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Controversies in Psychology

Academic Year
Instruction in English
ECTS credits
Course type:
Elective course
2 year, 1, 2 module


Course Syllabus


This course examines highly cited or frequently discussed topics and articles that have been the source of considerable controversy in the fields of social, cognitive, and clinical psychology. That is, findings or observations that have led the scientific community to debate the interpretations and implications, methodology or replicability, the ethics of the study protocol, or even biases of the researchers. The list of research topics covered will be broad. Examples include Milgram's "shock experiment" and Zimbardo's prison study, Loftus' research on false memories, as well as topics related to the efficacy of antidepressants and psychotherapy. We will also discuss the nature vs. nurture debate on intelligence, multiculturalism, issues related to social neuroscience, and even precognition. The course is in a seminar format and will require presentations and active participation. Students will be asked to debate the advantages and disadvantages of study methodologies, underlying theories, assumptions, and ethical implications. There are no course prerequisites, although students are expected to show interest in a broad range of topics in psychology.
Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

  • To familiarize students with controversies in psychology
  • To develop an appreciation for how ethical, design, replicability, and political issues may influence what is considered controversial
  • To foster critical thinking, open-minded discussions and respectful debate
  • To develop students' capacities to be able to present controversial scientific research and examine the advantages and disadvantages from a research design, statistical, sociocultural and political perspective
Expected Learning Outcomes

Expected Learning Outcomes

  • Students will develop skills to synthesize and report information, as well as to understand better the core issues of controversial topics and critically discuss the scientific foundations of controversial research.
  • Students will become familiar with the essence of some controversial topics in psychology, the conflicting issues which might be related to those controversies (ethical, methodological, interpretive, and otherwise), and their role in contemporary social, clinical, and cognitive psychology
  • Students will become familiar with common social and psychological preconditions for the presence of controversies, and will develop an appreciation of how to critically evaluate the empirical evidence base to come to their own conclusions
  • Students will develop their presentation skills as well as their skills to synthesize and report information, as well as to understand better the core issues of controversial topics and critically discuss the scientific foundations of controversial research.
  • Students will also develop openness to feedback during discussions, and develop debating skills
Course Contents

Course Contents

  • Introduction
    Course overview and issues: definitions, controversies in science, ethics, research design, replicability. Historical background: From Copernicus to 20th century conflict
  • Authority and conformity research
    Part I: Examination of Asch conformity studies, Milgram’s Shock experiments, Zimbardo Prison Experiment. Part II: Replication studies, ethical implications and aftermath
  • Military Psychology and Psychological Operations
    Military psychology, warfare and propaganda. Conspiracy theory or fact? A brief history and overview of research
  • Controversies in Clinical Psychology: Diagnosis, Assessment and Treatment
    Diagnosis of mental disorders: Do they exist? Psychological and medical treatments of mental disorders: How do they work?
  • Nurture vs. Nature
    Student Presentation 1: Environmental vs. genetic effects: Some of the controversies Case study: Intelligence, genetics, and culture
  • Social Priming
    Examples of experiments: primed by the elderly, professors, and hooligans. Student Presentation 2: Controversies in social priming literature and replication issues
  • Cognition: False Memories
    Introduction to false memories: Memory is not like a video recorder. Student presentation 3: Recent research in false memories
  • Precognition
    Precognition effects: Are they real? Student presentation 4: Recent research in precognition
  • Social and Cognitive Neuroscience
    Student Presentation 5: Social and Cognitive Neuroscience: Introduction and overview; Free Will Student Presentation 6: Social neuroscience: Issues of replication
  • Bias in Psychology
    Political leanings in Psychology: Left or Right? Student Presentation 7: Issues of gender, sexual orientation and identity
  • Multiculturalism and Acculturation
    Ethnic diversity, acculturation, social cohesion, and well-being: Conflicting findings? Student Presentation 8: Recent research on ethnic diversity and ethnic density; living in multicultural societies
  • Religion, Spirituality and Paranormal Science
    Student Presentation 9: Spirituality, religiosity and health. Student Presentation 10: Research in parapsychology
  • Debate
    Poll the class on issues that are most controversial and randomly assign students to debate teams. Generate debate between teams (for and against particular issues, research findings and implications)
  • Conclusions
    The Future of controversies in the field: review and exam review.
Assessment Elements

Assessment Elements

  • non-blocking Attendance
  • non-blocking Student Presentations
  • non-blocking Debate
  • non-blocking Final Test
  • non-blocking Mid-Term Exam
Interim Assessment

Interim Assessment

  • Interim assessment (2 module)
    0.35 * Final Test + 0.1 * Attendance + 0.05 * Debate + 0.25 * Mid-Term Exam + 0.25 * Student Presentations


Recommended Core Bibliography

  • Bale, J. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313220601118751
  • Cosgrove, L., & Krimsky, S. (2012). A Comparison of DSM-IV and DSM-5 Panel Members’ Financial Associations with Industry: A Pernicious Problem Persists. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.582988A8
  • Daryl J. Bem. (n.d.). This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record. Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.9F703811
  • Dunn, D. (2013). Controversy in the Psychology Classroom : Using Hot Topics to Foster Critical Thinking. Washington, District of Columbia: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=nlebk&AN=989417
  • John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, & Lara Burrows. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.A6944E5C
  • King, S. B. (2004). PSYOP and Persuasion: Applying Social Psychology and Becoming an Informed Citizen. Teaching of Psychology, 31(1), 27–30. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3101_7
  • Loftus, E. (1993). The Reality of Repressed Memories. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edscog&AN=edscog.600
  • Patihis, L., Ho, L., Tingen, I., Lilienfeld, S., & Loftus, E. (2014). Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.CECA0578
  • Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Jeong-Yeon Lee, & Podsakoff, N. P. (2003). Common Method Biases in Behavioral Research: A Critical Review of the Literature and Recommended Remedies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(5), 879. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.88.5.879
  • Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 1–40. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466605X48998
  • Ritchie, S. J., Wiseman, R., & French, C. C. (2012). Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem’s ‘Retroactive Facilitation of Recall’ Effect. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.3BC0287A
  • Rod Bond, & Peter B. Smith. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using asch’s. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.15607A17
  • Scott O. Lilienfeld. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology. Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.F78D81F7
  • Stephen Reicher, S. Alex, & Er Haslam. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The bbc prison study. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.63751587
  • Timothy B. Baker, Richard M. Mcfall, & Varda Shoham. (2009). Current status and future prospects of clinical psychology: Toward a scientifically principled approach to mental and behavioral health care. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.6203F5FB
  • Vul, E., Harris, C. R., Winkielman, P., & Pashler, H. (2009). Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.D2CF0727
  • Why psychologists must change the way they analyze their data: the case of psi. (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 426–432. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022790
  • Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466605X81720

Recommended Additional Bibliography

  • A Response To Wagenmakers, Van Der Maas, Daryl J. Bem, Jessica Utts, & Wesley O. Johnson. (n.d.). Must Psychologists Change the Way They Analyze Their Data? Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.55847967
  • Chambless, D. L., & Ollendick, T. H. (2001). EMPIRICALLY SUPPORTED PSYCHOLOGICAL INTERVENTIONS: Controversies and Evidence. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 685. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.685
  • John T. Jost, Jaime L. Napier, Hulda Thorisdottir, Samuel D. Gosling, Tibor P. Palfai, & Brian Ostafin. (2007). Are needs to manage uncertainty and threat associated with political conservatism or ideological extremity? Personality and. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.C0F736CC
  • Kerry Kawakami, John F. Dovidio, & Ap Dijksterhuis. (2003). Effect of social category priming on personal attitudes. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.D830864B
  • Rudmin, F. W. (2006). Debate in science: The case of acculturation. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&site=eds-live&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.22481D83
  • Turner, M. (2015). Can the Effects of Religion and Spirituality on Both Physical and Mental Health be Scientifically Measured? An Overview of the Key Sources, with Particular Reference to the Teachings of Said Nursi. Journal Of Religion And Health, 54(6), 2045–2051. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-014-9894-3