Thursday, 1 December 2016

Research assignments - conformity

Conformity is a popular choice for a Higher or N5 Psychology research assignment, but be careful - there are significant ethical issues to avoid. SQA guidance forbids Asch-type experiments, and even experiments based on the Jenness study have issues. It is essential to avoid putting participants in a situation where they feel stressed or embarrassed.

One way to avoid this is to conduct an independent groups comparison, where one group or participants discusses the number of items (e.g. sweets in a jar) and then makes a private estimate, while a control group make an estimate without discussion.

How many sweets? Image via

The prediction would be that measures of dispersion such as the range would be lower in the discussion group, as everyone's estimate comes closer to a group norm.

Background theory

This assignment topic is based on the theory of informational social influence - when uncertain of the correct response, people tend to change their views or behavior to be more like the group. Have a look at the following for more about this idea:

- Article on normative and informational social influence

While it's fine to mention normative influence too, be careful - if your study relates to informational social influence, that should be the focus of your introduction/background literature review.

Previous studies

The classic study of informational influence is the work of Jenness (1932), mentioned above, who looked for the emergence of a group norm in groups of three students:

- Summary of the Jenness study

A similar relevant study, also from the early days of social psychology, was conducted by Muzafer Sherif:

- Summary of the Sherif study

More recently, Abrams et al (1990) have suggested that the idea of informational social influence is over-simplistic, and that the change in group behavior is better explained on the basis of group membership. In their study, people were more likely to conform to the majority if they saw the others as belonging to the same social group as themselves:

- Abstract of Abrams et al research

It's important throughout to focus on studies that are relevant to the aim/hypothesis i.e. studies that link to informational influence. Other studies of conformity such as the work of Asch or Mori should only be included as part of an introductory paragraph, or (perhaps best) not at all, as they relate primarily to normative social influence.


Psychology students typically try this type of study by asking about something like the number of sweets in a jar or pieces of pasta in a packet, though there are simple ways to vary it which would give the experiment more real-world relevance. You could ask about any number-based information where the majority of people are unlikely to know the precise answer, for example, how many pupils are there in the school? What is the population of Scotland? How many pensioners are there in Glasgow? Again, you would predict that within a group the range of answers would be narrower.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Some possible research assignment tasks...

For your mandatory school psychology coursework, social psychology and sleep topics tend to suffer from ethical issues and are hard to control, and it generally works best to do an experiment. Therefore I'd recommend controlled experimental studies on cognitive areas such as memory, intelligence and attention - straightforward to carry out, and easy to write up.

For Higher Psychology, the topic you choose will depend on the SQA 'research brief' which is published every year - we can't do topics that don't fit with their guidance. However, if the choice is reasonably flexible (as in the past), then the following would be suitable options:
  1. A study of highlighting - does the use of a highlighter pen help people to remember key facts? See for example Yue, Storm, Kornell and Bjork (2014), but Dunlosky and Rawson (2015) have a different view.
  2. Spacing as we learn - a replication of Kornell's (2009) flashcards study.
  3. Suppressing the white bears - can we prevent unwanted thoughts? A study based on the work of Wegner.
  4. A study of the testing effect - compare doing a test with re-reading, keeping other factors constant. Refer to the work of Roediger and Karapicke (2006).
  5. Attentional processes - the 'Stroop' effect.
  6. Beliefs about learning - how well do student beliefs about learning and memory fit with what is known to work? A survey study based on e.g. Kornell and Bjork (2007).
  7. Evolutionary aspects of memory - do people remember risky things better than neutral objects? Comparison of objects and various types of objects and animals. Could include both short-term and long-term tests. See work of Nairne and colleagues e.g. Nairne (2013).
  8. Perception of art: how quickly can we learn to categorise different types of artwork? What about maths or science problems? Interleaving could play a role here - see Kornell and Bjork (2008); Rohrer et al (2015).
  9. The role of simple repetition when learning language vocabulary - is rehearsal enough? Classic research by Craik and Watkins (1973) suggests not, but more recent studies have shown that it does have an important role. Design a suitable experiment.
  10. Correlation study of IQ v's exam results. It would be important to disentangle IQ and WM, and to consider social factors in educational attainment.
These topics/studies have a good range of background research for you to draw on, and can easily be done within the time available. In many cases, they also reflect 'cutting edge' debates in psychology.

Whatever you choose to do, ensure that it follows ethical guidelines - your participants should be over 16, and you shouldn't harm or stress them in any way. Ensure that they give informed consent, and are aware of their right to withdraw at any point. Debrief them afterwards, and keep all data confidential.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Relationships Option Topic - Applications

In N5 and Higher Psychology, you will have studied an optional topic in the Social Behaviour unit. Relationships/attachment, prejudice and aggression are among the most popular options, but there are several other possibilities. This post focuses on relationships, with a few ideas about how to tackle a 20-mark essay on this sub-topic (it can be modified for shorter answers), but a very similar structure could be used for other topics.

Introduce the topic/issue

There are various real world applications of the concepts and theories in this topic, but the most obvious one is helping to tackle relationship conflict. This could include helping people to avoid abusive relationships (including friendships), and counselling for couples and families that are going through difficulties.

First write an intro paragraph which defines the topic as a whole, and then outlines this application/issue:

A relationship is a very broad term in psychology, including any lasting social connection between two people, romantic or otherwise. Many relationships are based on attraction, but others are more strategic, for advantage or protection - this is often known as affiliation. In either case, a relationship can be harmful in various ways, and people suffer from abusive relationships and may have to endure separations and break-ups. So how can psychology help people to deal with these problems?

Explain the problem

I suggest that you next spend a bit of time explaining what the problem is, incorporating theoretical ideas and research. Make sure that you link concepts to the actual exam question throughout. It would be simplest to focus on a particular relationship problem - I will focus here on common problems experienced by couples:

One example of relationship conflict is separations. This is where a couple has to spend periods of time apart, for example travelling away for work or study. As proximity is a factor that promotes attraction, separations can put strain on a relationship. Evolutionary theories of relationships would explain this in terms of our history as a species - long-term separations would have been unknown among early humans, who lived in tribes of no more than 150 individuals (Dunbar, 1993). Anyone who was separated from their tribe would have had to form new relationships in order to survive.

A related problem is jealousy. This is when…

Other relationship problems that could be covered include:

- Passive-aggressive behaviour
- Emotional blackmail.
- Break-ups.

You could cover 2-3 in detail, or a larger number more briefly.

Relationships can experience a variety of problems. Image by Robert McGoldrick.

Explain the solution

I think it then makes sense to outline some of the ways to tackle these problems - focusing on relationship counselling.

A couple - especially those in a marriage or other long-term relationship - may seek psychological counselling to hep them resolve their problems. This could be done individually, but is often done as a couple - 'couple counselling'.

One major type of relationship counselling is person-centred therapy. This approach - based on the work of Rogers (1951) - sees the role of the counsellor as providing a warm and encouraging environment, not to solve the couple's problems or make decisions for them. In other words, they are non-directive, and the client should make the decisions. Unlike other forms of counselling, the counsellor shows their own emotions, and the approach is founded on a belief that everyone can fulfil their potential to be a good and creative person - 'self-actualisation'...

An alternative form of relationship counselling is...

You could then go on to talk about one or more other types of counselling. Draw on your knowledge of CBT and psychoanalytic therapy, if you have learned about them in other topics (e.g. sleep or psychopathology).


Finally, a short conclusion should reflect back on the original exam question and on the points that you made in your introduction.

To conclude, there are a number of problems that people can experience in relationships, and psychology has developed forms of couple counselling to help people overcome... 

The answer in this topic could look very different if you have focused on social development/attachment, in which case the applied area could be parenting or childcare. The overall structure can be very similar.


Dunbar, R.I.M. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 16, 681-735.

Rogers, C.R. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory. Houghton Mifflin.

Resisting Social Pressure - What to Include?

There can be a tendency to neglect the area of 'resisting social pressure' in the Conformity & Obedience topic. This is the applied area of the topic - where you explain how the topic has relevance in terms of improving things in the real world.

So what should you include? Here are a few tips, working on the basis of a 20-mark essay (it can be modified for shorter answers).

Start with an intro which defines both conformity and obedience, and sets out the issue/problem:

Social pressure comes in many forms, but two of the most important are conformity and obedience. Conformity means the tendency to change our behaviour to more similar to others, particularly to a majority group, and can be due to uncertainty (informational influence) or a desire to fit in with the group (normative influence). Obedience is when we change our behaviour due to a direct command, usually from an authority figure. Either type of social pressure can lead to harmful behaviour, such as people conforming to or obeying cults, gangs or other manipulative people. So how can people resist this pressure?

For the next paragraph, discuss the strategy of moral reasoning, and link in the research on strong beliefs:

One important strategy for tackling social pressure is moral reasoning and strong beliefs. Moral reasoning means the ability to think through a problem that concerns right or wrong, and come up with the most moral solution. Lawrence Kohlberg studied people’s ability to…

Key ideas to include are:

- Kohlberg's idea of post-conventional moral reasoning
- How participants in Milgram's study who didn't obey (to the max) were more likely to be capable of post-conventional reasoning.
- The Hornsey et al research which showed how people with strong beliefs are less likely to conform.

I think it would be natural to talk about education next for the 3rd paragraph - it follows on neatly. So:

Improving moral reasoning and developing strong resilient beliefs depends in part on education. Education can also help to raise awareness of the tactics used by and harm caused by groups such as cults, gangs, as well as the more day-to-day harm of conformity to unhealthy behaviour such as binge drinking...

Key ideas to include here are:

- Good real world examples of manipulators e.g. the People's Temple cult.
- Specific examples of how conformity could lead to harmful behaviour, e.g. by doing the same as a majority group of peers (use accurate terminology here).
- Discussion of awareness raising
- Other educational techniques e.g. assertiveness training

Jim Jones ran the 'People's Temple' church - a cult. Image source:

If you go into detail, it might be best to split the section on cults and raising awareness into a separate paragraph.

Next, a paragraph on disobedient role models for your 4th paragraph. This is not always very practical as a 'strategy' as it depends on other people, but it gives you a good opportunity to link research examples to real world scenarios:

The presence of a disobedient role model can make people much less likely to obey a manipulative authority figure, as was shown in the variations on Milgram's obedience research paradigm (Milgram, 1974). Seeing others refuse to continue with the procedure led to overall obedience levels dropping to 10%, in contrast to the original 65%. Similarly, in a follow up to the Hofling et al (1966) study... 

Key ideas to include here are:

- Research examples of how disobedience models reduces obedience levels
- Similar findings from conformity research, e.g. Asch (1951).
- Examples from the real world (e.g. civil rights protestors).
- Evaluation points relating to research - in particular, ethical issues and the artificiality of lab research.

This may be enough, depending on length and detail, though there are many other things you could talk about. The BBC Prison Study is a useful research context which showed why people disobey authority in certain circumstances, and can allow you to work in points about social identity theory. You could also talk about the strategies used by manipulative salespeople, or by harmful/abusive partners (such as emotional blackmail). Just be careful that you stick to the question, and don't go off at a tangent and start talking about prejudice/relationships.

Finally, add a short concluding paragraph that should reflect back on the point(s) made in your intro para.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Higher Psychology - Research Section

With the Higher Psychology exam looming, it's worth checking the mandatory content in the Research unit, from SQA's course documents. This is what you're expected to know about:

  • The stages of the research process
  • Ethical issues in terms of current British Psychological Society guidance
  • Research methods which must include: field experiment, laboratory experiment, natural experiment, participant and non-participant observation, case study, interview, survey.
  • Descriptive statistics and their interpretation: mean, median, mode and range and their calculation from a set of data
It's a good idea to practise answering exam-type questions - if you have my N5 and Higher textbook, there are 3 practice sections on research on pages 392-393. Note that the 'stages of the research process' are essentially the same as what you will have done for your Assignment - planning, writing a hypothesis, sampling, gathering data, etc.

Remember that there are 20 marks for this section in the exam, meaning it's worth as much as the two social psychology topics combined. A good mark here will set you up to do well overall.

Approaches to Psychology - Summaries

What are the approaches in psychology? These are broad perspectives, which can be applied to many different topics.

For example, personality could be studied in terms of how the brain affects your personality (biological approach) or an explanation could focus more on your childhood, and unconscious thoughts/feelings (psychoanalytic approach). Memory is often studied in terms of taking in and processing information (cognitive approach) but we could also look at how neurons change structure and form connections when new memories are created (biological approach).

Sometimes one approach might be right and another wrong, but often they prove to be complimentary, and looking at a problem from more than one perspective can be very helpful.

Here are summaries of four key approaches in psychology from previous blog posts on this site:

The biological approach
The cognitive approach 
The psychoanalytic approach
The behaviourist approach

When writing about how an approach can be used to explain a topic, I'd recommend beginning with a brief summary of the approach itself. For example, with the cognitive approach, include a paragraph or two on schemas/faulty thinking. Then move on to the issue itself, e.g. how the approach explains dreams, or memory, or mental illness.

Image by Queen's University