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Writing in Psychology


Like any other discipline, the field of psychology requires students to think critically and write effectively. Writing assignments allow close investigation of the mental processes and behaviors of humans and animals. Students are expected to think about how the people in our lives display or mirror the various concepts and topics of study. Also, students will need to analyze other specific materials, journal articles and textbook chapters, for example. Instructors will measure how well student synthesize information obtained from other sources by how well students articulate their findings in their own writing.

Psychologists write for various audiences, publishing articles for their peers’ review; presenting research at conferences; lending expertise on public forums to perhaps influence public opinion; recommending policy changes; and, as professors, preparing lectures and course plans.

The challenge for students is to learn how to write in similar fashion, presenting data and analysis as cogently, logically, and neutrally as possible.

The Kinds of Questions Psychologists Ask

At first glance, the kinds of questions that arise from human behavior, human interactions, human development, animal cognition, etc., may seem limitless. Yet, with a narrow focus, questions become manageable and lend themselves to restricted investigations.

Though they cross a huge range of topics, the more specific the question, the more likely a workable hypothesis will evolve.

For example, a student may ask: How are veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan emotionally affected by changes in their personal relationships? Are their relationships affected by their experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and if so, how is their sense of self impacted?


How does blood flow in the brain affect the dopamine production of Alzheimer’s patients in their final stages of cognitive decline?

Writing Conventions in Psychology

Effective writing in psychology will ALWAYS demonstrate
•A clear and directly stated HYPOTHESIS
•Supportive, timely information
•Critical analysis and extended discussion of gathered material
•Suitable formatting (APA style) including correct citations within a paper and listed on a REFERENCE page.
•Appropriate language, including correct grammar, syntax, and locutions.


Association for Psychological Science
Washington: American Psychological Association, 1927–. Formerly called Psychological Abstracts. This database provides more than 2.5 million references to journal articles, books, book chapters, and dissertations in psychology and related fields published from 1840 to the present. Most sources include abstracts; some also provide a complete list of cited works and links to publications that cite the source.

American Psychological Association
The site for the discipline’s premier organization, providing news from the field; a roundup of selected research on topics such as anger, trauma, addictions, and depression; and information about the organization, such as the APA’s Code of Ethics. Some of the information on this site is available to members only, though some of it, such as the PsycINFO database and APA journals, are available through the Alden library.

National Institute of Mental Health
From the federal agency charged with research into mental health and illness, this site offers useful information about health topics and statistics, with links to current research findings and clinical trials.

Social Psychology Network
A deep directory of resources on topics such as gender and psychology, social cognition, and interpersonal psychology as well as information on programs and organizations, research reports online, and social research groups. The site is maintained by Scott Plous at Wesleyan University.

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Ed. W. Edward Craighead and Charles B. Nemeroff. 3rd ed. 4 vols. New York: Wiley, 2001. Defines and discusses terms, theories, methodology, and issues in psychological practice and offers brief biographies of important psychologists.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

(DSM-IV). 4th ed. rev. Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 2000. Classifies and describes mental disorders and includes diagrams to aid diagnosis as well as a glossary of technical terms. A fifth edition is in development, with publication projected for 2012.

Encyclopedia of Human Behavior

Ed. V. S. Ramachandran. 4 vols. San Diego: Academic Press, 1994. Offers articles on a wide range of topics, such as left- or right-handedness, blushing, interpersonal communications, and intelligence. Each article provides an overview of the current state of knowledge about a topic and provides references to research.

Encyclopedia of Mental Health

Ed. Howard S. Friedman et al. 3 vols. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998. Includes substantial articles on major disciplines in the field, research areas, and topics of public interest. Designed for both students and health professionals, this work provides current and thorough coverage of mental disorders, treatments, personality traits, and psychological aspects of such topics as television viewing, parenting, and homelessness.

Encyclopedia of Psychology

Ed. Alan E. Kazdin. 8 vols. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2000. The most thorough and scholarly treatment of psychology topics, including methodology, findings, advances in research, and applications.

Handbook of Psychology

Ed. Irving B. Weiner. 12 vols. New York: Wiley, 2003. A thematically arranged overview of research in the field, with volumes devoted to history; research methods; experimental psychology; and developmental, clinical, educational, organizational, and forensic psychology.

Mental Measurements Yearbook

Lincoln: Buros Institute of Mental Measurements, 1938–. An essential reference work for those interested in psychological tests available to researchers. This work surveys and reviews tests of aptitude, education, achievement, and personality and includes bibliographies of related research.

Types of Writing Assignments

Reflective Papers:

These assignments typically ask the student to think about and describe how one’s own experiences demonstrate psychological principles and/ or concepts. For example, a student might write about her own struggle with smoking cigarettes at a young age and reflect on how peer pressure perhaps contributed to her desire to fit in with a group.

Reaction Papers:

These assignments typically ask the student to think about and describe a response to a specific source – article, book, web site, movie – and how that source demonstrates something about psychological principles or concepts. For example, a student might write about the movie “The Help” and describe, perhaps, a mixed portrayal of race relations of the era.

Literature Reviews:

These assignments typically ask the student to report on and evaluate some aspect of psychology that addresses a specific topic. A literature review surveys the findings of others and often, if the review is meant to be critical, argues a case. Depending on the instructor, it may be presented as an annotated bibliography. For example, a student might present findings from the last five years that speculate about the causes of memory loss in an effort to show how new pharmaceuticals have little effect on delaying or improving loss.

Research Papers:

These assignments typically ask the student to select a manageable topic, form a HYPOTHESIS and support it throughout. The student is expected to survey the research, demonstrate understanding of it, as well as of some of the current debates within the circles or researchers. The paper should cite findings that both support and counter the hypothesis. For example, a student may research the topic of whether or not Facebook is a hindrance to traditional understandings of intimacy. If the student incorporates surveys, questionnaires, etc., into the discussion, that “field” research presents its findings in line with other published materials.

Peer-reviewed journals are the core bank of materials students are expected to examine in analysis. EVERY research paper is expected to analyze research on the topic at hand.