Basic Psychology Essay Questions

The joke is that if you ask a psychologist a question, you’ll get a question in return.  “Why do we dream?” you ask, and the response you get in return should be “why would you like to know?” However, in reality, psychologists ask, and answer, fundamental questions about a wide range of topics, from the nature of the mind to the causes of discrimination, and everything in between. Although it’s a challenge to winnow the list down to 20, what follows is a good sampling of psychology’s best attempts to answer its best questions.

1. Is there such a thing as ESP?

There may be no topic in psychology quite as controversial, or as fascinating, as extrasensory perception, or ESP.  There are three forms of ESP that psychologists study: 1. Telepathy- transfer of information from one person to another without known mediation of sensory communication, 2. Clairvoyance- acquisition of information about places, people, or events without mediation of known senses, and 3. Precognition- acquisition of a future event that could not be anticipated through any known processes of inference. In a study of telepathy, or psi, for example, participants are seated in two separate rooms; while one “transmits” signals, the other attempts to “receive” them.  However, critics argue that many of the effects demonstrated in ESP experiments can simply be explained by faulty methodology and sensory “leakage” in which participants inadvertently give away the answers.  The only extra-sensory feature of ESP would be, if this were true, the fact that people who can perform feats involving ESP are actually very good at reading people’s very subtle signals.

2. Why do we dream?

Our dreams mystify us and often leave us waking up confused, disoriented, frightened, or perhaps very, very satisfied. Freud, of course, proposed that our dreams represent unconscious wishes that we’re afraid to express in our waking life. The most recent explanations aren’t totally incompatible with this theory.  According to the activation-synthesis model, dreams are stories that we create out of the random stimulation that occurs in the brain while we sleep. The updated activation-integration-modulation (AIM) model proposes that dreams reflect the activity of regions of the brain active at a particular moment as well as the activity of particular neurotransmitters. This neuroscience explanation regards the stories we make up as reflecting, in part, our hidden desires, but they are not primarily the products of repressed wishes.

3. How can we motivate ourselves more effectively through reinforcement?

We’d all like to be more effective in reaching our goals, and according to behaviorists, the way to improve our effectiveness is by rewarding ourselves for the little steps that take us closer and closer to those desirable outcomes. First, find something you really like to do or something you’d like to have that can, realistically, serve as a reward. Then, take the goal that you are hoping to achieve that, realistically, you could achieve but just haven’t succeeded at yet. Next, work backward from that goal to your present state.  Arrange to give yourself those desired rewards as you inch closer from where you are now to the desired end point. As you start to make progress, only give yourself a reward when you’ve moved forward from where you are now. For example, if you’d like to cut back on your television watching and instead read more often, reward yourself by allowing yourself to watch television only when you’ve read for 20 minutes, then 30, then maybe 2 hours. By the time you’ve gotten to the 2 hour mark, who knows, you may enjoy reading so much that you won’t even care about watching television anymore.    

4.  How can we get our working memory to work for us?

Working memory is that part of your memory system that allows you to keep information actively in “consciousness,” either because you are learning something for the first time, or are trying to recall something you learned in the past. Theoretically, you could keep information in working memory indefinitely if you thought about it and nothing else, but obviously this would not be a very feasible task. The trick is for you to keep information for as long as you need it or be able to haul it into working memory when you need it.  Psychology has three simple tricks to help your working memory: 1. Chunking- by organizing large amounts of information into a smaller number of units (the “magical number of 7 plus or minus 2”), you will be able to store the information much more efficiently but then you have to use step #2; 2. Encoding so you can retrieve- you have to be able to pull up the organizational framework you created at the time of encoding if you’re going to be able to use it later, so you need to follow the adage “If you don’t encode, you can’t retrieve,”; 3. Using “deep” processing-  According to levels of processing theory, the more meaning you put into what you’re trying to remember, the better your chances of remembering it. Even putting a list of words you need to remember into a sentence, rather than just memorizing them through rote, will give you that deeper processing edge.  At the same time, though, we know from eyewitness memory research, people’s memory is highly unreliable. We are likely to forget small details, or change the small details of experiences to fit with what we had expected to have happen.  The classic eyewitness memory research asked participants to estimate the speed of two cars involved in an accident. If they were asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, participants estimated the speed as higher than if asked how fast they were going when they “contacted” each other. Similarly, people can be misled into thinking that an item was on a word list when it in fact was not. If you read a list of words that all relate to the category “sweet” (but don’t actually include “sweet”), people will think that the word “sweet” was on the list.  Relying on your own, or other people’s, eyewitness memory is a risky proposition. If you need to remember something that’s happening in front of you, either write it down or snap a picture with your smartphone!

5. What’s the key to solving life’s problems?

The kinds of problems that psychology can help you solve include a wide range of practical situations that confront people on a daily basis. Whether it’s hooking up a new computer, fixing a broken electrical fixture, arranging the order of foods to cook when you’re preparing a meal, or figuring out the best route home, there are similar steps involved in being a good problem-solver. Psychologists suggest that you first understand the nature of the problem, like rearranging puzzle pieces or putting things in proper order. Then, more importantly, you need to keep an open mind to possible solutions, even ones that may seem a bit out of the ordinary. In fact, sometimes the more unusual, the better. We are all very prone to mental set, and that can be a huge impediment to problem solving. Finally, be ready to start all over if your results were unsuccessful. Holding onto your first answer, even if it’s not a very good one (known as the “confirmation bias”) can impede you from ever coming up with a way out of your dilemma. Rushing ahead to complete a problem is probably the biggest mistake that people make (other than procrastinating too long!

6.  How can we communicate more effectively?

Good communication is the key to our interactions with other people. When we think of how to communicate, we often focus on spoken or written language. However, when it comes to language, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. For example, when you speak you, by definition, must get your point across in linear fashion, meaning that the first words you utter in a sentence will guide the listener to understanding what will follow. Saying “I’m sorry “ at the beginning of a conversation will have a much greater impact, for example, then throwing your apology in at the end of a long explanation. The tone in which you speak lets your listener know whether you’re asking a question or making a statement.  However, if you’re like many people, you may find that you speak your sentences as if they were questions. This can make you sound less confident and can undercut your effectiveness when you’re trying to convince someone to believe that you know what you’re talking about. Your body language may say even more about you than your verbal language.   Most people fail to look others in the eye, slouch, jiggle their hands and feet when they’re nervous, and reveal what they’re really feeling inside through the tiny “microexpressions” on their faces. Learn to control your body language, and you can control the impression you make on others.

7.  What is intelligence (and why should we care)?

This is definitely one of psychology’s “big” questions. The study of intelligence has a long history in psychology, going back at least to the early 1900s when educators sought to test the mental abilities of schoolchildren. There is no one, set definition that psychologists generally agree upon nor is there even now one clear-cut way to measure it.  There are also many controversies regarding such issues as whether intelligence is inherited or not, whether men or women are smarter, whether it can be “trained,” and whether being “intelligent’ even makes a difference in your real-life accomplishments. However, psychologists seem to be coming to an understanding that intelligence is more than just academic knowledge and that any good definition must include such attributes as practical knowledge (“street smarts”), self-understanding (emotional intelligence), and understanding of others (“wisdom”).  We should care about what intelligence is because these skills extend well beyond the classroom and can enrich our lives, and the lives of others, in important ways. 

8.  What does it mean to be self-actualized?

According to Abraham Maslow, who was instrumental in developing the theory of self-actualization, self-actualization is a continuous process of realizing our own unique potential. The theory proposes the famous hierarchy of needs to show that self-actualization sits at the top of all of our motivations. Often, this theory is wrongly described as suggesting that you can’t consider fulfilling your higher-order needs until your lower-order needs are fulfilled. However, you only have to think of a few examples of some of the most famous self-actualized individuals to see that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, Maslow himself believed that many self-actualized people specifically chose to make sometimes life-threatening personal sacrifices in order to fulfill their inner potential. It’s also important to realize that there is no one state of “perfection” that characterizes self-actualization but, instead, each of us has our own idiosyncratic way of achieving inner fulfillment. 

9.  How does the mind-body connection affect our emotions?

Psychologists from William James to Richard Lazarus have struggled with the notion of specifying the ways our mental states are affected by our physical states, and vice versa. William James proposed a theory of emotions that emphasized the body’s role in producing emotional experiences.  Physiologist Carl Lange proposed a similar theory, and so the theory is known by both of their names. The theory proposes that our bodily changes follow directly from the perceptions of an “exciting fact,” and that these bodily changes are the emotions. Physiologist Walter Cannon, regarded the thalamus as the key relay station between the cortex and the autonomic nervous system.  An emotional stimulus activates the thalamus which, in turn, activates the autonomic nervous system (which then produces arousal) and the cortex (which interprets the event and the experience of the emotion). According to Stanley Schachter and his colleague Jerome Singer, emotions are the product of autonomic arousal and the reactions of other people in the environment, or context. The facial feedback hypothesis proposes, instead, that our emotions are determined by the muscles of our face.  If you want to be happy, this suggests, you should smile. Even though no one of these theories may be completely correct, psychologists seem to agree that our emotions are defined, at least in part, by the responses of our bodies, with perhaps the added coloring provided by our thoughts about a given situation.

10.  Which is more important, nature or nurture?

Here’s one of the truly enduring questions of all time. However, despite what you may have learned in your introductory psychology class, there’s no longer a question of “vs” in the nature-nurture debate.  The question instead is a matter of “and,” and “how.”  For example, through the process called epigenesis, while pregnant a stressed mother can change the expression of genes in her unborn child.  Other ways that nature and nurture interact include niche-picking in which children’s genetic predisposition leads them to seek certain environments which, in turn, further alter their development. In addition to these possibilities, the fact is that studies on identical twins, even those reared apart, aren’t all that definitive.  For example, true “identical” twins only occur in 1% of all monozygotic twins.  Furthermore, when we hear the amazing similarities among identical twins reared apart, we forget that they don’t share every single characteristic.  Also, the researchers in these studies were not blind to the hypotheses of the study. The people who adopt the twins reared apart may also have some of the same characteristics, particularly because they had to pass stringent criteria before they could adopt a child. Finally, identical twins who grew up in the same historical period, even if they were reared apart, were also subject to similar influences. We do know that early parenting matters a great deal, especially in providing young children with a secure base of attachment. However, people are remarkably resilient and change is possible throughout life. The good news is that, even if nature didn’t give you everything you wished it had, and even if your parents weren’t always there for you when you were little, you don’t have to be fated to play out the hand that life dealt you, no matter what your age.

To sum up, I hope you agree with this top 10 list of psychology’s great questions and answers. It’s quite likely that these top 10 don’t include your personal favorites, or that you agree completely with these answers. However, you’ll almost certainly agree with the idea that psychology has the potential to help us not only understand life’s mysteries, but also to invent new mysteries for us to continue to explore.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

Essay Writing Guide for Psychology Students

Saul McLeod published 2014

Before you write your essay it's important to analyse the task and understand exactly what the essay question is asking. It is possible your lecturer will give you some advice - pay attention to this as it will help you plan your answer.

Next conduct preliminary reading based on your lecture notes. At this stage it's not crucial to have a robust understanding of key theories or studies, but you should at least have a general 'gist' of the literature.

After reading, plan a response to the task. This plan could be in the form of a mind map, a summary table, or by writing a core statement (which encompass the entire argument of your essay in just a few sentences).

After writing your plan conduct supplementary reading and refine your plan and make it more detailed.

It is tempting to skip these preliminary steps and just write the first draft while reading at the same time. However, reading and planning will make the essay writing process easier, quicker, and ensure a higher quality essay is produced.

Now let us look at what constitutes a good essay in psychology. There are a number of important features.

  1. A Global Structure - structure the material in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. Each paragraph / statement should follow sensibly from its predecessor. The essay should 'flow'. The introduction, main body and conclusion should all be linked.
  2. Each paragraph should comprise a main theme which are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence).

  3. Knowledge and Understanding - recognise, recall and show understanding on a range of scientific material that accurately reflects the main theoretical perspectives.
  4. Critical Evaluation - arguments should be supported by appropriate evidence and/or theory from the literature. Evidence of independent thinking, insight and evaluation of the evidence.
  5. Quality of Written Communication - writing clearly and succinctly with appropriate use of paragraphs, spelling and grammar. All sources referenced accurately and in line with APA guidelines.

In the main body of the essay every paragraph should demonstrate both knowledge and critical evaluation.

There should also be an appropriate balance between these two essay components. Try to aim for about a 60/40 split if possible. Most students make the mistake of writing too much knowledge and not enough evaluation (which is the difficult bit).

It is best to structure your essay according to key themes. Themes are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence). Choose relevant points only, ones that most reveal the theme or help to make a convincing and interesting argument.

Knowledge and Understanding

Remember that an essay is simply a discussion / argument on paper. Don't make the mistake of writing all the information you know regarding a particular topic.

You need to be concise, and clearly articulate your argument. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.

Each paragraph should have a purpose / theme, and make a number of points - which need to be support by high quality evidence. Be clear why each point is is relevant to the argument. It would be useful at the beginning of each paragraph if you explicitly outlined the theme being discussed (.e.g. cognitive development, social development etc.).

Try not to overuse quotations in your essays. It is more appropriate to use original content to demonstrate your understanding.

Psychology is a science so you must support your ideas with evidence (not your own personal opinion). If you are discussing a theory or research study make sure you cite the source of the information.

Note this is not the author of a textbook you have read - but the original source / author(s) of the theory or research study.

For example:

Bowlby (1951) claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e. there is a critical period.


Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fullfil the next one, and so on.

As a general rule make sure there is at least one citation (i.e. name of psychologist and date of publication) in each paragraph.

Remember to answer the essay question. Underline the key words in the essay title. Don't make the mistake of simply writing everything you know of a particular topic, be selective. Each paragraph in your essay should contribute to answering the essay question.

Critical Evaluation

In simple terms this means outlining the strengths and limitations of a theory or research study.

There are many ways you can critically evaluate:

  • Methodological evaluation of research -

    Is the study valid / reliable? Is the sample biased or can we generalize the findings to other populations? What are the strengths and limitations of the method used and data obtained?

  • Be careful to ensure that any methodological criticisms are justified and not trite. Rather than hunting for weaknesses in every study; only highlight limitations which make you doubt the conclusions that the authors have drawn – e.g. where an alternative explanation might be equally likely because something hasn’t been adequately controlled.

  • Compare or contrast different theories -

    Outline how the theories are similar and how they differ. This could be two (or more) theories of personality / memory / child development etc. Also try to communicate the value of the theory / study.
  • Debates or perspectives -

    Refer to debates such as nature or nurture, reductionism vs. holism or the perspectives in psychology. For example, would they agree or disagree with a theory or the findings of the study?

  • What are the ethical issues of the research? -

    Does a study involve ethical issues such as deception, privacy, psychological and physical harm.
  • Gender bias -

    If research is biased towards men or women it does not provide a clear view of the behavior that has been studied. A dominantly male perspective is known as an androcentric bias.

  • Cultural bias -

    Is the theory / study ethnocentric? Psychology is predominantly a white, Euro-American enterprise. In some texts, over 90% of studies have US participants, who are predominantly white and middle class. Does the theory or study being discussed judge other cultures by Western standards?
  • Animal Research -

    This raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals. The main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.

    Animal research also raises the issue of extrapolation. Can we generalize from studies on animals to humans as their anatomy & physiology is different from humans?

The PEC System

It is very important to elaborate on your evaluation. Don't just write a shopping list of brief (one or two sentence) evaluation points. Instead make sure you expand on your points, remember, quality of evaluation is most important than quantity.

When you are writing an evaluation paragraph use the PEC system.

  • Make your Point.

  • Explain how and why the point is relevant.

  • Discuss the Consequences / implications of the theory or study. Are they positive or negative?

For Example

    (Point) It is argued that psychoanalytic therapy is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority.

    (Explain) Because psychoanalytic therapy involves talking and gaining insight, and is costly and time-consuming, it is argued that it is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority. Evidence suggests psychoanalytic therapy works best if the client is motivated and has a positive attitude.

    (Consequences) A depressed client’s apathy, flat emotional state and lack of motivation limit the appropriateness of psychoanalytic therapy for depression. Furthermore, the levels of dependency of depressed clients mean that transference is more likely to develop.

Using Research Studies in your Essays

Research studies can either be knowledge or evaluation.

  • If you refer to the procedures and findings of a study, this shows knowledge and understanding.
  • If you comment on what the studies shows, and what it supports and challenges about the theory in question, this shows evaluation.

Writing an Introduction

It is often best to write your introduction when you have finished the main body of the essay, so that you have a good understanding to the topic area.

If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your introduction.

Ideally the introduction should;

  1. Identify the subject of the essay and define the key terms.

  2. Highlight the major issues which “lie behind” the question. Let the reader know how you will focus your essay by identifying the main themes to be discussed.

  3. “Signpost” the essay’s key argument, (and, if possible, how this argument is structured).

Introductions are very important as first impressions count and they can create a halo effect in the mind of the lecturer grading your essay. If you start off well then you are more likely to be forgiven for the odd mistake later one.

Writing a Conclusion

So many students either forget to write a conclusion or fail to give it the attention it deserves. If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your conclusion.

Ideally the conclusion should summarize the key themes / arguments of your essay. State the take home message – don’t sit on the fence, instead weigh up the evidence presented in the essay and make a decision which side of the argument has more support.

Also, you might like to suggest what future research may need to be conducted and why (read the discussion section of journal articles for this).

Don't include new information / arguments (only information discussed in the main body of the essay).

If you are unsure of what to write read the essay question and answer it in one paragraph.

Points that unite or embrace several themes can be used to great effect as part of your conclusion.

The Importance of Flow

Obviously, what you write is important, but how you communicate your ideas / arguments has a significant influence on your overall grade. Most students may have similar information / content in their essays, but the better students communicate this information concisely and articulately.

When you have finished the first draft of your essay you must check if it 'flows'. This is an important feature of quality of communication (along with spelling and grammar).

This means that the paragraphs follow a logical order (like the chapters in a novel). Have a global structure with themes arranged in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. You might want to rearrange (cut and paste) paragraphs to a different position in your essay if they don't appear to fit in with the essay structure.

To improve the flow of your essay make sure the last sentence of one paragraph links to first sentence of the next paragraph. This will help the essay flow and make it easier to read.

Finally, only repeat citations when it is unclear which study / theory you are discussing. Repeating citations unnecessarily disrupts the flow of an essay.


The reference section is the list of all the sources cited in the essay (in alphabetical order). It is not a bibliography (a list of the books you used).

In simple terms every time you cite/refer to a name (and date) of a psychologist you need to reference the original source of the information.

If you have been using textbooks this is easy as the references are usually at the back of the book and you can just copy them down. If you have been using websites then you may have a problem as they might not provide a reference section for you to copy.

References need to be set out APA style:


Author, A. A. (year). Title of work. Location: Publisher.

Journal Articles

Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (year). Article title. Journal Title, volume number(issue number), page numbers

A simple way to write your reference section is use Google scholar. Just type the name and date of the psychologist in the search box and click on the 'cite' link.

Next, copy and paste the APA reference into the reference section of your essay.

Once again remember that references need to be in alphabetical order according to surname.

Further Information

Writing Skills for Psychologists

Study Skills

Essay Writing Guide

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Essay writing guide for psychology students. Retrieved from

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