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Definition of psychology

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The Roots of Psychology

The word psychology was formed by combining the Greek psychē (meaning “breath, principle of life, life, soul,”) with – logia (which comes from the Greek logos , meaning “speech, word, reason”). An early use appears in Nicholas Culpeper’s mid-17th century translation of Simeon Partliz’s A New Method of Physick , in which it is stated that “Psychologie is the knowledg of the Soul.” Today, psychology is concerned with the science or study of the mind and behavior. Many branches of psychology are differentiated by the specific field to which they belong, such as animal psychology, child psychology, and sports psychology.

Example Sentences

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'psychology.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback .

Word History

New Latin psychologia , from psych- + -logia -logy

1749, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Phrases Containing psychology

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Cite this Entry

“Psychology.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/psychology. Accessed 13 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of psychology, medical definition, medical definition of psychology, more from merriam-webster on psychology.

Nglish: Translation of psychology for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of psychology for Arabic Speakers

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Encyclopedia Britannica

Early history

Behaviourism, freud and his followers, after world war ii and sputnik.

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William James

Read a brief summary of this topic

psychology , scientific discipline that studies mental states and processes and behaviour in humans and other animals.

The discipline of psychology is broadly divisible into two parts: a large profession of practitioners and a smaller but growing science of mind , brain , and social behaviour. The two have distinctive goals, training, and practices, but some psychologists integrate the two.

(Read Sigmund Freud’s 1926 Britannica essay on psychoanalysis.)

In Western culture , contributors to the development of psychology came from many areas, beginning with philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle . Hippocrates philosophized about basic human temperaments (e.g., choleric, sanguine , melancholic) and their associated traits. Informed by the biology of his time, he speculated that physical qualities, such as yellow bile or too much blood, might underlie differences in temperament ( see also humour ). Aristotle postulated the brain to be the seat of the rational human mind, and in the 17th century René Descartes argued that the mind gives people the capacities for thought and consciousness : the mind “decides” and the body carries out the decision—a dualistic mind-body split that modern psychological science is still working to overcome. Two figures who helped to found psychology as a formal discipline and science in the 19th century were Wilhelm Wundt in Germany and William James in the United States . James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) defined psychology as the science of mental life and provided insightful discussions of topics and challenges that anticipated much of the field’s research agenda a century later.

Woman lying on couch at doctors office, psychology

During the first half of the 20th century, however, behaviourism dominated most of American academic psychology. In 1913 John B. Watson , one of the influential founders of behaviourism, urged reliance on only objectively measurable actions and conditions, effectively removing the study of consciousness from psychology. He argued that psychology as a science must deal exclusively with directly observable behaviour in lower animals as well as humans, emphasized the importance of rewarding only desired behaviours in child rearing, and drew on principles of learning through classical conditioning (based on studies with dogs by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and thus known as Pavlovian conditioning ). In the United States most university psychology departments became devoted to turning psychology away from philosophy and into a rigorous empirical science.

Beginning in the 1930s, behaviourism flourished in the United States, with B.F. Skinner leading the way in demonstrating the power of operant conditioning through reinforcement. Behaviourists in university settings conducted experiments on the conditions controlling learning and “shaping” behaviour through reinforcement, usually working with laboratory animals such as rats and pigeons. Skinner and his followers explicitly excluded mental life, viewing the human mind as an impenetrable “black box,” open only to conjecture and speculative fictions. Their work showed that social behaviour is readily influenced by manipulating specific contingencies and by changing the consequences or reinforcement (rewards) to which behaviour leads in different situations. Changes in those consequences can modify behaviour in predictable stimulus-response (S-R) patterns. Likewise, a wide range of emotions , both positive and negative, may be acquired through processes of conditioning and can be modified by applying the same principles.

Sigmund Freud

Concurrently, in a curious juxtaposition , the psychoanalytic theories and therapeutic practices developed by the Vienna-trained physician Sigmund Freud and his many disciples—beginning early in the 20th century and enduring for many decades—were undermining the traditional view of human nature as essentially rational. Freudian theory made reason secondary: for Freud, the unconscious and its often socially unacceptable irrational motives and desires, particularly the sexual and aggressive, were the driving force underlying much of human behaviour and mental illness . Making the unconscious conscious became the therapeutic goal of clinicians working within this framework.

Freud proposed that much of what humans feel, think, and do is outside awareness, self-defensive in its motivations, and unconsciously determined. Much of it also reflects conflicts grounded in early childhood that play out in complex patterns of seemingly paradoxical behaviours and symptoms. His followers, the ego psychologists, emphasized the importance of the higher-order functions and cognitive processes (e.g., competence motivation , self-regulatory abilities) as well as the individual’s psychological defense mechanisms . They also shifted their focus to the roles of interpersonal relations and of secure attachment in mental health and adaptive functioning, and they pioneered the analysis of these processes in the clinical setting.

After World War II , American psychology, particularly clinical psychology, grew into a substantial field in its own right, partly in response to the needs of returning veterans. The growth of psychology as a science was stimulated further by the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and the opening of the Russian-American space race to the Moon . As part of this race, the U.S. government fueled the growth of science. For the first time, massive federal funding became available, both to support behavioral research and to enable graduate training. Psychology became both a thriving profession of practitioners and a scientific discipline that investigated all aspects of human social behaviour, child development , and individual differences, as well as the areas of animal psychology, sensation , perception , memory , and learning.

Training in clinical psychology was heavily influenced by Freudian psychology and its offshoots. But some clinical researchers, working with both normal and disturbed populations, began to develop and apply methods focusing on the learning conditions that influence and control social behaviour. This behaviour therapy movement analyzed problematic behaviours (e.g., aggressiveness , bizarre speech patterns, smoking , fear responses) in terms of the observable events and conditions that seemed to influence the person’s problematic behaviour. Behavioral approaches led to innovations for therapy by working to modify problematic behaviour not through insight, awareness, or the uncovering of unconscious motivations but by addressing the behaviour itself. Behaviourists attempted to modify the maladaptive behaviour directly, examining the conditions controlling the individual’s current problems, not their possible historical roots. They also intended to show that such efforts could be successful without the symptom substitution that Freudian theory predicted. Freudians believed that removing the troubling behaviour directly would be followed by new and worse problems. Behaviour therapists showed that this was not necessarily the case.

To begin exploring the role of genetics in personality and social development , psychologists compared the similarity in personality shown by people who share the same genes or the same environment . Twin studies compared monozygotic (identical) as opposed to dizygotic (fraternal) twins, raised either in the same or in different environments . Overall, these studies demonstrated the important role of heredity in a wide range of human characteristics and traits, such as those of the introvert and extravert , and indicated that the biological-genetic influence was far greater than early behaviourism had assumed. At the same time, it also became clear that how such dispositions are expressed in behaviour depends importantly on interactions with the environment in the course of development, beginning in utero.

50+ Topics of Psychology Research

How to Find Psychology Research Topics for Your Student Paper

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

psychology paper meaning

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

psychology paper meaning

Are you searching for a great topic for your psychology paper ? Sometimes it seems like coming up with topics of psychology research is more challenging than the actual research and writing. Fortunately, there are plenty of great places to find inspiration and the following list contains just a few ideas to help get you started.

Finding a solid topic is one of the most important steps when writing any type of paper. It can be particularly important when you are writing a psychology research paper or essay. Psychology is such a broad topic, so you want to find a topic that allows you to adequately cover the subject without becoming overwhelmed with information.

In some cases, such as in a general psychology class, you might have the option to select any topic from within psychology's broad reach. Other instances, such as in an  abnormal psychology  course, might require you to write your paper on a specific subject such as a psychological disorder.

As you begin your search for a topic for your psychology paper, it is first important to consider the guidelines established by your instructor.

Topics of Psychology Research Within Specific Branches

The key to selecting a good topic for your psychology paper is to select something that is narrow enough to allow you to really focus on the subject, but not so narrow that it is difficult to find sources or information to write about.

One approach is to narrow your focus down to a subject within a specific branch of psychology. For example, you might start by deciding that you want to write a paper on some sort of social psychology topic. Next, you might narrow your focus down to how persuasion can be used to influence behavior.

Other social psychology topics you might consider include:

Psychology Research Topics Involving a Disorder or Type of Therapy

Exploring a psychological disorder or a specific treatment modality can also be a good topic for a psychology paper. Some potential abnormal psychology topics include specific psychological disorders or particular treatment modalities, including:

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Human Cognition

Some of the possible topics you might explore in this area include thinking, language, intelligence, and decision-making. Other ideas might include:

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Human Development

In this area, you might opt to focus on issues pertinent to  early childhood  such as language development, social learning, or childhood attachment or you might instead opt to concentrate on issues that affect older adults such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Some other topics you might consider include:

Do a Critique of Publications Involving Psychology Research Topics

One option is to consider writing a critique paper of a published psychology book or academic journal article. For example, you might write a critical analysis of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams or you might evaluate a more recent book such as Philip Zimbardo's  The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil .

Professional and academic journals are also great places to find materials for a critique paper. Browse through the collection at your university library to find titles devoted to the subject that you are most interested in, then look through recent articles until you find one that grabs your attention.

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Famous Experiments

There have been many fascinating and groundbreaking experiments throughout the history of psychology, providing ample material for students looking for an interesting term paper topic. In your paper, you might choose to summarize the experiment, analyze the ethics of the research, or evaluate the implications of the study. Possible experiments that you might consider include:

Topics of Psychology Research About Historical Figures

One of the simplest ways to find a great topic is to choose an interesting person in the  history of psychology  and write a paper about them. Your paper might focus on many different elements of the individual's life, such as their biography, professional history, theories, or influence on psychology.

While this type of paper may be historical in nature, there is no need for this assignment to be dry or boring. Psychology is full of fascinating figures rife with intriguing stories and anecdotes. Consider such famous individuals as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Harry Harlow, or one of the many other  eminent psychologists .

Psychology Research Topics About a Specific Career

​Another possible topic, depending on the course in which you are enrolled, is to write about specific career paths within the  field of psychology . This type of paper is especially appropriate if you are exploring different subtopics or considering which area interests you the most.

In your paper, you might opt to explore the typical duties of a psychologist, how much people working in these fields typically earn, and the different employment options that are available.

Topics of Psychology Research Involving Case Studies

One potentially interesting idea is to write a  psychology case study  of a particular individual or group of people. In this type of paper, you will provide an in-depth analysis of your subject, including a thorough biography.

Generally, you will also assess the person, often using a major psychological theory such as  Piaget's stages of cognitive development  or  Erikson's eight-stage theory of human development . It is also important to note that your paper doesn't necessarily have to be about someone you know personally.

In fact, many professors encourage students to write case studies on historical figures or fictional characters from books, television programs, or films.

Psychology Research Topics Involving Literature Reviews

Another possibility that would work well for a number of psychology courses is to do a literature review of a specific topic within psychology. A literature review involves finding a variety of sources on a particular subject, then summarizing and reporting on what these sources have to say about the topic.

Literature reviews are generally found in the  introduction  of journal articles and other  psychology papers , but this type of analysis also works well for a full-scale psychology term paper.

Topics of Psychology Research Based on Your Own Study or Experiment

Many psychology courses require students to design an actual psychological study or perform some type of experiment. In some cases, students simply devise the study and then imagine the possible results that might occur. In other situations, you may actually have the opportunity to collect data, analyze your findings, and write up your results.

Finding a topic for your study can be difficult, but there are plenty of great ways to come up with intriguing ideas. Start by considering your own interests as well as subjects you have studied in the past.

Online sources, newspaper articles, books , journal articles, and even your own class textbook are all great places to start searching for topics for your experiments and psychology term papers. Before you begin, learn more about  how to conduct a psychology experiment .

A Word From Verywell

After looking at this brief list of possible topics for psychology papers, it is easy to see that psychology is a very broad and diverse subject. While this variety makes it possible to find a topic that really catches your interest, it can sometimes make it very difficult for some students to select a good topic.

If you are still stumped by your assignment, ask your instructor for suggestions and consider a few from this list for inspiration.

By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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American Psychological Association Logo

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat.

Anxiety is not the same as fear, but they are often used interchangeably. Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.

Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology and APA Dictionary of Psychology

Resources from APA

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Writing Research Papers

In your research paper, whenever you refer to prior research or to ideas that were generated by others, you should cite the source or sources in the text and in a References section at the end of the paper.   In the psychological sciences, typically references are cited using APA style (as specified by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association ) . 

For related information, please see the Formatting Research Papers and Academic Integrity and Avoiding Plagiarism sections of this website.

Citing References in APA Style

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has detailed guidelines for the citing of different sources within the text ( in-text citations ) and in the References section.  On this page we detail general guidelines and common cases of citing sources in APA style.

Please note that the following is an overview; for more in-depth information, referring to the Manual is recommended.  Please also note that required reference styles and the specifics of citing references may vary across courses.   Y ou should check with your instructor for any special referencing requirements.

In-Text Citations in APA Style 

In APA style, references are cited in the text using the last name of the author(s) and the publication date.  For example, if you are citing an article written by John Wixted in 2004, the in-text citation would typically be enclosed in parentheses as “(Wixted, 2004)”.  For example: 

Research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience provides support for the theory that forgetting often stems from retroactive interference (Wixted, 2004).

Alternatively, if you are referring directly to the name of the author in the text, then the name is followed by the year of publication.  The year of publication is enclosed in parentheses.  For example:

Wixted (2004) reviewed psychology and neuroscience research that provides support for the theory that forgetting often stems from retroactive interference.

If the reference has between two to five authors, then the last names of all authors are listed as part of the first in-text citation of that reference in the article.  For example:

Taking practice tests has been shown to boost 8 th   grade  students’ memory of U.S. history facts, relative to a restudy control condition, on a final test administered 16 weeks later (Carpenter, Pashler, & Cepeda, 2009).

After that initial in-text citation, all subsequent in-text citations for that reference only list the last name of the first author followed by et al.  For example:

The relative benefits of practice testing over restudy were larger on the final test administered 16 weeks later than on a final test administered 1 week later (Carpenter et al., 2009).

If the reference has more than five authors, the last name of the first author, followed by et al., is used for all in-text citations.

These examples represent among the most common cases of in-text citations; for further examples you might wish to consult the official APA Style website and the Purdue University Online Writing Lab’s guide to in-text citations in APA style.

Reference Lists in APA Style

In APA style, each peer-reviewed article is listed in a References section towards the end of the research paper.  Each reference of a journal article names the author(s), publication date, article title, name of journal, volume, and page number.   For example ( note that hanging indents are not shown ):

Wixted, J. T. (2004). The psychology and neuroscience of forgetting. Annual Review of  Psychology , 55 , 235-269.

Similarly, each reference of a book names the author(s), the editor(s) if applicable, book title, page numbers (if applicable), as well as publisher name and location.   For example ( note that hanging indents are not shown ):

Healy, A. F., Wohldmann, E. L., & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (2005). The procedural reinstatement principle: Studies on training, retention, and transfer. In A. F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental cognitive psychology and its applications; experimental cognitive psychology and its applications (pp. 59-71). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

As with in-text citations, the above examples represent two common cases of including a source in a Reference list; there are many other cases.  For further details on creating the References section, please see the Formatting Research Papers section of this website.  You may also wish to consult the official APA Style website and the Purdue University Online Writing Lab’s guide to the References list in APA style.

Workshops and Downloadable Resources

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Databases and Search Engines (some may require connection to UCSD network)

UCSD Resources on Finding and Evaluating Sources

  External Resources

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What Is Memory?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Memory is the faculty by which the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information. It is a record of experience that guides future action.

Memory encompasses the facts and experiential details that people consciously call to mind as well as ingrained knowledge that surface without effort or even awareness. It is both a short-term cache of information and the more permanent record of what one has learned. The types of memory described by scientists include episodic memory, semantic memory , procedural memory , working memory , sensory memory , and prospective memory .

Each kind of memory has distinct uses—from the vivid recollections of episodic memory to the functional know-how of procedural memory. Yet there are commonalities in how memory works overall, and key brain structures, such as the hippocampus, that are integral to different kinds of memory.

In addition to memory’s role in allowing people to understand, navigate, and make predictions about the world, personal memories provide the foundation for a rich sense of one’s self and one’s life—and give rise to experiences such as nostalgia .

To learn more, see Types of Memory , How Memory Works , and Personal Memories and Nostalgia .

Forgetting and Problems With Memory

psychology paper meaning

Memory loss is the unavoidable flipside of the human capacity to remember. Forgetting, of course, is normal and happens every day: The brain simply cannot retain a permanent record of everything a person experiences and learns. And with advancing age, some decline in memory ability is typical. There are strategies for coping with such loss—adopting memory aids such as calendars and reminder notes, for example, or routinizing the placement of objects at risk of getting lost.

In more severe cases, however, memory can be permanently damaged by dementia and other disorders of memory . Dementia is a loss of cognitive function that can have various underlying causes, the most prominent being Alzheimer’s disease. People with dementia experience a progressive loss of function, such that memory loss may begin with minor forgetfulness (about having recently shared a story, for example) and gradually progress to difficulty with retaining new information, recognizing familiar individuals, and other important memory functions. Professional assessment can help determine whether an individual’s mild memory loss is a function of normal aging or a sign of a serious condition.

Memory disorders also include multiple types of amnesia that result not from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but from brain injury or other causes. People with amnesia lose the ability to recall past information, to retain new information, or both. In some cases the memory loss is permanent, but there are also temporary forms of amnesia that resolve on their own.

To learn more, see Memory Loss and Disorders of Memory .

Building Better Memory

psychology paper meaning

Though memory naturally declines with age, many people are able to stay mentally sharp. How do they do it? Genes play a role, but preventative measures including regular exercise, eating a healthy diet , and getting plenty of sleep—as well as keeping the brain active and challenged—can help stave off memory loss.

The science of memory also highlights ways anyone can improve their memory , whether the goal is sharpening memory ability for the long term or just passing exams this semester. Short-term memory tricks include mnemonic devices (such as acronyms and categorization), spacing apart study time, and self-testing for the sake of recalling information. Sleep and exercise are other memory boosters .

Through committed practice with memory-enhancing techniques, some people train themselves to remember amazing quantities of information, such as lengthy sequences of words or digits. For a small number of people, however, extraordinary memory abilities come naturally. These gifted rememberers include savants, for whom powerful memory coincides with some cognitive disability or neurodevelopmental difference, as well as people with typical intellects who remember exceptional quantities of details about their lives.

To learn more, see How to Improve Memory and Extraordinary Memory Abilities .

Memory’s Role in Mental Health

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Memory is a key element in certain mental health conditions : Abnormal memory function can contribute to distress, or it can coincide with an underlying disorder. Forgetfulness is associated with depression ; connections in memory, such as those involving feared situations or drug-related cues, are an integral part of anxiety and substance use disorders; and post- traumatic symptoms are entwined with the memory of traumatic experiences.

In fact, experiences such as distressing memories and flashbacks are among the core symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For someone with PTSD , a range of cues—including situations, people, or other stimuli related to a traumatic experience in some way—can trigger highly distressing memories, and the person may seek to avoid such reminders.

As a feature of various mental disorders, aberrant or biased memory function can also be a target for treatment. Treatments that involve exposure therapy , for example, are used to help patients reduce the power of trauma-related memories through safe and guided encounters with those memories and stimuli associated with the trauma.

To learn more, see Memory and Mental Health .

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout discusses some of the common writing assignments in psychology courses, and it presents strategies for completing them. The handout also provides general tips for writing psychology papers and for reducing bias in your writing.

What is psychology?

Psychology, one of the behavioral sciences, is the scientific study of observable behaviors, like sleeping, and abstract mental processes, such as dreaming. Psychologists study, explain, and predict behaviors. Because of the complexity of human behaviors, researchers use a variety of methods and approaches.  They ask questions about behaviors and answer them using systematic methods. For example, to understand why female students tend to perform better in school than their male classmates, psychologists have examined whether parents, teachers, schools, and society behave in ways that support the educational outcomes of female students to a greater extent than those of males.

Writing in psychology

Writing in psychology is similar to other forms of scientific writing in that organization, clarity, and concision are important.  The Psychology Department at UNC has a strong research emphasis, so many of your assignments will focus on synthesizing and critically evaluating research, connecting your course material with current research literature, and designing and carrying out your own studies.

Common assignments

Reaction papers.

These assignments ask you to react to a scholarly journal article.  Instructors use reaction papers to teach students to critically evaluate research and to synthesize current research with course material.  Reaction papers typically include a brief summary of the article, including prior research, hypotheses, research method, main results, and conclusions. The next step is your critical reaction. You might critique the study, identify unresolved issues, suggest future research, or reflect on the study’s implications.  Some instructors may want you to connect the material you are learning in class with the article’s theories, methodology, and findings. Remember, reaction papers require more than a simple summary of what you have read.

To successfully complete this assignment, you should carefully read the article. Go beyond highlighting important facts and interesting findings. Ask yourself questions as you read: What are the researchers’ assumptions? How does the article contribute to the field? Are the findings generalizable, and to whom?  Are the conclusions valid and based on the results?  It is important to pay attention to the graphs and tables because they can help you better assess the researchers’ claims.

Your instructor may give you a list of articles to choose from, or you may need to find your own.  The American Psychological Association (APA) PsycINFO database is the most comprehensive collection of psychology research; it is an excellent resource for finding journal articles.  You can access PsycINFO from the E-research tab on the Library’s webpage.   Here are the most common types of articles you will find:

You may also find methodological articles, case studies, brief reports, and commentary on previously published material. Check with your instructor to determine which articles are appropriate.

Research papers

This assignment involves using published research to provide an overview of and argument about a topic.  Simply summarizing the information you read is not enough. Instead, carefully synthesize the information to support your argument. Only discuss the parts of the studies that are relevant to your argument or topic.  Headings and subheadings can help guide readers through a long research paper. Our handout on literature reviews may help you organize your research literature.

Choose a topic that is appropriate to the length of the assignment and for which you can find adequate sources. For example, “self-esteem” might be too broad for a 10- page paper, but it may be difficult to find enough articles on “the effects of private school education on female African American children’s self-esteem.” A paper in which you focus on the more general topic of “the effects of school transitions on adolescents’ self-esteem,” however, might work well for the assignment.

Designing your own study/research proposal

You may have the opportunity to design and conduct your own research study or write about the design for one in the form of a research proposal. A good approach is to model your paper on articles you’ve read for class. Here is a general overview of the information that should be included in each section of a research study or proposal:

Other writing assignments

For some assignments, you may be asked to engage personally with the course material. For example, you might provide personal examples to evaluate a theory in a reflection paper.  It is appropriate to share personal experiences for this assignment, but be mindful of your audience and provide only relevant and appropriate details.

Writing tips for psychology papers

Psychology is a behavioral science, and writing in psychology is similar to writing in the hard sciences.  See our handout on writing in the sciences .  The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association provides an extensive discussion on how to write for the discipline.  The Manual also gives the rules for psychology’s citation style, called APA. The Library’s citation tutorial will also introduce you to the APA style.

Suggestions for achieving precision and clarity in your writing

Reducing bias in language

Your writing should show respect for research participants and readers, so it is important to choose language that is clear, accurate, and unbiased.  The APA sets forth guidelines for reducing bias in language: acknowledge participation, describe individuals at the appropriate level of specificity, and be sensitive to labels. Here are some specific examples of how to reduce bias in your language:

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

American Psychological Association. n.d. “Frequently Asked Questions About APA Style®.” APA Style. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://apastyle.apa.org/learn/faqs/index .

American Psychological Association. 2010. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association . 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Landrum, Eric. 2008. Undergraduate Writing in Psychology: Learning to Tell the Scientific Story . Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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psychology paper meaning

Writing in Psychology Overview

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Written for undergraduate students and new graduate students in psychology (experimental), this handout provides information on writing in psychology and on experimental report and experimental article writing.

Psychology is based on the study of human behaviors. As a social science, experimental psychology uses empirical inquiry to help understand human behavior. According to Thrass and Sanford (2000), psychology writing has three elements: describing, explaining, and understanding concepts from a standpoint of empirical investigation.

Discipline-specific writing, such as writing done in psychology, can be similar to other types of writing you have done in the use of the writing process, writing techniques, and in locating and integrating sources. However, the field of psychology also has its own rules and expectations for writing; not everything that you have learned in about writing in the past works for the field of psychology.

Writing in psychology includes the following principles:

Types of writing

Most major writing assignments in psychology courses consists of one of the following two types.

Experimental reports: Experimental reports detail the results of experimental research projects and are most often written in experimental psychology (lab) courses. Experimental reports are write-ups of your results after you have conducted research with participants. This handout provides a description of how to write an experimental report .

Critical analyses or reviews of research : Often called "term papers," a critical analysis of research narrowly examines and draws conclusions from existing literature on a topic of interest. These are frequently written in upper-division survey courses. Our research paper handouts provide a detailed overview of how to write these types of research papers.

Essay Writing Guide for Psychology Students

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

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.

Each paragraph should comprise a main theme which are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence).

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.

essay structure example

In This Article

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:

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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;

Identify the subject of the essay and define the key terms. 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. “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 h alo 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.

psychology paper meaning

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

apa reference

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


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