Writing the Conclusion

You have been furiously writing your essay for the past hour, and your hand is numb with exhaustion.  Don't give up now, though, because your conclusion determines whether your essay ends with a bang (or a whimper).  A good conclusion brings together all the individual concepts, theories and studies discussed, and gives a concise and insightful summary of what we know (and what we don't know) about some aspect of human behavior.

Step 1: Recap

Your conclusion should begin with a brief recap of your essay thesis - the main idea or argument that you first stated in your introduction.  Next, summarize the theories and research studies that you have already discussed in the body of your essay.  Essentially, you are reminding the reader of what you have been explaining (in much greater detail) in the rest of your essay.  You should only need around 2-3 sentences to do this.  

It might seem silly to repeat yourself in the conclusion, but it is actually helpful for the reader to remind them of the "big picture".  When you discuss research studies in the body of your essay, you should be giving lots of details - like the sampling method, experimental procedures, and so forth.  Once you arrive at the conclusion, however, the aim is to "zoom out" and give the reader a quick, bird's eye view of everything that has already been discussed.  And this naturally leads to the next part of your conclusion - synthesizing the research.

Step 2: Synthesize

In the body of your essay, you may have discussed each research study in a separate paragraph - first you discussed Study #1, then moved on to Study #2, and so forth.  While this is helpful for describing each study in lots of detail, it does not lend itself to a complete understanding of what all these studies - put together - tell us about human behavior.  Think of each research study as a piece of a puzzle, giving an important clue about human behavior.  It is not enough to have a pile of random pieces - you need to figure out how the pieces "fit" together.  When synthesizing the results from two or more research studies, here are the most common outcomes:

  • Study A and Study B support each other.  When two research studies arrive at similar conclusions, the results support each other.  Remember that the same topic - for example, the relationship between testosterone and aggressive behavior - can be studied in lots of different ways.  You could use human participants, or perform an experiment on animals.  You could carry out a controlled laboratory experiment, randomly assigning participants to different conditions, or carry out an observational study on different groups of participants.  You might even carry out similar studies on different types of participants - for instance, people of different ages, cultures, or social backgrounds.  In any case, when two different studies using different research methods come to similar conclusions, the two studies support each other, and it is said that the results of the two studies triangulate.

  • Study A and Study B complement each other.  In other cases, two research studies might investigate related - but distinct - aspects of human behavior.  For instance, suppose you are looking at various studies on the topic of why people get divorced.  Of course, divorce is a complicated matter, often involving many factors, and each research study might choose to focus on one particular factor.  One study might look at patterns of communication in healthy versus unhealthy relationships.  Another study might look at different types of marriage counselling, and which are most effective in healing a relationship.  Another study might even look at the role of mental illness in relationships.  These studies may all provide important findings on the topic of divorce, but from different angles.  Therefore, the findings of each study complement each other.  The study on communication in healthy relationships might be useful in developing effective marriage counselling, which might be even more critical in relationships in which one (or both) people suffer from a mental disorder.

  • Study A and Study B contradict each other.  It happens far more often than most Psychologists would like - but sometimes two studies arrive at completely different conclusions.  An experimental result obtained with one group of participants might not be successfully replicated with a different group of participants, or perhaps the findings of an observational study might be completely different to those of an experimental study.  When the finding of two studies contradict each other, it is important to think of why this might have happened - for instance, why different research methodologies or groups of participants might lead to different results.  Above all, it is important to be honest when we simply don't know what the answer is.  Sometimes it is best to wait until more research is carried out before making a definite conclusion.

Try it Out

For each of the following topics, do the two studies support each other, complement each other, or contradict each other?  See if you can explain why.

Topic: Cultural dimensions

  • Berry found that participants from the collective Temne culture were more likely to conform than participants from the individualistic Inui culture
  • Chen found that Singaporean-American participants were more likely to delay gratification when Singaporean culture was primed

Topic: Reliability of memory

  • Brown and Kulik found that participants had clear and vivid memories of where they were when JFK was assassinated
  • Neissar and Harsch found that participants often failed to accurately remember details of the Challenger disaster

Topic: Neuroplasticity

  • Rosenzweig and Bennet found that rats placed in an enriched environment developed heavier frontal lobes
  • Macguire found that London cab drivers had differences in brain structure after navigating the streets of London for many years
Step 3: Conclude

Now that you've recapped the main points of your essay, and synthesized the research studies, you are now ready to make a concluding statement.  The concluding statement should closely mirror your thesis.  It is a one sentence, simple, and precise statement summing up what we know on the topic.

If someone could read just one sentence of your entire essay, and still be able to understand the main "message" of your writing, the concluding statement should be it.

Step 4: Areas of Uncertainty & Further Research

The final step in your essay is to acknowledge any limitations or areas of uncertainty in your conclusion.  Remember that all the conclusions we make in Psychology are only tentative, based on the best evidence we have at the moment.  Even the most carefully designed research studies have limitations, and these limitations imply that any conclusions we make cannot be fully certain.  For instance, if much of the research on a particular topic was carried out on animals, an area of uncertainty is whether the same findings can be applied to humans.

Finally, it is customary to conclude a scientific paper with ideas for further research, and it is a great idea to end your essay similarly.  Ideas for further research are often intended to address the shortcomings or limitations with the current research.  Here are some examples:

  • If much of the current research lacks ecological validity, ideas for further research could involve studying more realistic, real-life situations

  • If much of the current research was carried out in Western countries, ideas for further research could involve studying other groups of participants from non-Western countries

  • If much of the current research is correlational, ideas for further research could involve designing experiments to establish cause-and-effect

If you have accurately identified areas of uncertainty and suggested some ideas for further research, perhaps someone who reads your essay might actually be inspired to carry out the research you have suggested!  And by doing so, the science of Psychology takes another step forward.

TOK Link

By discussing areas of uncertainty and limitations, you are acknowledging that all conclusions in Psychology are only tentative conclusions, rather than being absolute truth.

Why is that?  Well, simply put, our conclusions are based on the research evidence that we have right now, at this particular moment in time.  As you read this, Psychological scientists are carrying out research projects that could lead to new theories, further developments in existing theories, or even doubts on previously accepted findings.  The theories we have now will almost certainly be further developed, modified, or in some cases, completely discarded, depending on the new evidence that emerges in the years and decades ahead.

Knowledge in Psychology is constantly changing - and so any conclusion is based on a snapshot of knowledge in a particular moment, like a photograph of waves in a turbulent ocean.

Think Critically

Read the following conclusion.  Which sentence(s) of the conclusion...

  • States the conclusion?
  • Recaps the research discussed?
  • Synthesizes the research?
  • Identifies limitations?
  • Suggests ideas for further research?

"In summary, this essay has reviewed research by Bradsford & Johnson, who suggested that schemas can help retain new information in memory, and Bartlett, who looked at how memories of unfamiliar events can become distorted.  These two studies provide different perspectives on how schemas influence memory.  On the one hand, as Bradsford & Johnson have found, schemas can aid in the processing of new information, leading to greater recall.  On the other hand, Bartlett's research suggests that memory is a reconstructive process, and so schemas can cause details to be misremembered or altered to better match with our expectations.  In conclusion, schema theory explains both how we remember, and why we often misremember.  However, most of the research conducted on schema theory has been carried out on Western-educated participants, who have been brought up to remember within a specific cultural milieu.  It would be interesting to carry out further research on participants who come from different cultural and educational backgrounds, as the process of remembering (or misremembering) may be influenced by socioeconomic factors."

  • I understand the four parts of a good conclusion: Recap, Synthesize, Conclude, and state Limitations and ideas for Further Research

  • I can synthesize research studies, discussing triangulation and contradictory evidence where appropriate

  • I can identify limitations with respect to my conclusion, and suggest appropriate ideas for further research
Quiz Yourself!

1.  When two studies use different research methods but arrive at similar conclusions, it is said that the results ________

(a) Complement

(b) Synthesize

(c) Triangulate

(d) Self-evident

2.  What order is it recommended to write the conclusion in?

(a) Recap, synthesize, conclude, further research

(b) Recap, conclude, synthesize, further research

(c) Conclude, recap, synthesize, further research

(d) Conclude, synthesize, recap, further research

3.  Many studies in Psychology are carried out in universities, and the participants are mostly students.  How could further research address a limitation with this research?

(a) Triangulate the findings with animal research

(b) Control extraneous variables to establish cause-and-effect

(c) Replicate the research with different demographic groups

(d) Carry out similar research on different university campuses


1 - B, 2 - A, 3 - C