Biological Psychology Essay

Essay Question:

Critically evaluate how both biological and environmental factors influence human behaviour. Support your argument using empirical evidence.

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Q & As

Q:  I’m stuck.  Where shall I start? 

A: If you do not know where to start, consider reading the essay question again, and ten more times if necessary. Identify the key words and do a Google search. Expose yourself to different schools of thought relevant to the essay topic and then form your own opinion of it. Make sure that you shape your opinion using credible academic sources such as peer-reviewed articles and published reports rather than relying heavily on pop-science websites.

Q: What do you mean by ‘critically evaluate’?

A: Please be aware that “being critical” does not mean “being negative” or even “being nasty”. “Critical evaluation” requires an analysis behind it. For example, you may consider giving your verdict as to what extent you agree with the method and/or result of a study, and support your argument with sound reasoning and/or evidence found in other studies.

Q: What do you mean by ‘biological factors’?

A: Any measures obtained from the physical body can be deemed as “biological”, such as the blood pressure, the structure of the brain, the genetic makeup, the level of certain chemicals in the brain, and etc.  You may not wish to discuss an exhaustive list of biological factors in your essay though (which is impossible anyway); instead, consider focusing on one or two specific factors that you think greatly influence the behaviours.

Q:  What do you mean by ‘environmental factors’?

A:  Environmental factors may refer to an array of external sources of variance, such as prenatal/postnatal, nutritional, parenting style, social economic status, and so on. Similarly, you may focus on one or two specific environmental factorsthat you believe influence the behaviours.

Q: What do you mean by ‘humanbehaviour’?

A: Biological psychology is most interested in the relationship between biological factors and behaviour. In this essay, ‘human behaviour’ refers to observable action(or action tendency) and emotions associated with individuals or human race as a whole. Today, psychologists believe our behaviours are influencedby both biological and environmental factors, and possibly their interactions. You need to explain in your essay how empirical studies help to demonstrate this viewpoint.

You may consider defining a scope of behaviour that you intend to focus in the beginning of your essay,such as certain personality trait, antisocial behaviour, and etc. Past years’ experience has shown that focusing on some specific behaviour rather than discussing behaviour generally, was more likely to lead to an essay with higher quality.

Q: I can’t find enough information in text books or lecture slides to answer the question.

A: For this essay title you will need to conduct your own independent research in order to be able to answer the question.  One way to do this is to enter key terms from the essay question into search engines.  Remember that your essay is expected to draw on peer-reviewed journal articles for the most part.

Q: All of the ‘critical opinions’ on the relationship of biological factor and behaviour I can find seem at first to be strong, but then I do a bit of reading and there is lots of evidence to argue that there are other external determining factors of human behaviour, or that undermines the initial evidence that I found. How should I carry on?

A: Great!  Your essay needs to build an argument.  This means considering the evidence both for and against one stance.  Without this your essay would simply be a description, and would not demonstrate your ability to think critically.

However, please make sure that you do not dwell extensively on opposing the stance of biological determinism, or similarly, environmental determinism.  As mentioned earlier, it is believed that human behaviour is the result of multitudinous factors that can be roughly grouped as biological and environmental factors. The essay title asks you to explain HOW these factors influence human behaviours TOGETHER.

An example you may find useful is the classic study, which showed the probability of depression was associated with both genetics and stressful events in life. Some other examples of the biological and environmental interactionon human behaviourcan be children’s different level of sensitivity (biologically determined) to the environment, which is associated to a lot of favourable or disadvantageous outcomes. Bothexamples and their relevant studiesare discussed in the lectures and you may find the link to the key journal articles on Blackboard folders.

Moreover, Seminar 1 is dedicated to supportyour essay writing.  In short, you are provided with a lot of guidance and you should be confident in producing a high quality essay by Week 5 (as long as you work on it of course).

Q: I want to argue that biological factorsare more/less/equally important than environmental factors in influencing human behaviour; can I do that?

A: Go ahead.  Just make sure that you support your argument with appropriate evidence.

Q: I can’t locate the full text of an article I want to read using DMU resources.

A: Try googling it – a pdf version may be available. Or try going to the author’s website. The library also has an internal loan system, where you can request for the full text. This takes a few days though, so please leave enough time for this.

Q: I still can’t locate the full text of the article!

A: In this case, probably the best method is to try a different source that makes the same point.


Writing your essay

Researching your essay

  • Attend your lectures and seminars to get a reasonable overview of your topic and to help identify the aspects that you want to focus on in your essay, and to give you initial ideas for your argument and some evidence that you could include.
  • Decide on appropriate terms to search with and conduct literature searches. I would suggest that Google Scholar will be a more useful search engine than Psycinfo for this essay.  You can also look at specific journal websites.
  • Identify key articles – a recent review article is often a good place to start. You can also look at the citation index of articles as a guide to how influential the article has been.
  • Read actively – i.e. with a clear goal. As you read ask yourself (and make notes on) how the material you’re looking at could be used in your argument.

Content of your essay

  • This is a biological psychology coursework essay therefore the theory and research that you draw on need to discuss the biological bases of human behaviour
  • You must discuss the theoretical aspects (i.e. how people think behaviour is supported by brain activity) but you must also draw on empirical research to support the points that are made.
  • For a good mark you must demonstrate that you have researched your essay well – this means drawing on appropriate sources, and these should predominantly be peer-reviewed journal articles, with perhaps some text books. You should not use non-scholarly sources to support your argument.
  • You must demonstrate critical evaluation – this means critiquing theory and evidence where appropriate within your argument (do not make general criticisms – make criticisms that have a bearing on your argument)

Structuring your essay

Some people splurge everything onto the page, and then mould it into shape.  Others think carefully about how they are going to structure their argument before they start writing anything.  However you work initially, please bear the following in mind:

  • Ensure that (just like each individual paragraph) your essay has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning (introductory paragraph) should introduce the topic.  For this piece of work this means stating what specific relationship between brain and behaviouryou are going to consider, how correlational and experimental studies have helped in demonstrating this connection, and perhaps outlining the structure of your argument.  The middle of the essay should provide various paragraphs taking the reader through your argument.  The concluding paragraph should summarise the essay content and synthesise (i.e. draw together) the different threads of your argument.
  • Each paragraph should make one key point. Go through your work after you’ve finished and check that each paragraph is making one, clearly identifiable point.
  • The structure of each paragraph should be like a mini-essay: if you’re unsure a simple template of a paragraph is i) a topic sentence basically stating the point that the paragraph is making ii) a series of content sentences which perhaps provide support for the point, moderate the point or otherwise embellish it iii) a concluding sentence, which summarises for the reader what they should have learned from this paragraph.
  • Each paragraph should be an appropriate length (not two whole pages or at the other extreme a single sentence).
  • Check that the paragraphs are all in the most sensible order to communicate your argument; in other words, there is a good flow of your argument. Experiment with the orders of your paragraphs if necessary.
  • Check that each paragraph flows logically on from the last paragraph. You don’t necessarily need ‘linking sentences’, but do use them when appropriate.
  • Repeat the process of changing the order of your paragraphs and adjusting the content of your paragraphs until the structure of your argument is absolutely transparent.
  • Organise your time so that you have time to leave your essay (optimally for a day or so) between edits. This is really useful for improving or polishing your final submission.

Editing and proofreading your essay

  • Consider your writing style. Is it clear, concise, formal and precise?
  • Check for sentence length. Any longer sentences (over 30 words or so) could be looked at to see if they can be shortened or would be easier to understand if broken up into shorter sentences.
  • Check for unnecessary words or redundant phrasing (using a style guide will help you to do this).
  • If you have ever had comments that your writing-style or phrasing is unclear, try reading your final draft out loud.
  • You could also ask a friend to read your work, highlighting any sections that they think ‘another student’ might not be able to understand. This takes the pressure off them giving direct feedback on your work.
  • If you often have typos or spelling mistakes, try working through your essayWhen you are reading backwards you are only processing how the text looks and are not distracted by its meaning, allowing you to spot typos more easily.

Further resources

  • Use feedback from your first year essays to improve your work
  • Use guides available on the CLaSS (Centre for Learning and Study Support) website
  • Consider borrowing/buying an APA publication manual


If you have further tips or resources that you would like to share with your fellow students let me know (Dr Hui Yu: and I canshare them with your peers.


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