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Psychology Resources

Exercises for promoting Critical Thinking in Psychology

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Andrew Geoghegan

The following activities and ideas have been generated to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills within the context of psychology. Following the name of each activity is the critical thinking element or principle that it addresses and the instructions which appear on each set of exercises. Each topic has been formatted into a single file so that you can print them out from your browser and use them as is for your classes. An additional link has been provided for the exercises with the answers. We are still working on on-line self grading versions of each exercise and will provide the links as we get the forms worked out.

  • Inference vs. observation / analyze assumptions and biases;
    Students decide whether observations are objective or interpretive.
    • Psychology is an empirical science. Knowledge about behavior must, in so far as possible, be based on objective observation, evidence, and data. Assumptions and inferences should be avoided, and great care should be taken to limit ones conclusions about behavior to what we have observed rather than forming interpretations of what we have observed. If observers were asked to record what they had seen while watching others, statements such as the ones that follow might have been recorded. Put an (O) by each statement that you believe is objective and put an (I) by each statement which includes and inference or interpretation.
    • Instructor Copy with answers
  • Operational Definitions / defining terms;
    Students decide which terms in hypotheses need defining, and define them.
    • Whenever we have to investigate some aspect of behavior that is vague or may have multiple meanings, we may want to define such terms or concepts in ways that are precise, measurable, and concrete. Such definitions are called operational definitions. Below are some hypotheses that are being researched. Identify which terms in each hypothesis should be operationally defined, and then give an example of how each of these terms might be defined so that the hypotheses can be more clearly tested.
    • Instructor Copy with answers
  • Correlation / consider alternative explanations;
    Students give alternative interpretations of correlational results
    • Correctional studies examine the relationships between variables in a study.Direct relationships (positive correlations) exist when high scores on one variable are associated with high scores on another variable, as when intelligence is positively correlated with grade point average. Inverse relationships (negative correlations) exist when high scores on one variable are associated with low scores on a second variable, as when the amount of sleep one gets is negatively correlated with levels of irritability and anxiety.

      Demonstrating that a correlation exists does not prove that changes in one variable are the cause of changes in the other, partly because other factors which are undetected may be influencing both known variables. Thus, knowing that a correlation exits may lead to two or more different interpretations of the correlation. For the studies described below, decide whether the correlation is positive or negative and give two explanations for the finding.
    • Instructor Copy with answers
  • Jumping to Conclusions / analyze assumptions and biases
    Students detect errors made in interpreting research results
    • In each of the following situations, the conclusion may be erroneous or is not justified by the facts. In the space provided, describe the error or errors in thinking or methodology that invalidate the conclusion and suggest changesthat could be made in the study that might allow for the conclusion given.
    • Instructor Copy with answers
  • Faulty Thinking / avoid oversimplification, overgeneralization fallacies;
    Students identify common fallacies in psychological thinking
    • Psychological thinking requires that observations and conclusions based on observations avoid simplistic, fallacious reasoning. Common fallacies in our reasoning include the following:
      • Appeal to ignorance. Argues that some claim is true because it cannot be proven to be false, or the opposite: that some claim must be false because it cannot be proven to be true. Ex: No one has proved that animals dream, so it must not be true.
      • Slippery slope. If the first step in a "possible" series of events occurs, the other possible steps in the series must inevitably occur. Ex: Once someone uses an illegal drug like marijuana, they will become heroin addicts eventually.
      • False alternatives. This involves "either/or" thinking in which some classification is presumed to be exclusive or exhaustive, such as when we overlook the alternatives that exist between the extremes of two poles. Ex: Any experience that doesnt kill you will make you stronger.
      • Hasty generalizations. If we tend to form a general conclusion based on an exceptional case, or on a very small sample, or on a biased sample, we may have overgeneralized. Ex: I know that boys raised by single mothers are effeminate, because thats what happened to my cousin Michael.
      • Questionable analogies. We may sometimes try to compare apples to oranges, or try to make two situations seem more similar that they are. Ex: When you put a bridge girder under too much stress, it breaks. The same thing happens with people.
    • The statements below and others like them are common in discussions of human behavior and psychology. Identify the fallacies they represent. (Links to more complete discussions of the above fallacies are provided here and on the Table of Contents page)
    • Instructor Copy with answers
  • Thinking Creatively / consider alternative explanations
    Students get practice in thinking "outside the box"
    • Critical thinking is akin to creative thinking. Thinking creatively means viewing problems or questions in novel, unusual, or untypical ways. It means looking at things from a different perspective, "seeing" in ways that arent bound by custom, norms, or habit. Thinking critically about behavior may benefit from any effort we make to expand our creative thinking abilities.

      The exercises below are most valuable when we first consider them on our own, then discuss them or share them with others in a group to see how others have defined the problem or have taken a different view. To make it a little more interesting, eliminate all of the ideas that are duplicated or common to at least one other person and determine the most creative contributor by tallying who has the most unduplicated ideas.
    • Instructor Copy with answers

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Common Sense and Psychology

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Matthew Westra

People often refer to their knowledge and skills as common sense. While this seems familiar and sensible, there needs to be a closer examination of just what common sense is and is not. This series of web pages will help explore the concept, and maybe change some of your ideas.

Spend a moment trying to define Common Sense.

Ask yourself, "What kinds of things are Common Sensical?"


  • How many functional teats (milking nipples) does a cow have?
    • 4, 6, or 8?
  • Lobsters must be cooked while alive. They make a high pitched "screaming" noise when put in boiling water to cook. They only make this sound when put in tail first, not when put in head first.
    • Why?
  • A TV ad from a Law Firm says:
    "The insurance companies didn't make billions of dollars by PAYING claims."
    • Is this true?
    • What EXACTLY is being said?
    • Have they made Billions of Dollars?
    • How have they made money?

Lets try a Common Sense Test in Psychology

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Last Modified: 1/5/12