Discussion topicsThis page provides thought-provoking discussion topics, which can be used inside or outside of the classroom.
Click on the links below to jump down to the discussion topics for each chapter:
Chapter 1: Psychology - The evolution of a science
Chapter 2: The methods of psychology
Chapter 3: Neuroscience and behaviour
Chapter 4: Sensation and perception
Chapter 5: Memory
Chapter 6: Learning
Chapter 7: Language and thought
Chapter 8: Consciousness
Chapter 9: Intelligence
Chapter 10: Emotion and motivation
Chapter 11: Cognitive development
Chapter 12: Social development
Chapter 13: Personality
Chapter 14: Social relationships
Chapter 15: Social groups
Chapter 16: Psychological disorders
Chapter 17: Mental health
When you have a psychological question that you want to answer, how do you start your investigation?
Think about how different psychologists developed different tests or laboratory tasks, and how that all fits into what we will refer to as “the scientific method.” Consider the fact that there have to be statistical procedures and agreed-upon limits for other experts in the field to be convinced by your findings.
Remember that the pioneers studied illusions and errors and that there are many normal and pathological behaviours that still need to be modelled and studied. Reflect on the fact that there is more than one way to observe bodily and behavioural changes. You can change a part of the environment and see how the nervous system responds. You could also change a part of the brain and measure changes in behaviours compared to a group of unaffected research participants.
How can all psychological research help people with mental health problems?
Understand that the knowledge gained through studying every aspect of psychology adds to the tools available for practitioners to treat social and biological pathologies of the mind. Subscribe to the hope of all psychologists that each one of our contributions advances our science and gets us a little closer to relieving some suffering in the world.
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How does establishing a fact in psychology differ from other sciences?
If human behaviour is so complex, with so much variation and a multitude of factors influencing outcomes, how useful are statistics in saying anything meaningful about the individual?
How should we measure behaviour – in the natural setting or in the lab?
Is it better to strip away the environment in order to get a better measure of the behaviour that you are interested in or by doing so, does the experimenter compromise the validity of observing the behaviour in a natural setting?
How useful are quantitative techniques when dealing with individuals?
For example, how relevant are measures based on large samples to understanding the individual? Should practitioners abandon quantitative approaches in favour of more qualitative approaches? What are the costs and benefits of each approach over the other?
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How could the brain, with electrical and chemical processes, represent our complex behaviours and experiences?
Think about how different experiences result in physical changes in the brain, or plasticity.
Consider the fact that different neurons fire in different patterns and use hundreds of different neurotransmitters.
What kind of brain activity represents consciousness?
Think about the different parts of the brain that are used for different behaviours and the combinations that might be required to be considered consciousness.
Reflect on the fact that much of the brain is dedicated to sensing and perceiving the world. Is that consciousness or is it something more complex?
What parts of our brains, or neural signals, are involved in social psychology?
We saw that there are special neurons involved in recognizing faces and registering something like empathy. Think about how those specializations might have evolved in social animals.
Consider how males and females have evolved slightly different parts of their brains, and other parts of their physiology and anatomy. They may have started off as sexually relevant body parts and functions that are now a part of our social signs of attraction.
What would it be like if a specific part of your brain began to fail?
Unfortunately, this may not be hard for you to imagine as millions of people are affected by neurological disorders and mental illness. Some of the pathologies involve multiple systems, whereas others are the result of one simple step of a process gone wrong. For a dramatic example, watch Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her own stroke in the video assignment.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone with depression, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, or Multiple Sclerosis. Imagining the loss of many of the behaviours and functions that we take for granted may make you stop and smell the roses a bit more often.
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Why do taste and smell have such a powerful impact on learning and memory, relative to your other senses?
Think about how the information from those senses gets into the brain and the pathways that they take to emotional centres that have the capability of tagging memories with extra importance.
Consider the fact that you see and hear a lot more things in the world than you smell and touch, generally speaking. What’s more, assigning importance to things is often a bit of a numbers game; you physically can’t give equal weight or equal importance to all of the sensations to impinge on your body at any given time, so some of them must take precedence over others.
Why do people choose to alter their conscious perception with drugs?
Note that some people tend to be less averse to risk, whereas others enjoy pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour.
Reflect on the fact that some people face issues in their lives that they may not want to perceive fully, and turn to drugs in an attempt to dull or escape their daily perceptions.
Does perceiving the world differently than most other people make you a genius or a freak?
Remember that many of the synaesthetes in the opening vignette ended up being famous and well respected in their crafts. That is not to say that they didn’t have to endure the hardships of being outside the norm during their lives.
People have often said that there is a fine line between genius and madness. Maybe substantial changes in perception put you a little closer to both.
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How could the hippocampus, such a relatively small part of the human brain, be so critical for building new memories?
Think about the relative size of this structure in other animals. Consider the five divisions of the brain and how they have evolved in humans.
Is LTP the elusive “engram,” or physical representation of memory, that Karl Lashley and other scientists have been trying to identify for so long?
Think about the fact that there must be a physical representation of every memory that you have and how flexible one mechanism would have to be to form and differentiate each one of those memories.
Reflect on the fact that LTP is not a simple process; rather, it involves multiple processes (e.g., protein synthesis, concurrent activation, specific frequencies of stimulation).
Is all memory the same?
Ask yourself these questions: “What did I have for breakfast? Where is the capital of Finland? How do you ride a bike? What did my friend just say?”
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Are different parts of the brain active during explicit and implicit learning?
Think about the case of HM. After the removal of his medial temporal lobes he could not learn or remember new information about his life, but he could acquire new skills on a procedural task. So implicit learning must occur outside the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes.
Consider that there are also cases such as Korsakoff’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease that result in learning deficits similar to those that HM experienced, but the damage is in different parts of the brain. So there must be multiple systems that are responsible for explicit memory.
Is learning involved in drug addiction, or is it purely a physiological phenomenon?
Note that all learning happens within a context, and although the CSs related to the drug are being paired with the direct effects of the drug, the environment in which the drug is taken is also being paired with those drug effects.
Reflect on the idea that the development of tolerance to a drug is physiological in part, but there is also a learned, or conditioned, tolerance that develops simultaneously with the physiological tolerance.
Did you learn language as a young child through reinforcement or were you biologically prepared to develop language?
Consider the pure behaviourist perspective: Changes in behaviour are the result of outcomes. This would indicate that you would need to be reinforced for every word that you tried to produce and every grammar rule that you discovered. On the flip side, you don’t wake up one day with a complete grasp of language or a ready-to-go vocabulary. Reinforcement almost certainly plays a role in the development and shaping of language.
B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky argued publicly about these issues at length. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Parts of our brain are dedicated specifically to language, but we wouldn’t learn language if we weren’t around language and being reinforced for using it.
How do we learn the complex rules of social interaction in a given culture?
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How has the brain evolved to process language and thought?
Think about the studies from the chapter that show differential activation of specific brain areas for language production (Broca’s area) versus language comprehension (Wernicke’s area), or the additional density in the parietal lobe as a result of bilingualism.
Consider fMRI data showing different areas of activation for naming animals versus tools, or that the dorsal parietal area shows activation as a result of belief-neutral reasoning, whereas the left temporal area shows enhanced activation during belief-laden reasoning.
How is memory involved in language and language development?
Note that by the time you are in university you have the meaning of roughly 200,000 words stored in your memory.
Reflect on the idea that fast mapping, where a single exposure allows an individual to map a word onto an underlying concept, appears to be a special case of rapidly acquired and enduring memory.
Does emotion have an impact on our ability to make good decisions?
Consider the theories of categorization and concepts, and how comparing things in an existing situation to a prototype or exemplars will often depend on your individual experience(s), whether they are good or bad, with the items compared.
Weigh the consequences of biases, framing effects, and fallacies on the decision making process. For example, the emotion attached to the investment in the sunk-cost fallacy results in more resources being squandered in hopes that things will get better, or to make you feel better about your faulty initial decision.
Are errors in speech and decision making an indicator of a psychological or neurological disorder?
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What is the minimal amount of brain activity that is considered conscious?
Think about the studies cited in the chapter that showed differential activation of specific brain areas for different states of consciousness; then think about the many levels of consciousness. The answer is controversial.
Consider special cases of consciousness, like the definition of a persistent vegetative state or how to specify when life begins. These are hotly debated social and political topics that have their roots in the nature of consciousness.
What do you think the implications for no free will are?
If you think about it, much of human society and interaction works on the assumption that people have conscious free will to think and act the way they do. In fact, we praise and punish individuals on the basis of free will. However, from what you have learned, free will may be more of an illusion than we think it is. What does this mean for basic notions of legal responsibility?
Investigate other cultures and the ways they identify self-awareness or the absence of it.
Am I really unique or is something wrong with me?
Review the information about the Cartesian Theatre and the problems of studying and sharing subjective experiences. You are definitely unique! Differences in personality based on our different experiences are fascinating; however, some behaviours considered socially unacceptable or bizarre might be indicators of psychological disorders.
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When it comes to intelligence, is a bigger brain better than a smaller one?
Think about the McDaniel (2005) study that found a slightly positive correlation between brain size and higher intelligence, suggesting that bigger is better.
Also consider the McGill University study that showed a correlation between cortical thickness, the delay in growth of that cortex, and the related levels of intelligence. Bigger may be slightly better, but it seems that slower and thicker may be even more important than overall size.
Is there a pill out there that will make me smarter?
There are definitely some marketers out there that would like you to believe that they have the “smart pill,” but there isn’t any good evidence of effective cognitive enhancers having much of an effect.
Reflect on the idea that changing some genes, maybe like the one that codes for the NMDA receptor or hippocampal development that Joseph Tsien has manipulated, could make us smarter, and the use of techniques like PGD could make those kinds of choices available before a child is born.
Do really smart people just have good memories or is it something else?
Consider the fact that the most common intelligence test, the WAIS, does have some memory components, yet it also tests several other components of intelligence such as spatial ability, analytical ability, and mathematics.
Working on your memory will almost certainly help in most occupations and assessments of general intelligence.
Does being extremely intelligent doom you to a life of social awkwardness?
There is no good evidence to suggest that highly intelligent people are any more socially awkward than people of average or below average intelligence, despite the stereotype of the goofy nerd.
You will encounter, in reading and in life, some personality types and even some psychological abnormalities that include high intelligence as a feature; keep that in mind as you ponder this question.
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Why do we have redundant neural systems for processing fear?
Think about our evolution and how it must have been important for our ancestors’ survival to be able to identify danger quickly and escape that danger.
Consider that we don’t face many of those dangers and we have evolved a way to discriminate threats in more detail than our ancestors did to avoid behaving too rashly.
How do our bodies know when to become sexually motivated?
There are biological processes that are modulated by hormones and puberty that dictate preparedness for sexual behaviour.
Reflect on the idea that in humans sexual behaviour is not merely for procreation. We have developed social cues and rituals to mark sexual maturity, and these vary widely in different societies.
Why is it so important for many of us to be right about things?
Consider the power that comes along with accuracy in social or working relationships.
Look at the information in the text that indicates how we are not very good at forecasting, appraising, or even remembering many things.
Why is reappraisal important for mental and physical health?
Therapists use reappraisal to help patients find new ways to think about the events that happen to them; these new ways of thinking can alleviate depression and the signs of physical stress.
Consider the limitations of therapy if we were not able to change the way we think about things in our lives, and the fact that the inability to do so may be a contributor to some mental disorders.
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To what extent does an understanding about brain development help us decide the role of society in protecting its most vulnerable members?
Think about the effects of teratogens on development and the major implications to society for brain-damaged children. Should we legislate against behaviours that have such dire consequences?
To what extent does developmental research fit with the mindbugs approach to understanding human psychology?
For example, consider how executive functions explain many of the mistakes children make. If they get stuck on one answer and lack flexibility, how does that relate to older adults' behaviour? Are adults immune from such rigid thinking?
To what extent does the nature-nurture question make sense given all that you have learned about development?
What features of early development suggest evidence for one influence over the other? Consider the two different types of plasticity described.
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Much of the evidence presented in this chapter suggests that humans are particularly dependent on appropriate social interaction right from the very beginning. If you consider the other chapters in the textbook, to what extent does social development impact on other areas of human psychology?
Social cognition research suggests an emerging sense of the self. And yet most individuals consider their “self” to be independent of others around them. We tend to consider our self in response to events and others in the world. To what extent do you think that we have to reconsider this very egocentric view that we are our own authors of self? Maybe who we are is much more to do with the others around us.
If our social development is so dependent on the social environment, consider how different cultures and their attitudes to society and the role of the individual shape thought processes. Do we really have a different sense of self and identity growing up in individualistic compared to collectivist societies?
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What part of each person’s personality is determined by genes?
Recall that the only way of measuring heritability is by determining the likelihood of the appearance of a trait through population averages or twin studies. Also consider the findings indicating that the environmental component that contributes to personality comes from nonshared factors.
Why can’t you choose to change your traits?
Remember that a trait is stable and enduring over a lifetime. If you can change some aspect of your personality, it’s unlikely that this aspect is in fact a trait. Reflect on the ideas presented in the chapter on the social-cognitive approach to personality, and how adaptation to situations interacts with decision-making (Chapter 7).
Why has the dogma about what determines sexual orientation changed from being almost purely dependent on upbringing to a focus on genetics and shared environments?
Think about the history of psychology and the fact that psychoanalytical theories dominated psychology for some time. The emphasis on parenting and parenting styles has given way to evidence that genetics and nonshared environmental influences are better predictors of sexual orientation than parenting.
Consider the evidence for the hormonal milieu’s contribution to sexual orientation as well as genetics and other environmental factors.
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How can the same part of the brain respond both to physical pain and social affiliation?
Recall the study showing that the anterior cingulate cortex is activated in response to physical pain and exclusion from a social group, and that the right ventral prefrontal cortex (i.e., activated for physical pain relief) is also activated in order to alleviate the pain of social exclusion.
Consider that many of these social constructions are new in relative evolutionary terms, and that the brain has had to evolve existing or changing structures to deal with these new social stimuli.
How are social influences affected by learning?
Remember that, according to operant conditioning principles, rewards (reinforcers) and punishments control the likelihood that a given behaviour will occur again. Reflect on the fact that humans can learn through contingencies; also, speculate about the causes of social influences, which can affect future learning.
How does social interaction style affect personality?
Understand that your perception of your personality and the way that others perceive it may be very different, depending on how you behave with people.
Think about some of the dimensions of the Big Five that rely specifically on the nature of social relationships (e.g., extraversion, agreeableness).
What are considered extreme violations of social norms?
Realize that most personality disorders are chronic extremes, or exaggerations, of social norms (e.g., preferring solitude (odd/eccentric cluster) or lack of empathy and reciprocation (anti-social/narcissistic).
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How do cultural differences impact on the development of the self?
Think about what you learned in the chapters on social development and personality. Discuss differences in collectivistic and individualistic cultures, and how they could change this.
How does stereotyping affect adult-child interactions and social development?
Think about what you learned in chapter 12 about gender development. How do our stereotypes around gender roles affect the way we socialize children, both at home and in school?
What role does autonomic arousal play in the Spotlight Effect?
Think about what you learned about the action parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems in chapter 3, and how they are involved in the ‘fight and flight’ response. How could they influence the spotlight effect?
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What does learning have to do with the development of phobic overreactions?
Recall that John Watson trained Little Albert to be afraid of a white rat in just a few short fear conditioning trials.
Reflect on the fact that Little Albert’s conditioned fear was not specific to the rat but generalized to other animals and to other white, furry things. Phobias may become other types of anxiety disorders (e.g., GAD or agoraphobia) by a similar mechanism.
How does an imbalance of a neurotransmitter lead to a complex psychological disorder like depression or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?
Recall that the only way neurons can communicate is via neurotransmitters and those signals are responsible for determining all behaviour. Also consider the delicate balance of firing patterns of neurons and the release of several kinds of neurotransmitters for sensation or locomotion. Now add the complexity of heredity and predisposition for disorders, cognitions, trauma, other environmental factors, and consider the ease of throwing that balance off.
When does an extreme personality trait become a personality disorder?
Understand that disorders are determined by a disruption of an ongoing lifestyle, among other factors. Annoying narcissistic traits do not define the narcissistic personality disorder; the disorder arises when self-love, jealousy, and need for praise significantly disrupt the ability to lead a relatively adjusted life.
Why has the dogma about what determines sexual orientation changed from being almost totally dependent on upbringing to a focus on genetics and shared environments?
Think about the history of psychology and the fact that psychoanalytical theories dominated psychology for some time. The emphasis on parenting and parenting styles has given way to evidence that genetics and nonshared environmental influences are better predictors of sexual orientation than is the nature of parenting.
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How does a simple salt, such as lithium, work to reduce the symptoms of a disorder as severe and complex as bipolar disorder?
Consider that we don’t yet understand some of the basic mechanisms of the brain and there are many things that we don’t understand about bipolar disorder. The puzzle of lithium remains, but lithium has been successful, and many treatment providers don’t fight success.
How did behaviour therapy grow out of learning theory?
Remember that extinction is an effective way to reduce many kinds of behaviours. Conversations between learning theorists and therapists led to techniques that extinguish many of the unwanted behaviours associated with a disorder. Reflect on the fact that exposure can lead to habituation and that habituation to a fearful stimulus can be a good thing.
Is there any way to test for highly heritable disorders and head them off at the pass?
Understand that heritability applies to groups and is impossible to test in one person, even when the heritability for a disorder is high. Think about the ailments for which there are genetic tests (e.g., Huntington’s disease) and consider whether or not, if you were asymptomatic, you would want to know that you harboured a debilitating — and inevitable — illness.
Why bother with treatments that aren’t much better than no treatment or a placebo?
Think about the life disruption that so many of those who live with psychological disorders confront daily. Would you take a little bit of relief from something that is extremely uncomfortable or intrusive if it was offered to you? Consider the evidence that combinations of therapies can work better than either medicine or psychotherapy alone.
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