Writing in Psychology

For most (if not all) your psychology assignments, you'll be required to critically analyse relevant psychological theory and research. If you're just starting out in psychology, you might not know what this involves. This guide will give you an idea of what it means to critically analyse research, along with some practical suggestions for how you can demonstrate your critical-thinking skills. 

What is critical analysis, and why is it important?

Critical analysis involves thinking about the merits and drawbacks of what you're reading. It doesn't necessarily mean tearing apart what you've read-it could also involve highlighting what an author or researcher has done well, and thinking through the implications of a study on the broader research area.

Critical analysis is extremely important in evaluating published research: Psychology studies often build on the limitations of others, and it's important to assess the merits of a study before accepting its conclusions. Furthermore, as a student, your critical analysis of the literature is a way of showing your marker that you've engaged with the field.

What makes critical analysis in psychology different, and how do I critically analyse the literature?

In psychology, critical analysis typically involves evaluating both theory and empirical research (i.e., scientific studies). When critically analysing theory, relevant questions include:

  • Does the theory make sense (i.e., is it logical)?
  • Can the theory explain psychological phenomena (i.e., what we actually observe in terms of people's behaviour), or does it leave some things unexplained?
  • Have any studies been conducted to specifically test this theory, and if so, what did they find? Can we believe this study's conclusions?

In terms of evaluating empirical research, relevant questions include:

  • Does the study's research question come logically from the literature the authors have reviewed?
  • Are there any issues with the participant sample (e.g., not representative of the population being studied)?
  • Do the measures (e.g., questionnaires) actually assess the process of interest?
  • Have the appropriate statistical analyses been conducted?
  • Do the authors make appropriate conclusions based on their findings, or do they go beyond their findings (i.e., overstate their conclusions)?

Before you critically analyse research, it's important to make sure that you understand what is being argued. We have some resources that can help you get the most out of your reading (Reading strategies), as well as some note-taking strategies (Note-taking). The Cornell method might be especially useful, since it involves jotting down your own thoughts/opinions as you're reading, rather than simply summarising information.

As you get more practise critically analysing the literature, you'll find that it starts to feel more natural, and becomes something that you engage in automatically. However, as you're starting out, deliberately thinking through some of the questions in the previous section can help add structure to this process.

What does critical analysis look like?

After you've had a think about the merits and drawbacks of a published piece of work, how do you actually show that you've engaged in critical analysis? Below are some examples of sentences where critical analysis has been demonstrated:

  • "Although Brown's (1995) theory can account for [abc], it cannot explain [xyz]."
  • "This study is a seminal one in the area, given that it was the first to investigate...".
  • "In order to clarify the role of [abc], the study could have controlled for...".
  • "This study was a significant improvement over earlier efforts to investigate this topic because...".

What these statements have in common is that they are evaluative: They show that you're making a judgment about the theory or empirical study you're discussing. In general, your marker will be able to tell whether you have engaged in critical analysis by seeing if you've made such statements throughout your work.

Critical analysis in psychology: Some common pitfalls

"The sample size of the study was too small."

Your critiques need to have evidence behind them. Making statements such as this is fine, as long as you follow them up with your reasoning (in this case, on what basis have you decided that the study didn't have enough participants?).

"The study didn't look at participants of [this age/this gender/this ethnic group]."

Traditionally, the area of psychology has tended to focus on WEIRD (white, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) individuals. This is certainly an issue for the generalisability of research findings. However, if you make this type of statement, you can further demonstrate your critical-thinking skills by talking about why you think this is an issue for the particular topic you're researching: For example, how might the results of a study differ if a non-WEIRD participant sample had been recruited instead?

Being too critical.

Chances are that if a study is a highly cited one in your area, it probably has some merits (even if it's just that it drew attention to an important topic). You should always be on the lookout for strengths as well as limitations, be they theoretical (i.e., a cohesive, well-elaborated theory) or experimental (i.e., a clever study design).