Exam Tip: Etiologies of Abnormal Psychology
Tips for writing excellent essays in Paper 2

Travis DixonAbnormal Psychology, Assessment (IB)

It's the easiest topic to study for, but perhaps the most difficult to write essays about. This post should help.

As my students are preparing for an essay test this week on the topic “Etiology of Abnormal Psychology,” I thought I would share some advice on how to write good essays. The advice gets more specific and complex and the post goes on, so if nothing else I’d strongly recommend following tips 1 and 2.

The etiology of abnormal psychology topic requires that students can explain the potential causes of at least one disorder. In the themantic course we cover PTSD because the biological etiologies overlap nicely with the Criminology unit. But figuring out how to structure answers to these questions can be tricky. I’ll use examples from the PTSD unit to demonstrate a few basic tips I think will help students write better answers.

Read More: Etiologies

Tip #1: Start Simple, Establish Credibility

When writing about etiologies or explanations, my best advice is start simple. Identify a specific factor that is linked with a specific disorder. This is usually found in correlational studies or meta-analyses. The first part of your central argument could be simply identifying these factors and then explaining the correlational studies that show they are linked.

This will help establish your argument and also it builds credibility with your reader – they will see you know what you’re talking about and you have the evidence to back it up.

Example: One etiology of PTSD is abnormalities in the brain, in particular the vmPFC, hippocampus and amygdala. This is such a common finding that there are numerous meta-analyses investigating how strongly these abnormalities are connected with PTSD (these were added to the revision textbook and can also be found here). Or if you’re arguing about a cognitive etiology you might identify appraisals or socioeconomic status for socio-cultural etiologies.

Approach = Etiology/Explanation: Our biology, cognitive or sociocultural factors could be considered one etiology or one explanation. Similarly, a specific biological factor (e.g. genes or the hippocampus) could be considered one etiology or explanation. It is up to you to be clear in your essay which etiology or explanation you are focusing on.

Tip #2: Go Deeper: Explain the Symptoms

Now you’ve established a connection between a specific etiology and the disorder, you can go deeper by explaining the symptoms. Remember that a disorder is simply a collection of symptoms, so to explain why someone gets a disorder you have to explain why someone develops particular symptoms. This requires a deeper understanding of the topic, so if you can clearly explain why the etiology might lead to symptoms (i.e. the disorder) then you’ll be showing in-depth knowledge and understanding.

If you’ve identified the brain as an etiology of a disorder, you should be able to explain clearly why abnormalities in specific areas might lead to specific symptoms.

Example: PTSD symptoms are generally divided into three categories: arousal, avoidance and re-experiencing (I remember it because A.A.R. sounds like someone who is scared yelling “aaarrrrgghh.”). To develop your explanation of PTSD, you need to explain how the factor you’ve identified can explain one of those symptoms. For example, negative appraisals could explain symptoms related to arousal because of the top-down effect the appraisal has on the amygdala. Ideally, you would have a study that supports this explanation (e.g. Urry et al.). Or a more basic explanation could be that low volume in the hippocampus could explain memory problems, a common symptom of PTSD.

Remember: Etiology = Explanation. If you’re explaining an etiology of a disorder, or explaining a disorder (Topic v Content), you’re doing the same thing. Similarly, you can explain prevalence rates and disorders by explaining sociocultural etiologies (see how here). This is why my students prepare the Etiology topic for exams and ignore the others – it has the least content so allows for deeper analysis and conceptual understanding to be shown.

Tip #3: Critical Thinking

Remember that critical thinking is essentially arguing against your central argument – you are providing counter arguments. So if you need to find the limitations of the argument you’ve presented and the evidence you’ve used to support it. Ideally, you’ll do both!

Read More: Critical Thinking Summarized in ONE WORD!

A basic way of arguing against an etiology is to provide an alternative explanation. Something along the lines of, “Yes it might be biological, but it could also be cognitive.” And offer an alternative explanation for the disorder with a study. This is fine and will earn you a mark or two for critical thinking. But by itself it’s limited. This is why I recommend having three critical thinking points somewhere in your essay.

Offering an alternative explanation from a different approach (bio, cog, socio-cultural) is the simplest way to offer a counter-argument, so it’s also worth the least marks.

For example, if you used a correlational study to establish your argument earlier in the essay then you can evaluate the limitations of that methodology. Or, depending on the question, it might be relevant to point out that you’ve shown a disorder is not the product of a singular etiology or explanation, but rather a multitude of factors.

Better yet, the best alternative explanations are those that link in some way to the original argument. For example, if you’re saying that PTSD is a product of brain abnormalities, you could offer socio-cultural explanations for why those abnormalities may exist in the first place. Now you’re combining etiologies and showing an in-depth understanding of the topic.

My Best Advice

Adapt your response to the question! Do not go into the exam with a concrete, pre-conceived idea of how you will answer this topic because your answer needs to vary slightly depending on the question you are given. There is no way you can answer any possible question using the exact same content and structure. Have a framework, a guide, a model, yes, but be ready to adapt.

Read More: Exam Tips

Tricky Bits: Broad Questions

“Discuss one or more etiologies of abnormal psychology.”

This type of question can be tricky. It is allowing you a lot of freedom to construct a thesis and build a central argument with the research. You can go in-depth with one etiology, or you could skim across the surface. It also doesn’t mention a specific disorder so you could write about one or many. This is where planning becomes important and writing a good introduction – make it really clear in your introduction how you’ve chosen to answer this question:

  • Are you writing about one etiology or more? Which one/s?
  • Are you writing about one disorder or more? Which one/s?

Because I prefer the depth over breadth approach, if it were me my introduction might look something like this:

One etiology of abnormal psychology is brain abnormalities. This can be seen in people with PTSD. In particular, abnormalities in the hippocampus, vmPFC and amygdala could explain why some people get PSTD. Meta-analyses (e.g Karl) and experimental research (e.g. Urry) can be used to demonstrate these etiologies. However, it’s also important to consider possible causes of the brain abnormalities, including poverty and chronic stress, if we are to truly understand the causes of PTSD.

The above introduction is effective because it restates the question broadly and then makes it clear the argument that is going to be put forward. It also introduces the “but” at the end, which is important in an introduction as it helps to identify the problem or issue that will be discussed in the essay.

Good luck!