Section C: Issues and Debates (32 marks)

Section C will comprise one 12 mark essay, which is likely to include a context and require one or more topics to be used to explain the context. You need to be flexible in questions such as these where you will be faced with behaviours which are not part of your specification. You are expected to put together arguments based on the material that you have learned, but using those theories/studies in new and creative ways.

Here is an example of two questions that are similar to the ones you will find in Section C of your exam with model answers to help you to practice the style.

Luna has played the flute for many years but suffers from severe ‘performance anxiety’. This is a type of phobia which stops her from playing in front of other people.

Evaluate the extent to which Luna could be helped to overcome her anxiety using concepts, theories and/or research from biological psychology and learning theories. (12)

The model answer below uses the ‘blended’ or ‘sandwich’ approach, alternating paragraphs of AO1 and AO3. AO1 paragraphs link relevant knowledge to Luna (AO2). The section on creating a fear hierarchy for Luna is a good example of applied knowledge. AO3 paragraphs combine supporting evidence (e.g. Maletzky et al.) with counterarguments and sustained links to Luna’s situation, (AO2), e.g. the evaluation of SD with links to trauma. This answer specifically addresses the extent to which Luna’s anxiety could be overcome. Engaging fully with what you have been asked is a critical skill so take your time to thoughtfully pick the question apart  before putting pen to paper!

Model answer:

Biological psychologists might think Luna is genetically predisposed to high stress levels, e.g. a gene mutation may have caused an abnormality in the way that brain produces neurotransmitters, such as GABA or serotonin.

This is supported by Egan et al. (2001) who found that inheriting two copies of the Val allele (a specific form of the COMT gene, which regulates dopamine) made people 50% more likely to develop schizophrenia. Luna’s anxiety may also be caused by genes involved in regulating stress, arguably making her anxiety hard to overcome. This said, the diathesis stress model suggests that although genetic factors increase vulnerability, other biological or environmental triggers are also necessary. Therefore Luna’s anxiety may subside if the triggers can be identified and removed.

A biological psychologist might also suggest that medication could be used to overcome Luna’s anxiety. As she perceives the audience as a stressor, her hypothalamus signals her adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, making her heart race. Blocking the effects of increased hormone levels could therefore be helpful.

This is supported by Maletzky et al. who lowered testosterone levels using Depo-Provera. This drug successfully reduced sexual aggression in offenders suggesting that drugs to block adrenaline could help reduce Luna’s anxiety. However, medication can have unpleasant side effects and she may prefer cognitive therapy to help her to see the audience as less of a threat.

Learning theorists believe that learned behaviours can be unlearned, providing hope for Luna. She could undergo systematic desensitisation (SD) involving the creation of a fear hierarchy, starting with the least scary thing, e.g. playing at home to her mum. She would gradually move up to the scariest thing, e.g. playing a complex piece in front of experienced musicians.

SD is well supported by research, for example, Capafóns et al. (1998) significantly reduced fear of flying in 90% of their sample using SD, suggesting this could work for Luna. However, not everyone benefits from SD. If Luna’s anxiety stems from some form of trauma, a therapy that focuses on changing beliefs might work better for her.

Another behaviourist therapy is flooding where there is no anxiety hierarchy. Luna would be plunged into the highest level of her anxiety whilst practicing relaxation until her anxiety subsides. The problem is that, when playing the flute, it would be difficult to focus at the same time on relaxing as one might with, for example, a spider phobia.

In conclusion, Luna should be hopeful that she can overcome her anxiety about performing. Drug therapy offers a temporary solution but behavioural therapy is more long lasting and less invasive, however it will require more effort and can take time.

443 words

Section C also includes a 20 mark essay. Here is an example of the final question in Paper 3.

Assess the issue of socially sensitive research in psychology. (20)

The final question on paper 3 tests your understanding of issues and debates topics and your ability to apply this understanding to all you have learned. However this doesn’t mean slinging in examples willy-nilly! If you try to stuff everything in you will fail to demonstrate the depth of your understanding. The essay given here focuses on just two examples, each fully developed and with the ‘correct’ proportion of AO1 to AO3 (2:3), balancing arguments for and against socially sensitive research. The brief introduction shows a clear understanding of Socially Sensitive Research (SSR) and concisely sets the agenda.

The AO1 material is presented in paragraphs 2 and 5. Each AO1 paragraph focuses on aspects of the theory/research which can be discussed in terms of SSR, e.g. prejudice associated with lack of critical thinking, implications for controlling violent behaviour. The paragraph on Raine et al. shows how all the important details (aim, procedure, findings and importantly the implications) can be condensed to just 150 words – a skill that needs to be practiced so that detail is not sacrificed.

Each AO1 block is followed by three well developed chains of reasoning (AO3), ensuring the 2:3 split between assessment criteria.

Balanced AO3 is achieved by explaining why the area is socially sensitive (first AO3 point) and then presenting reasons why research in this area should continue (second and third AO3 points).

To gain high marks, it’s important to show that to you genuinely grasp the significance of what you are saying. A good example in this essay is the discussion of lack of political diversity in US psychology departments which may lead to a lack of scientific evidence for certain views not because they are wrong but because research does not exist in this area.

The essay finished with a conclusion. In the longer essays, this can be an important differentiator between bands 4 and 5. The conclusion to this essay is measured yet succinct, showing a sensitive awareness of the implications of SSR, post-publication.

Model answer

Sieber and Stanley define socially sensitive research as studies that have potential consequences or implications for the participants or social group that they represent. This essay will look at two such areas of research: the authoritarian personality from social psychology and research by Adrian Raine, from biological psychology.

This research is socially sensitive as it is arguably offensive and divisive. People with right wing attitudes (RWA) may be offended due to the link to prejudice, which is generally seen as undesirable. Also, the link with cognitive closure could be used to support the view that that right wingers are less capable of critical thinking. This is important because psychological research should not be used to denigrate people who hold certain views; particularly as ‘scientific’ research is often seen as adding credence to a particular viewpoint.

This said such research should not be prevented; anything which illuminates the origins of prejudice could be critical in reducing it and protecting people from minority groups. For example, if RWA results from seeing the world as a dangerous place, strategies to challenge this view could be implemented, e.g. encouraging connections between people from different walks of life.

It should be remembered however, that lack of balance continues to be a problem for research in this area. Democrats outnumber Republicans 12:1 in US psychology departments (Duarte et al.) and this is socially sensitive as lack of political diversity means certain types of research may be favoured over others, leading to a one-sided evidence-base that arguably exaggerates certain issues and minimises others.

A second area of socially sensitive research is that of Adrian Raine, who studied the biological basis of criminality. His classic study (Raine et al. 1997) involved 39 men and two women charged with murderer or manslaughter, all of whom had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). Using PET brain scanning, he compared glucose metabolism in various brain regions for 41 murderers in comparison with a matched control group of non-murders. Participants had to identify targets on a screen by pressing a button, following an injection of a radioactive tracer. Ten images (slices) were then taken at 10 mm intervals throughout their brains. The scans showed differing glucose metabolism in various cortical and sub-cortical regions compared with non-murderers and several brain regions were identified that had not previously been linked to violence, e.g. occipital lobe, right amygdala, medial temporal lobe and thalamus. The over-arching implication of this work is that some murderers may be unable to control their behaviour due to biologically-based brain abnormalities.

This research is socially sensitive as it could be used to support changes in public policy, which may not always have the individual or society’s best interests at heart.  For example, Raine et al.’s research raises important issues; if crimes are due to pre-existing brain abnormalities, is the criminal responsible for their behaviour and would rehabilitation be effective? These are important questions as rehabilitation is expensive meaning evidence to support the view that it may be ineffective could affect government spending.

However, one should be cautious of socially sensitive research if there are validity issues. For example, 23 of the murderers had suffered a head injury and this uncontrolled variable may have reduced the internal validity of the study. This is important as it suggests differences between the brains of murderers and non-murderers may be less pronounced than initially thought. Raine et al. draw attention to the importance of understanding what can and cannot be logically deduced from their findings.

One further issue with Raine’s research in terms of social sensitivity is the possibility of predicting future criminality on the basis of brain scanning. Although this could be an important in protecting people from potential violent offenders, it removes free will, opening society up to human rights abuses. Brain scans may indicate potential for future criminality; however, knowledge of the results of such scans could lead to self-fulfilling prophecy.

In conclusion it is apparent that many areas of psychological research produce socially sensitive findings. Once the conclusions are in the public domain, politically-motivated reporting could lead the research to be used to legitimise certain views. However psychologists should not solve this problem by avoiding such research but must ensure that the research they produce is valid and they should monitor the way their research is used.

845 words