Critical Thinking About Human Behavior

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This course is under review for 2021. Course registration will open to accepted students once courses are confirmed.

Course Description

This course will introduce students to methods used by psychological science to help answer common questions about the “unknown.” We will examine common ways in which human thinking leads people to believe strange things and to maintain these beliefs even in the face of contradictory information. Students will develop critical thinking skills for evaluating claims about human behavior, especially claims made in the popular media concerning “paranormal” or otherwise unusual phenomena.

Why do many people believe in palm reading, alien abductions, past-life regression therapy, and ghosts? Can what you see in an inkblot reveal hidden aspects of your personality? Is it true that some people have the power to see into the future? The scientific method will be examined as a unique tool for overcoming cognitive biases. The distinctions between science and pseudo-science will be explored, including the gray areas or “borderlines” of science and science’s potential limitations.

Illustrations of concepts will be drawn primarily from psychology and medicine. Among the specific topics to be covered include extrasensory perception (ESP), recovered memories of childhood abuse and alien abduction, hypnosis, homeopathy, multiple personality disorder, the Rorschach inkblot test, and controversial mental health treatments (e.g., re-birthing therapy for children, facilitated communication for autism, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for post-traumatic stress disorder, and “energy” therapies). A skeptical perspective will be encouraged: keeping an open mind, while insisting on an adequate level of evidence, for ultimately accepting unusual phenomena. Dual mottoes of this course include Hume’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and James Oberg’s warning that one should keep an open mind, “but not so open that one’s brains fall out.”


1. Students will learn to identify the common cognitive heuristics and biases that influence thinking.
2. Students will learn the differences between science and pseudoscience and will be able to distinguish between the two.
3. Students will develop their critical thinking skills by examining controversial topics in psychology and medicine, and will apply these skills to novel areas.

Prerequisites: None

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPY0901
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

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Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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