Generating Hypotheses Across the Disciplines

Take a chance to think: In your discipline, what sort of writing do you do? What do you make hypotheses about?

We all know that students of the scientific method are instructed to generate hypotheses and perform tests of those hypotheses through experiments. But, across the disciplines, we all generate hypotheses in our writing! If your discipline involves writing that includes beliefs or attempts at explanation, then this blog post is for you. A brilliant psychologist, Bill McGuire, came up with a list of 49 heuristics for how to generate better, more nuanced hypotheses. I will briefly describe my 7 favorites with the goal of helping you find at least one you can use in your own or your students’ writing, no matter your discipline.

Source: McGuire, W. J. (1997). Creative hypothesis generating in psychology: Some useful heuristics. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 1-30.

1. Introspective Self-Analysis
The fun here is analyzing your own behavior. Ask students to free-write about their past experiences. If you are trying to explain something that has not actually happened to you, then you can role-play or do a thought experiment by imagining how you would act in that situation.

2. Retrospective Comparison
There is nothing new under the sun! When attempting to solve a problem, consider analogies or other problems already solved, such as an opposite problem with a reciprocal solution. For example, try to explain why people resist taking drugs that are good for them, but cannot stop taking drugs that are bad for them?

4. Sustained, Deliberate Observation
Analyze case studies or engage in participant observation. If you are considering ethics or the nature of love, get out there and observe it in the world!

5. Simple Conversions of a Banal Proposition
This is my favorite! Step 1: Take an obvious hypothesis and stand it on its head. For example, if you assume that a more likable source will be more persuasive, consider when a less-liked source will be more persuasive? Step 2: Take an obvious hypothesis and reverse the direction. For example, if you assume watching TV violence leads to increased aggression, consider how increased aggression might lead to increased watching of TV violence? Step 3: Push a reasonable hypothesis to an implausible extreme. For example, although it is reasonable to assume that eye contact increases liking, what would happen if eye contact were pushed to the extreme?

6. Multiplying Insights by Conceptual Division
This one is helpful across the disciplines. Consider changing the language or labels you are using, such as by using synonyms or acknowledging distinctions between similar terms. This can serve as a great early, low-stakes writing activity.

7. Jolting One’s Conceptualizing Out of Its Usual Ruts
This is especially useful when one’s thoughts are constrained, as they often are with assumptions. Try reversing the focus of your attention, shifting from the nature of the cause to that of the effect, from costs to benefits, or try a new thinking style or seeing something from a different perspective.

Thanks to Bill McGuire for these and his other useful heuristics. Now, go out there and generate some neat, new hypotheses about the world!

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