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Critical Thinking in Psychology

By Zentall, Thomas R. | The Psychological Record, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking in Psychology


Zentall, Thomas R., The Psychological Record


STERNBERG, R. J., ROEDIGER, H. L., & HALPERN, D. F. (Eds.). (2007).

Critical thinking in psychology.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pp. v + 340. ISBN 0-521-60834-1. $24.99 PB.

We all encourage our students to use critical thinking, but often it is done as an abstract exercise that, ironically, succeeds merely in uncritically listing the steps one needs to follow to become a critical thinker. Such is the approach used in many books about experimental design. The editors of this text, however, have chosen a different concept. They asked researchers whose work exemplifies critical thinking to describe the processes they engage to formulate research questions and develop designs for isolating the mechanisms responsible for the psychological phenomena they are studying.

A striking aspect of this approach is how the critical thinking of the past has led to innovative breakthroughs in the design of experiments. Those innovations, described in many chapters of this book, have become the now obvious, accepted practice of today.

The opening chapter, by Halpern, defines critical thinking by identifying various skills, acquired through training, that can be brought to bear on a problem. Several of the next chapters deal with the advantages and disadvantages of various experimental designs in minimizing the likelihood of allowing confounding variables to affect results while maximizing the likelihood of finding an effect. In Roediger and McCabe's chapter on the evolution of false memory research, the authors identify the pros and cons of various within-groups and between-subjects manipulations. The chapter by McDermott and Miller expands on this theme by describing the appropriate use of experimental and correlation studies. Sternberg and Grigorenko present 21 practical lessons to guide the design and analysis of research. Their strength is in the provision of specific advice and concrete examples; they make the lessons easily understood.

Shadish's chapter on quasi-experimentation notes the particular importance of critical thinking when one is faced with designs that for ethical or practical reasons do not allow for random assignment of subjects to treatments. And Schwarz's chapter on surveys and questionnaires notes how difficult it is to objectively design such research and interpret its results. Schwarz describes several threats to the validity of a study that can affect results by introducing subtle but often important biases. Although true of many of the other chapters in the book, this one in particular makes it clear that there is no single formula for designing excellent experiments. Instead one must think creatively about the kinds of problems one may encounter in interpreting the results.

The chapter by Martin and Hull clarifies when a case study approach is warranted. Although one tends to think of case studies as largely anecdotal and useful primarily in individual diagnosis, when they are used in neuropsychological studies, they can be very useful for identifying independent processes. For example, with a broad battery of tests one may be able to identify deficits that are quite specific in an otherwise normally functioning person. On the basis of a small number of case studies, there is convincing evidence that deficits in working memory can occur with little accompanying loss of either long-term (reference) memory or procedural (action) memory.

The chapter by Dennis and Kintsch focuses on the evaluation of a theory. Is it consistent?

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