Evaluating Psychological Theories

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Research Methodology

Evaluating a theory is really about figuring out if it's just a theory or if it's actually a fact.

Updated Aug 2020

Remember that before you can begin to evaluate a psychological theory you must first know and understand the theory in question. Once you know and understand the theory, including what it is a theory of (i.e. what it’s attempt to explain and how) and the key components of the theory, you can then begin your evaluation.

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I try my hardest not to do my own evaluations of research on this blog (or in my classroom). I see it as my job to provide students with the tools to conduct their own evaluations, hence this particular post. If I do the evaluation for you I am reducing the critical thinking to mere remembering. The same applies for evaluating studies.

Questions to Ask When Evaluating Theories

Where’s the supporting evidence?

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A good first step in evaluating a psychological theory is to find the evidence that supports the theory. You need to be able to describe at least one relevant study and then to explain how that study supports the theory. This should be relatively easy for most theories and most researchers who propose the theory have also conducted the supporting research.

A logical second step is to find evidence (e.g. a study) that contradicts the theory. i.e. the study suggests the theory is inaccurate. You can then describe and explain the contradictory study.

What are the strengths and/or limitations of supporting evidence?

You can also provide a methodological critique of the supporting studies. This is another way of demonstrating critical thinking because you are evaluating the theory by evaluating its supporting evidence.

You can read more about how to evaluate psychological studies here.

To what extent is the theory applicable?

A theory generally attempts to explain some aspect of human behaviour or mental processes, so you can evaluate a theory by looking at the extent to which the theory can explain one or more examples of the behaviour/s in question.

For instance, the Multi-store Model of Memory attempts to explain memory formation. Can it explain all types of memory? Can it, for instance, explain procedural memory? (I’m not saying it can’t, I’m just asking the question for you to answer!)

Are there some instances that the theory cannot be applied? This is valuable critical thinking practice.

Are there alternative explanations available?

If a psychological theory is the only plausible explanation then it’s probably a pretty strong theory. However, what if other explanations are available? This is a good way to evaluate and discuss psychological theories.

For instance, Realistic Conflict Theory can be used to explain inter-group conflict as the result of competition for resources. However, Social Identity Theory suggests that inter-group conflict can occur without competition for resources. Here we have two theories attempting to explain the same phenomenon (inter-group conflict) with different explanations.

Other alternative explanations could come from a different level of analysis. For instance, a biological explanation of behaviour could be offered to critique a social explanation. Does inter-group competition happen between all groups? What about groups of men versus groups of women. Perhaps there are biological differences between the genders which results in a lot more riots at soccer matches than at netball matches.

Remember you can’t evaluate a theory until you actually understand what the theory is trying to explain. Therefore, make sure you fully comprehend the theory and can summarize it clearly before tackling an evaluation.

Is there a better explanation available?

An excellent way to approach psychological theories is to look for alternative explanations (as outlined above). You might even be able to find better explanations than the theory you are evaluating has provided. This is really extended your knowledge of psychological theories and is a very challenging piece of critical thinking.

Is the theory applicable cross-culturally?

If a theory is claiming to be able to explain human behaviour and/or mental processes, then it should be able to be applied across different cultures. Most psychological theories are developed in Western countries and so it’s relevant and useful to challenge the extent to which these theories can be applied in different cultural contexts.

A useful understanding of Hoefstede’s theory of cultural dimensions (e.g. individualism and collectivism) is useful here.