because they provide the ‘key’ to understanding a concept or theory.  For example, Maguire’s famous ‘taxi driver’ study, Loftus and Palmer’s ‘car crash’ study or Rosenhan’s research into the validity of diagnosis on admission to mental hospitals.

Teachers and students can benefit by summarising these studies according to Background, Aim, Participants, Procedure, Results, Conclusion, Evaluation.  This can be done on 1-2 sides of paper and kept to be used for essays, revision and even for HL Paper 3 practice if you are an IB Diploma teacher or student.  Below is a short example of what this could look like, from the biological approach.

KEY STUDY: Caspi et al. (2003) Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene.

 Background

Looked at the relation between inherited short alleles on the 5HTT serotonin transporter gene and incidences of stress and subsequent depression.

Links to:

  • Abnormal Psychology: Genetic explanation for inherited predisposition to depression as a response to environmental stressors.

Aim

To investigate whether a functional change in the 5HTT gene is linked to a higher or lower risk of depression in an individual.

Participants

The researchers used an opportunity sample from a cohort of participants who were part of another longitudinal study. There were 847 participants of 26 years old and they were split into three groups, depending on the length of the alleles on their 5HTT transporter gene.

Group 1 – two short alleles

Group 2 – one short and one long allele

Group 3 – two long alleles

Procedure

  1. Stressful life events occurring after the 21st birthday and before the 26th birthday were assessed using a life-history calendar.
  2. Past-year depression was assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule.
  3. A correlation was tested for between stressful life events and depression, between the length of the alleles and depression and an interaction between perceived stress and the length of the alleles.
  4. A further test was done to see if life events could predict an increase in depression over time among individuals with one or two short alleles.

Results

The participants with two short alleles in the 5HTT transporter gene reported more depression symptoms in response to stressful life events than either of the other two groups. Those participants with two long alleles reported fewer depression symptoms. Moreover, childhood maltreatment was predictive of depression in adulthood only in adults with either one or two short alleles.

Conclusion

While there is no direct relation between short alleles on the 5HTT gene and depression, there is a relationship between these and incidences of stress and subsequent depression. The long alleles seem to protect against suffering depression as a result of stress. The effects of the gene adaptation are dependent on environmental exposure to stress.

Evaluation of Caspi et al. (2003)

Strengths

  • This was a very large cohort of males and females and the age was controlled in order to isolate the variable of number of stressful life events between the ages of 21 and 26.
  • It was a natural experiment, with the naturally occurring IV being the length of the alleles. If the results are replicated this would suggest high reliability.

Limitations

  • Gene action is highly complex, and actions of other genes could not be controlled. While the stressful life events were standardised as employment, financial, housing, health and relationship, whether or not a participant experienced a certain event as stressful is highly personal.
  • The symptoms of depression were self-reported, although each participant was contacted in order to verify the symptoms; self-reporting can be unreliable.

Reference

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., … & Poulton, R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science301(5631), pp. 386-389.

Exam tips – for the days themselves.

First tip is – don’t panic. Once the exams are upon you, then make sure you know the Panicdates and times (timetable on fridge, on bedroom wall, in school bag, on phone, etc.) Once you have sat an exam, no matter how badly – or how well – you feel it’s gone, it is gone.  Forget it and move on mentally, and physically, to some revision for the next exam, or move on to eat lunch if the your next exam is in an hour or two. And avoid any panicking friends if possible!

Be prepared, with several pens and pencils and any other necessary equipment.  Make sure your phone is not even in the room – leave it in your locker, or at home. (Radical thought, I know!)  Have a bottle of water, and make sure you have visited the loo and have eaten something.  Otherwise your rumbling stomach will be all anyone is thinking about! If you have allergies/a cold make sure you have tested any medication beforehand to ensure it doesn’t make you either twitchy or sleepy, and have plenty of tissues.  Tell the invigilator, who may be able to move you away from any open windows, or to the back corner of the room so you don’t feel you’re disturbing others.  Don’t forget your glasses if you wear them.

On non-exam days, revise for the next exams, but give yourself an hour extra in bed first.  It will feel like a reward and lighten your mood.  Don’t let yourself dwell on anything.  Revision by now should be going over your weak points, handwriting test answers, book closed, and going over them either alone or with other ‘study buddies.’

If you don’t have to wear school uniform, dress in comfortable layers. Exams that start early in the morning in a cool room can make you feel like you’re in a sauna several hours later.

Bad handwriting needs space so the examiner can read it – write on every second line.  Everybody should leave a couple of lines or more between paragraphs and start each answer on a new page.  This gets rid of the need to write vertically in the margin if you think of something that you want to put into your essay.  Exams are marked on screen nowadays, and these inserts run the risk of not being read if they can’t be seen easily.

Plan your time carefully, answering questions you know first, and those you will find harder last.  Leave at least ten minutes for looking over your answers.

Never leave an exam early.  Ask if you need to use the bathroom, and then come back and stay for the whole of the exam.  If you have finished very early, then you have done something wrong, and need to check your work again.  If you have missed out answering one question, because you don’t know the answer, then go back and try it; even one or two marks are better than zero.  There is usually something you can add, so use the time allotted to you.

Finally, try and ignore the other people in the room, whether they look confident and are writing away like crazy, or look as if they are about to burst into tears.  Try and think a ‘little bubble’ around yourself as you focus on answering the questions.

Good Luck!

 

How do you revise?

Woods to sunshineYou will all have your favourite tips for revision, but here are a few more that might help move you out of the dark woods into the sunlight.

  1. You are looking for retrieval, not recognition, so stop highlighting big chunks of your textbook and start writing or planning answers with the book closed.  The IB Diploma exams are very near,  A levels are not much further away, and many of you will be sitting end-of-year exams.
  2. Revise what you don’t know, not what you know. This is linked to the above: it is reassuring to realise that we know some things, but testing yourself on what you know is pointless.  You need to test yourself, using old  on what you are not sure of.
  3. Write, write, write.  Don’t type your answers, unless you’ll be typing them in the exams.  Your writing muscles need to get into shape now! So, when you are planning answers, writing notecards of material in your own words, summarising studies, do it by hand.  You may have 5 or 6 hours of writing in one day in your exams, so get training now.
  4. Output, not input. Yes, by all means make recordings, diagrams, notes, overviews, pictures, but the crucial test is if you can use all these theories and studies you have learned to answer the question. So get hold of old papers and markschemes, or at least old questions, and start now.
  5. Plan your revision now.  Make a revision timetable, and plan to cover at leat two different academic subjects (like Psychology and French, for example) each day, for up to an hour each.  If you get tired, swap topics – so maybe study half an hour of sociocultural psychology and then half an hour of biological, planning the answers as you go.  Stick to your timetable.

These exams will soon be over, but learning is a life-long skill.