How to Write Your Psychology Paper

Michael Ofsowitz

Before you write your paper, remember that the goal of the paper is usually to get you to learn something about psychology and to have you practice the skills necessary for communicating that learning through writing. A term paper is not just another hoop to go through to meet your teacher’s demands, but provides you with a chance to learn something about the field on your own; it’s a part of the educational experience that helps you discover how to learn at a college level on your own. Check to see how much your paper is worth in your class: If it is a decent chunk of your grade, then it’s assumed you’ll put in time and effort to make that grade a worthwhile representation of your achievement outside classroom time.

When writing a paper in psychology, your goal is to create a coherent, focused, and substantiated paper. Whether you are writing a review of published literature, a laboratory report, a research project proposal, or an analysis of first-hand experience, your writing should follow the basic guidelines reviewed below. To start with the task of writing the paper, and to write well, think about all the lessons you learned in English 101 for expository essay writing, and apply those lessons to your work in psychology.

1. Focus your topic. Initially you will probably have a broad topic in mind for your work, but to succeed in writing a paper that will be interesting to write, interesting to read, and worth your while as a student, you will need to limit the scope to something that is a small part of the broader topic. For example, you might be interested in human aggression. Aggression is an extremely broad topic on its own, and can serve as the subject of many full-length books. A survey textbook in social psychology is sure to have an entire chapter devoted to it. There is little you can do in the span of a 6-page term paper that will add to what your teacher already can read about the topic in a survey textbook. So you need to narrow yourself to some particular aspect of human aggression, and the more narrowly limited it is, the better. Trying to address “gender differences in aggression” is more focused than “human aggression” overall, but it’s still a wide-open field that’s too broad for a short paper. “Gender differences in aggression among romantic partners” is much more appropriate as a focused topic. This gets closer to pinpointing a specific aspect of human aggression, something that can be put under the virtual microscope. Whatever you wind up writing on such a topic is bound to go beyond what is in a survey textbook, and that will make it interesting – to you, if you care about the topic, and to your teacher, who will not have been reading the same thing over and over from semester to semester. Or if you are analyzing some kind of a scene, likewise trying to focus on a broad theme like “aggression” is going to produce a less interesting analysis than focusing on a narrowed theme such as “gender differences in aggression among romantic partners.” It’s usually worth your time to check with your teacher to see if your topic is appropriately focused.

One downside to a highly focused topic applied to a traditional literature review is that the available library resources might not be sufficient, especially when those resources are limited, as they are here at MCC; this might make you revise your topic as you compromise with the source material that’s available.

2. Admit that reality is complex. Depending on the type of paper you’re writing, this might be the hardest lesson to incorporate. If you’re analyzing a book or movie it might not apply. But if you’re writing a traditional review paper, analyzing an event, or planning a first-hand study (e.g., an experiment), then it does. Most people who make an argument to support their claims only show evidence that helps their position. But the goal of science is not to win: it is to discover or uncover reality. Sometimes the real world fits our perceptions of it, but many times it is messier and fits only partially or not at all. When we “spin” the evidence to make it look as if our perceptions are absolutely correct, we’re engaging in something that is either unethical if we do it on purpose, or flawed if we only do it inadvertently. This flaw is sometimes called the confirmation bias: We usually seek only to confirm what we think is true. One way we do that is by conveniently ignoring facts that might weaken our position. But we usually do this without realizing it. A writer needs guts to seek out information that will weaken his own position. And yet, the goal of a psychology paper is to examine some piece of reality and get it right.

3. Build your paper logically. This is a basic English 101 lesson so I’ll keep it short. Follow a step-by-step progress so that your discussion flows from point to point, and each point is sufficiently supported; I describe this in more detail in point 5, below. You are leading your reader on a journey of discovery, and your reader wants to be able to follow you. Make the necessary connections and use meaningful transitions as you change from one subtopic to another. And keep your emotions out of the material. You are not writing prose here. However, you may write in the first person and use a voice you feel comfortable with.

4. Use APA style. Even if your teacher hasn’t required it, you should use the basic rules of APA style to guide the general look of the paper (title, page numbering, headings), and to show citations and references. APA style is designed to provide a degree of uniformity to academic papers written in the field. It provides rules about clarity, word choice, punctuation, organization, etc. to help writers establish consistent patterns. APA style is not only used in psychology, so you can gain some mileage from it in a few other fields, but as you get beyond the freshman or sophomore college levels it consistently becomes a required component of writing in psychology.

Besides the overall structure of your paper, the most notable use of APA style that you’ll make will be the method of showing source citations within your text and then the full references associated with those citations at the end of your paper. The use of in-text citations is simple once you get the hang of it, and you owe it to your reader to get the hang of it – your reader will often want to know where you got your information, and the in-text citation is a clear method of showing this. Writing the full references at the end of the paper is a little trickier, however, since APA style is particular about every period and comma and italicized component of the full reference. The only way to get those right is to look carefully at an example for the type of media you used (e.g., book, scientific journal article, web site, etc.) and follow that example precisely. If the example shows an author’s last name and then a comma, you use your source author’s last name and then a comma; if the example shows the title written without capitalizing every word, then you write your source’s title without capitalizing every word. It’s not as easy to learn as the method for in-text citations but it’s necessary, so try your best. See my APA page for details.

5. State and defend your positions. Now for a lengthy discussion, and I’m sorry, but it’s important: A psychology paper is usually an attempt to reveal something about psychological processes in the real world. It might review what is already known, or it might use first-hand evidence to make some original claim to knowledge or theory. Sometimes it is only a report on applications of psychology to the real world. Regardless of what kind of paper you’re writing, though, you’ll be making claims about the way things are, or how things work, or why something is related. Your first task is to clearly explain to the reader what your paper is all about. Within the first paragraph tell the reader what your topic is, being straight-forward and obvious, and no later than the second paragraph outline your position, your goal for the work, and why it’s worth reading. You need a clearly defined purpose, stated in your introduction, both to align the reader’s expectations to what will come, and to guide your work so you can remain focused on the main topic.

Your second task is to support your positions. When you make claims about the real world you need to defend them. This generally means providing evidence sufficient to support your claims. If you’re doing a traditional research paper that reviews the pre-existing published literature, then your claims are likely to be statements of fact that you find in the material you’re reading. If you’re writing a proposal to test a prediction, then your claims might be those same kinds of facts, or they might refer to the logical connections that justify and lead up to your specific prediction. If your claims are about personal experience, then they are likely private experiences, but you still need to convince the reader that you had those experiences. If your claims are about proper application of psychological concepts, or about why something that you observed happened, then your use of a particular concept or your explanation of an event is a position that you must defend.

Let’s start with a traditional style research paper. When you include statements of fact in your paper that came from material you researched, then you have made the claim, as if you were making the claim that something is known (you stated some “fact”). To support a claim like this you need to show where you got the idea: You can do this by citing your source. By citing your source you are saying something like, “see, this is who made that claim in a published source, so it is legitimate.” This doesn’t cover your position completely, but it’s a necessary part. You are still responsible for judging whether the source that you are citing is as legitimate as you want it to be. If it was a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific publication (what we sometimes refer to as a trade journal, or a scientific journal), then you are in good hands; you will have defended your claim sufficiently, with quality evidence. But if your source is journalistic (i.e., popular media) or self-published or otherwise “weak,” then you have a weak defense because you will have relied on weak evidence. Also, it is generally best to have more than one source to support a claim, unless the specific assertion is very new. But if you can show that numerous studies support the claim you made, then you will have defended your position nicely. A traditional research paper will make long series of such claims, and it’s not unusual to have ten or more citations, each supporting something you say, on a single page. For example, the short excerpt below is from a published research paper and it is reviewing the previously published literature:

One longstanding view in psychology has held that low self-esteem is a trait that predisposes people to aggressive behavior, possibly because feelings of inferiority make people want to harm those they see as better than themselves (e.g., Horney, 1950). However, a literature review by Baumeister, Smart, and Boden (1996) found no evidence for the view that low self-esteem causes aggression and proposed, instead, that aggression stems mainly from threatened egotism, which is to say the sense that one’s favorable views of self have been impugned by others. Bushman and Baumeister (1998) supported the threatened egotism hypothesis with experimental findings that the highest rates of aggression came from the combination of high scores on the trait of narcissism (encompassing self-love, entitlement, and admiration seeking; Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001) and ego threat.

There are four citations to source material in that paragraph, and this is not excessive. (Every name/date combination is a citation indicating the original source, made in proper APA style; I’ll mention APA style further below, but it’s not detailed in this document.) Each one is used to support some statement, or some information that was gathered from the source that’s cited. In a traditional research paper it would be common to see this style of multiple source citations throughout the entire paper.

Source material comes from many places, and as mentioned above, some are more “legitimate” than others. If you are writing a traditional style research paper and you are using source material to provide the information, the substance with which your position is made, then you should limit yourself to peer-reviewed scientific publications. These might be first-hand, primary sources, or second-hand sources, but they have in common a crucial fact: they have been filtered through professionals in the field who have given an initial indication that the work is high quality. (A primary source is a paper that reports original research, such as an experiment; a second-hand source is one that contains reviews of prior first-hand research, such as a textbook.) Sometimes in psychology this peer-reviewed source material is in the form of a book: a textbook or other scholarly book, though usually not a type found in the “psychology” section of a mainstream bookstore. More often the legitimate source material is in the form of a published paper, what we sometimes call a “journal article.” These are found almost exclusively through college libraries, and frequently only through the college library online databases. Here at MCC we have a small selection of online databases that specialize in psychology source material. As of 2013 they are the PsycArticles database, the Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, and to a lesser extent the Elsevier ScienceDirect database. Learning to efficiently use these databases takes time. You should play around with the search functions and search with various terms when looking for something specific, and limit your search by specifying the term(s) be found in the abstract or title rather than just anywhere. Good database search skills take time to develop, and this alone is a valuable part of your education, so don’t let your early frustrations (more misses than hits) discourage you. Additionally, being able to read and paraphrase from these sources is a skill requiring practice; take notes from them carefully and double-check to see if you interpreted them correctly.

If your paper is a first-hand study, or a proposal for a first-hand study, such as an experiment that you conducted (will conduct) or a survey, then you’ll likely have to support your claims in two ways: 1) the introduction leading up to your original research project will partly be a review of prior knowledge, like the literature review of a traditional paper, building up to and supporting your specific prediction; and 2) you conduct an investigation of your own either by an experiment or a survey (or other descriptive methods), and you must show how the study itself was conducted (or will be conducted if you’re only proposing it) so your audience can judge whether your findings seem legitimate and error-free. For the latter part, your claim is that you found something (the results of your experiment or survey), and you defend your position by clarifying and detailing the research methods you used so that others can decide if your work was clean and unbiased or not. In such a paper, the description of the research methods (exactly how the experiment or survey was carried out) usually spans a couple of pages and includes all the details that would be necessary for a reader to replicate what you’ve done.

If the goal of your paper is to analyze some scenario for its psychological content, you have to defend the analyses that you make. You might have been asked to analyze a book, a movie, or an event for its interest to psychology. In this case, each analysis you make, each interpretation, is a position that needs to be clearly stated and justified. You should be constructing supported arguments to show why the conclusions you make are reasonable. Your evidence will be in two forms: the original event that is the target of the analysis, and the knowledge that you apply to it. Present the original event as accurately as possible; you want to analyze the event itself and not an impression of the event, so this requires having an accurate depiction of the event to work with. When you then apply your analysis to it, explain to the reader why that analysis makes sense. What exactly is the psychology that you are applying? Why does it fit? Could it be interpreted differently? Why does one psychological interpretation apply better than another?

Papers examining personal experiences also require that you defend your positions. Of course, personal experiences are harder, if not impossible, to verify independently, but you need to convince your reader that what you say is what you experienced. How do you know you weren’t fooled? How do you know that you’re reporting what happened to you and not what you wish had happened to you? In this kind of a paper you should explain what precautions you’ve taken to get it right. What is it that makes your report of the personal experience believable? In psychology there is a lot of evidence about how easily our minds fool ourselves. So what efforts have you made to avoid being fooled by a mind that wants, a mind that misremembers, a mind that does not carefully attend? You might start, for example, by describing exactly how you recorded your experiences: Did you take notes immediately as it happened? Soon thereafter? Or not until much later in the day or week? Have you attempted to weed out alternative explanations? If so, which, and how have you tried to account for them? You might also have been asked to analyze these experiences, so treat your experience as the event that is subject to analysis, and justify your interpretations as described in the preceding paragraph.

A note on style: write naturally, without straining yourself to sound scientific. It will be imperfect. If you strain yourself to sound scientific it will be worse. Your goal should be to communicate clearly, but even if you have full command of grammar you are likely to put too much emphasis on things that don’t need it and too little on material that requires elaboration. If you don’t have full control of grammar, your “style” will be determined by your mistakes. It would be best to keep that personality in hiding. It is okay to be a little expressive when writing a psychology paper (e.g., a little humorous, or witty, or unconventional with descriptors, or excited), but these impositions of personality are more likely to interfere with clear communication than to aid it. Stick to proper grammar, think about how you wrote essays for English 101, consider your goals, and know what you’re talking about, and the research paper will flow smoothly. Most scientific writing is dry, and it lacks personality, but the “moisture” of a personal voice is more likely to detract from the report than improve it. If you’re a talented writer, use your talent to write a clean report. If you absolutely must express your personality in the report, don’t let it alter the meanings being conveyed.

6. Don’t cheat. You know that, but you might inadvertently plagiarize by quoting without using quotation marks, or paraphrasing without showing a citation, so look up “plagiarism” (or see my web page on plagiarism), and err on the side of too many citations rather than too few.

7. Get help. We all need help. Use a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a writing manual whenever you should look up something for verification, or just to learn more about language and writing. My favorite sources are the Oxford English Dictionary, Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and a variety of online grammar sites.