Reading about Theory

Some students cannot generate a research hypothesis from theory because they do not know enough about any specific theory to derive a hypothesis from theory (Smith, 2001). Some students are not motivated to use theory to generate research ideas because they do not understand the value of theory, seeing theory as unsupported opinion (Smith, 2001). Some students are not motivated to use theory to generate research ideas because they do not understand the value of theory-based research (Smith, 2001). If you have students who fall into one or more of these categories, consider assigning the following Web Appendix before having students do the activities listed below.

Evaluating Theories

Ask students about their favorite theories. Then, have students evaluate those theories according to the seven criteria in (Table T-1) or the four criteria listed on Megan Bradley's theory web page. You might start by having students individually rate (on a 1 [poor] to 3 [well] ) scale how well their theory meets each of those seven criteria. Then, have students pair up to compare and justify their ratings. Next, have students contrast the criteria used by scientists to evaluate a theory with the average person's criteria. With a little prodding, you can get them to admit that testability and heuristic value hurt a theory's mass appeal. Students will tend to like vaguely worded nonmathematical theories (humanistic, existential, and psychoanalytic theories)­­unless they find those theories counterintuitive. Point out that testability is what distinguishes psychology from pseudosciences such as phrenology, graphology, and astrology.

This exercise can be used to promote critical thinking as well as to help students to help students generate research ideas from theory. The exercise may help students generate research ideas from theory by addressing two obstacles that, according to Smith (2001), probably stop students from using theory to generate research ideas: (a) Many students do not see theory as useful, and so they have little motivation to use it; and (b) some students do not know the basic postulates of any theory, and so they cannot derive hypotheses from any theory. Phil Wann, who does a similar exercise, believes that his exercise has improved the quality of hypotheses that students produce. Furthermore, he has data suggesting that students find the exercise useful and interesting (Wann, 2004).

Given that many of your students may not know the basic postulates of a single theory in psychology, this activity may bomb as an in-class exercise unless you have assigned homework that will give students the needed background. For example, you might need to assign the individual ratings as homework to be turned in before class­­and you might need to help students learn about a theory. You might choose dissonance theory because Chapter 3 talks about dissonance theory, the Web Appendix on theory focuses on dissonance theory, and one of the bonus articles for Chapter 3 is Festinger & Carlsmith's (1959) experiment. Alternatively, you could assign the introduction of the following article (and our handouts that accompany that article) to help students learn about terror management theory.

If you want to use this exercise without assigning homework or you do not want to have students learn a theory on their own, you could lecture on two theories (e.g., dissonance and psychoanalysis) and then have students rate those two theories. Alternatively, you could present students with a quack theory and have students contrast the quack theory with the theory of evolution.

If, on the other hand, you want students to learn about theory and get an inside, personal look at how people try to come up with and modify theories, you might assign

Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2004). A personalized theory of theory construction.

Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 201-210.
or another article from that special issue titled "Theory construction in social psychology: Personal experiences and lessons learned."

Theory and idea generation

After presenting students with Kurt Lewin's famous quote ("There is nothing so practical as a good theory."), introduce students to your favorite counterintuitive theory (opponent process theory, dissonance theory, self-perception theory, sociobiology, etc.). Once you've presented the theory, present certain situations and have them deduce what the theory would predict. Then, try to get them to come up with studies that would extend the scope of the theory, show the limits of the theory, disprove the theory, or apply the theory to a real world problem.

If you want to have them base their prediction on evolutionary theory --or a theory based on evolutionary theory, you might refer them to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society's website (or this nice primer). Alternatively, you could assign the following article:

Schmitt, D.P., & Pilcher, J.J. (2004). Evaluating evidence of psychological adaptation:

How do we know one when we see one? Psychological Science, 15, 643-649.

Debate the value of theory

Table 3.4 summarizes the pros and cons of theory-based research. To enhance discussion, assign the following resources:

Aronson, E.(1989). Analysis, synthesis, and the treasuring of the old.Personality and Social

Psychology Bulletin, 15, 508- 512.

Greenwald, A. G., Pratkanis, A. R., Leippe, M. R., & Baumgardner, M. H. (1986).

Under what conditions does theory obstruct research progress? Psychological Review,

93, 216-229.

Skinner, B. F. (1956). A case history in the scientific method. American Psychologist, 11,


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