Thinking in psychology can be defined as “the cognitive behavior in which ideas, images, mental representations, or other hypothetical elements of thought are experienced or manipulated.” Thinking includes imagining, remembering, problem solving, concept formation, and many other processes. Thinking may be said to have two defining characteristics:
- It is covert and not directly observable but must be inferred from actions and/or self-reports
- It is symbolic and involves working with mental representations (“thinking”, n.d.)
This article will focus on the manner of thinking psychologists engage in and why it is important to understand the process of research in psychology.
History of psychological schools of thought
Pre World War II, there existed two main schools of thought within psychology: the North American and the German-Austrian. The German school of psychology leaned towards qualitative descriptions and detailed explanations rather than just objective scores. They viewed different aspects of the mind as a part of a complex whole and the relationship between the whole and parts was studied. German psychology was also concerned with understanding individual cases and analysing exceptions. It was also looking at individual differences that could not be quantified. German psychology focused on collecting facts and information and was more concerned with gathering insights than making predictions (Toomela, 2007).
Post World War II, the German-Austrian school of thought lost popularity in mainstream psychology and we now follow the American school of thought. Some of the limitations of this school of thought arises from the lack of the above-mentioned characteristics of the German school of thought. Psychological testing and experiments done without considering the contextual details can lead to not seeing the full picture. The American school of thought is also focused on generalising rules for a group rather than studying the exceptions and understanding nuances. Modern psychology focuses on the accumulation of facts rather than thinking. However, this also means that there is an importance placed on rigorous scientific procedures that aim for objectivity (Toomela, 2007).
The process of psychological research
Research usually begins when the researcher makes an interesting observation that they would like to explore further. Research is essential to science and the scientific method. Once an observation has been made, the researcher uses theories to understand and explain the observation. Theories are also important to establish links between different observations and concepts as well as make predictions about future observations. These predictions are called hypotheses. These hypotheses need to be confirmed using research to further establish a framework of knowledge and gain further confidence in the theory (Gray et. al., n.d.).
Psychologists use various methods to conduct research to describe and predict behaviour of individuals. These include case studies which are an in-depth study of one or a few individuals; surveys which are useful for collecting data from a large number of individuals about their opinions, attitudes and behaviours; naturalistic observations which involve observing behaviour while it is occurring naturally in situations and making inferences from it (Gray et. al., n.d.).
Thinking like a psychologist in research would involve understanding the theories that can explain your observations, creating hypotheses that logically follow the theories and creating a research design that would be best suited for proving the hypothesis. It is also important for psychologists to understand and practice the scientific method of research. There are many pseudoscientific claims made in the area of psychology and it is important to distinguish them from actual scientific data. The main characteristics of scientific research is that it is:
- Empirical, i.e., it is derived from experience.
- Repeatable, i.e., the results of a research project should be replicable by other researchers in the future.
- Self-correcting, i.e., collecting new evidence should be accepted to draw firm conclusions and contradictory evidence should be used to revise and correct existing knowledge.
- Relies on rigorous observation, i.e., the research methods used in science are carefully selected and controlled by the researcher to draw valid conclusions.
- Strives to be objective, i.e., different researchers must make the same observations in the same situation and not make observations based on personal biases. Objectivity is slightly difficult in psychology as human behaviour is often changing, therefore, researchers in psychology use operational definitions which specify what exactly the concept seeks to study, how it will be measured and defines what behaviours need to be observed (Gray et. al., n.d.).
Therefore, a psychologist doing research in their field would not only think about the observations and theories but also about whether or not the research method they are using is scientific in nature and it can produce reliable and valid information. This is what distinguishes an actual psychologist from a pseudo psychologist.
Critical thinking as a psychologist
Most people try to understand and explain behaviour that they observe on a daily basis, for example, why did this person choose one college over the other or why two people don’t get along well. However, this line of thinking does not involve the scientific method we discussed above. This search for explanations in common activities people engage without scientific research in is called naive or intuitive psychology. Intuitive thinking is prone to many biases and errors. Some of the commonly made mistakes are: attribution error which refers to explaining someone’s behaviour only using their personality and disposition and not taking external factors into consideration, statistical reasoning errors which are estimates people make on the frequency of an event happening that are not based on data collection or accurate calculations, overconfidence errors which is the belief that one is right more often than they actually are and that their explanations are more accurate than they actually are. Overconfidence errors can also be explained by some common biases in thinking like hindsight bias where people believe that they could have accurately predicted an event after it has occurred. They tend to think they “knew it all along” that this event was going to happen and it was inevitable. Confirmation bias is another common bias in thinking where people only notice and pay attention to information that agree with their beliefs and attitudes. False consensus is a bias that people tend to overestimate the number of people who agree with them and share their beliefs (Gray et. al., n.d.).
Therefore, as a psychologist one must be aware of their preconceived notions and challenge their own persisting beliefs about the world that are not based on facts and evidence. Psychologists need to be open to changing their minds and accepting when they are wrong. For example, a psychologist who believes that punishment is a good method to stop an undesirable behaviour cannot base their hypothesis on this belief alone, they will need to find scientific theories that are backed by evidence that also support this claim. The source of the scientific information is also crucial. Owing to the nature of content discussed in psychology, many people who are not necessarily experts make claims and dispense information that may not be very reliable. Life coaches, authors of self-help books that are not qualified in psychology tend to give out advice in areas concerning psychology. It is very important to identify qualified researchers and scientists in psychology and use them as sources of information. The research process also needs to be carefully analysed to ensure there are no controversies or misreporting of evidence. As a psychologist, it is also important to look at information presented in an oversimplified manner critically. This includes information that does not include the details and nuances of the research but only discusses information with a shock value. This includes correlational research being presented as a cause-effect relation when it is wrong (Gray et. al., n.d.).
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Therefore, a psychologist must engage in critical thinking that is based on scientific thinking. They should be open to criticism and reevaluation of their beliefs and ideas. It is important to understand that “common-sense ideas” are not always accurate and can be disproved by research.
Gray, K., Arnott-Hill, E., & Benson, O. Introduction to Psychology. Pressbooks.
Thinking. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved 30 May 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/thinking.
Toomela, A. (2007) Culture of Science: Strange History of the Methodological Thinking in Psychology. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science. 41, 6–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-007-9004-0.