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Exam questions for CHIP module

CHIP: "Conceptual & Historical Issues in Psychology"

The exam in Dec. 2015 will require you to answer, in one hour, one question chosen from three. This format applies to ALL students on this course: MSc in psychological studies, level 3 psychological studies, level 3 honours option, level 4 honours option.

In considering what makes a good exam answer likely to earn a high mark, you should first consult your general course handbook, where general marking guidelines should be given. In addition, there is a relevant section in the Critical Review document on generally what makes a first class answer. Roughly speaking, evidence of going beyond the lectures is important: especially critical thinking, further reading (not just the lectures and core textbooks), and connecting the ideas to specific examples and cases than those discussed in the lectures. For CHIP (unlike many other courses), further reading is less important than showing critical thinking.

For this particular course, good answers will not only show critical thinking, but attempt to show critical appraisal of psychology from outside, in relation to other disciplines, and/or in relation to its history.

Example and past exam questions

Below on this page are example exam questions and notes on answers relating only to lectures 8-13.

For example questions related to the other (more historical) lectures, see the library online collection of past exam papers for level 3 honours CHIP exams (but remember that they show a choice of one from four, but now the choice is one from three). Go back to the main web page for CHIP for more detailed instructions on this. (In brief: click here for the library exam papers; and search for "psychology honours historical" papers.)

Steve's sample questions for CHIP lectures 8-13

My sample questions below are in chronological order so the most recent questions are near the end.

Taking the case of memory, what would be the difference in treating it as an applied as opposed to a pure topic of research? Illustrate with examples.

Answer sketch:
The pure approach might look for universal distinctions such as working memory vs. long term memory, episodic vs. semantic memory. An applied approach might study eyewitness testimony, and methods that the police could use to elicit the most from witnesses they are interviewing. For the pure approach, research should test whether the distinctions hold up under very different contexts (at work, for trivial tasks such as chatting, over lifetimes and over a short period), but for some standard test. For applications, the focus will be on all the elements that are important for success e.g. if memory for faces, events, and objects is different, then how can an interview combine three techniques? If recall turns out to depend on the level of the participant's arousal, then how can the interviewer calm down an over-aroused (e.g. terrified) witness, and make an under-aroused witness more alert?

What are the three elements of a scientific "method" that follows the Newtonian pattern? How does the method of experiment relate to this? Illustrate with examples from psychology.

Answer sketch:
Theory, observation, and prediction are the classic Newtonian elements. Observations without theory mean you don't know what aspects of observations should be attended to (is it their age, colour, or IQ that will predict their abilities?). Theory without observations (except perhaps in maths) is just abstractions unconnected with the world; and theory and observation but without prediction is a story that explains things post hoc but doesn't ever test the theory and so rule out other equally plausible stories.
Experiments are a form of observation, but only one form, although they have special advantages: they fix the direction of causation, but more importantly they isolate one factor and by varying it independently of others, shows its effects independently of all other factors.

Discuss the alternative basic argument structures that a scientific paper or book might be organised around. [With a question like this, you should take for granted that the answer should include examples from psychology to illustrate the answer.]

Answer sketch:
Some of these are:
a) A grand theory and all the evidence that supports it. Traditionally a book (e.g. by Piaget) would be the format, but today perhaps a large review article or a paper presenting a meta-analysis of past data. In all cases, the danger is that so much space is taken up with supporting evidence that the critical thought represented by contradictory evidence may not get enough space.
b) One new piece of data and some alternative theories that might explain it. E.g. a report on a new visual illusion or suprising phenomenon.
c) Same logical structure but different purpose: a decisive experiment distinguishing between two rival theories already established. E.g. twin studies showing what mixture of nature and nurture applies to some feature.
d) One theory and the extent to which one new empirical study does or does not support it. The bulk of published psychology papers tend to use this structure. Its weakness is that it doesn't explore alternative theories.

What types of data does psychology use, and is it important for a given topic to employ them all?

Answer sketch:
(Neuro)physiology, behaviour, and what the participants say e.g. measures of attitudes i.e. what they report about their awareness. There are repeated attempts to do science using only one or another of these kinds of data; but generally people feel a psychological explanation is unsatisfactory if it cannot connect them. For example a "theory" of emotions that predicted physiological states, but failed to connect to how people say they felt wouldn't seem to have captured what everyone normally means by "emotion". Conversely theories that predicted responses to attitude surveys but failed to predict behaviour at all would not seem as satisfactory as ones that did. Vision science seems successful because it is advanced in relating the physics of light, the physiology of retinal receptors, the neural pathways of perception, the related behaviour e.g. in experiments on visual discriminations, but also our conscious percepts e.g. visual illusions and work on the categories we perceive.

Qu.6 (A question from 2010)
Pick a current research topic in psychology and offer a critique based on broad historical and conceptual perspectives.

Answer sketch: general:
You would pick a "research topic" partly to suit your own interests and knowledge. For instance, history has made relatively little difference to visual perception, but a huge amount to Abnormal. Here I've picked rather broad topics, partly to make more sense to most of you; but if you happened to know a lot about a narrow topic (e.g. sleep disturbances) that would be just as good.

Looking over my answer sketches, I see I've omitted to mention argument formats. It might be better if I had; and particularly important say in neuro topics, where case studies of brain damaged patients are very important, rather than controlled experiments.

Answer sketch 1:
Picking the case of Abnormal: A striking issue is how Freud's legacy became completely divorced from academic psychology for a long period, until re-merging occurred. This field is also a striking case of the separation, but now potential re-merging, in the data-type focussed on. Freud and now CBT focus on "talking treatments", corresponding to what the patients are internally aware of. Drug approaches go with a physiological approach. The third strand is behavioural (looking at what patients do, regardless of what they say about it). With the recent data showing that regular exercise is as effective in treating depression as the best drugs (and so with CBT), it seems all three strands are independently effective. The contrasts between these strands in this area also show up differences in relationships to neighbouring disciplines: medicine, .... Judged by the standards of how well psychology has met the pre-existing challenge (in this area, that of mental illness), one might say "a whole lot less well than our approach to infectious disease, but a whole lot better than we used to do". This is of course a mainly applied area, or great practical importance. It is also one where the arts vs. science contrast remains active and unresolved: should we focus on the meaning of the illness to patients, or only on viewing it as a materialistic phenomenon of the body?

Answer sketch 2:
Alternatively, picking the case of visual perception: Lots of perception has been shown to stem from the physiology or even the physics of light and of our eye, and subjective perceptions explained partly in those terms. Furthermore people certainly guide a lot of their behaviour by perception: so this topic does particularly well in spanning and connecting the 3 types of psych. data. You might have to look hard for a good example of applied perception (it generally does better in explaining how things work after the fact rather than helping to construct new appliances). It is a case of cross-disciplinary collaboration: a boundary of psychology (connecting to medicine, animal physiology, ....).

Answer sketch 3:
Picking the case of personality: an answer could discuss how this field deals well with the links between behavioural and verbal data (the questionnaire instruments are verbal, but predict behaviour e.g. in what professions different personality styles go into), but doesn't seem to have a strong connection to physiological data. It is primarily a theory field, but the use of personality tests in job selection processes is an example of a big applied connection. It is one of psychology's bigger successes in that many different studies have in the end converged on more or less the same big 5; and that these are dimensions that emerge from the data, and so are new concepts.

Exam qus. 2011

If experiments and published papers can only confirm or disconfirm hypotheses, where do the hypotheses in psychology come from?

Answer sketch:
[Here is a very personal sketch. You might easily design a quite different answer.]

Almost nothing about the origin of hypotheses tends to emerge in published literature in science in general, and psychology in particular. In one way this is a strength: focussing the literature on evidence, not speculations. Just as in a court of law, suspicion should not be mentioned without evidence to back it up. But from the viewpoint of training researchers and understanding the discipline, remaining silent about crucial parts of what it is to be a researcher is unhelpful, even deceitful. Another general problem here is Pirsig's point that it is much faster to generate a hypothesis than to test it; so science must depend (even if this is not admitted) on generating mainly only good hypotheses: there would never be time to disprove all the ones you could think of. So hypotheses must be filtered somehow before they are tested.

In psychology, one obvious answer might be open-ended methods such as focus groups, informal observations. One more technical origin is exploratory factor analysis (FA), where a lot of questionnaire items (and responses) are analysed, and the FA software clusters them into "factors" which however have no meaning yet in theory. A researcher might take such a factor and start to attribute meaning, and to design new items that express this more directly FA software clusters them into "factors" which however have no meaning yet in theory. A researcher might take such a factor and start to attribute meaning, and to design new items that express this more directly.

Another source is other disciplines, which psychologists then adopt and look for psych. evidence. Evolutionary theory is one recent source. Another is rational theory of various kinds (cf. Kahneman's work on human heuristics): hypotheses about what any rational agent should do. Or in emotions: psychologists may adopt hypotheses from the physiology of hormones e.g. adrenalin; or from zoologists observations of displays in other animals; or ...

An apparently lame theory might just be to say hypotheses come from "genius". A way of being less magical about this could be to argue that we all have implicit skills: things we can do and perceive yet cannot articulate how we do it. (Any experiment where you have to use human judgement relies on this, and recording inter-coder reliability is a way of checking that there really is a constant thing being judged there.) Applied to hypotheses, it might be a long process but it wouldn't be mad to generate hypotheses about one's implicit behaviour and then test them out. E.g. many students behave as if underlining bits as they study a text, helps them. But is it true?

Pick a topic in psychology where more than one type of data (behavioural, physiological, or verbal report) has been used. What has the contribution of each type been, and in what way was each essential?

Answer sketch:
This is an invitation to pick almost any topic you have learned about and discuss it from this angle. In the lectures I talked about emotions and their relationship to actions (e.g. fight and flight), physiology (e.g. adrenalin), and what people say about them (ability to perceive emotions). Personality dimensions are based on questionnaires (verbal report) but relate to behaviour such as choice of profession etc. Vision science relates the physiology of the retina and brain; and what percepts we becomne aware of and can report on. Visual illusions make it obvious the role of report plays there. In abnormal psych, "symptoms" may be a mixture of what the patient reports (anxiety, voices in the head), sometimes physiology (cortisone levels), and certainly actions (agitated, difficulty in getting out of bed, ....). And so on.

What is it about psychology that makes the use of statistics so essential? Don't other subjects need statistics just as much?

Answer sketch:

What is the key advantage that experiment gives over other methods in psychology such as case histories of brain damage, or surveys? And what kinds of uncertainty about this advantage nevertheless often remain? Illustrate your answer with examples.

Answer sketch:
Above all, experiments can demonstrate the direction of causality between co-occurring (correlated) factors. However in itself, an experiment showing that A causes B doesn't say anything about whether there is also an effect of B causing A; nor about whether the causal link demonstrated is the usual cause of B in real situations, or an unimportant one (with small effect size).

Exam qus. 2012

What are the most important ways in which psychology differs from other disciplines?

Answer sketch:
[Here is a very personal sketch. You might easily design a quite different answer.] This amounts to: "What is distinctive about psychology compared to other disciplines?"

What should the differences be in how you critically evaluate a piece of work aimed at being applied (e.g. demonstrating a best treatment for ADHD), or aimed at being pure research (e.g. whether impulsiveness is really a personality trait that is distinct from the "Big 5"; or establishing the function of a particular brain area).

Answer sketch:
[Here is a very personal sketch. You might easily design a quite different answer.] This amounts to "What is the fundamental difference between pure and applied disciplines in general; and psychology in particular?"

Exam qus. May 2013

1. A randomised controlled trial is to be conducted on a new treatment for OCD consisting of listening to a particular kind of music in a quiet room. What should the comparison group (which doesn't get the new treatment) receive, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of your choice? Justify your answer both in relation to advancing science and benefiting patients?

Answer sketch:
(The main point of the question is to contrast pure and applied goals for psychological research.)

2. When a physics student learns about force, they haven't fully understood unless they also connect it to their experience of pushing objects. When a biology student learns about rhizomes they haven't fully understood unless they also connect it to their experience of ginger in the kitchen and iris roots in the garden. Is psychology any different from most disciplines in this respect?

Answer sketch:
The general point is that full understanding of a topic includes linking the abstract theory typically lectured and written about, to the learner's personal experience of its concrete manifestations. (There is a limit of course in that some theories are about things out of a normal experience e.g. the far side of the moon, the molecular structure of water.) In psychology however this applies twice over: to how the phenomenon (e.g. being angry) feels to the learner themselves, and to how it appears (is perceived) by the learner when they themselves perceive another person showing anger. One can talk about this in terms of first, second, and third person viewpoints.

Could link this more widely to seeing psychology-relevant data as categorised into observational, physiological, and "introspective" i.e. what a person reports about their thoughts.

Marks for examples other than those given in the course; some marks for the general point, but more marks for the specific application to psychology: the "double" application that gives second person as well as first person, on top of the normally-taught third person viewpoint.

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