Principal Approaches to Psychology
5 Scientific Foundations of Psychology
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Major modern perspectives or conceptual approaches to psychology are behavioral, psychodynamic, humanistic, biological, evolutionary, cognitive, and sociocultural. An overarching approach is the biopsychosocial model.
The behavioral approach focuses on measuring and recording observable behavior in relation to the environment. Behaviorists think behavior results from learning. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to salivate in response to the sound of a tone, demonstrating stimulus—response learning. Pavlov’s experiments at the beginning of the 20th century paved the way for behaviorism, which dominated psychology in America from the 1920s to the 1960s. Behaviorists examine the ABCs of behavior. They analyze Antecedent environmental conditions that precede a behavior, look at the Behavior (the action to understand, predict, and/or control), and examine the Consequences that follow the behavior (its effect on the environment). Behaviorists have rejected the study of consciousness/mental processes because such private events cannot be verified or disproved. American behaviorist John B. Watson said that psychology should be the science of behavior. B. F. Skinner worked mainly with laboratory rats and pigeons, demonstrating that organisms tend to repeat responses that lead to positive consequences and not to repeat responses that lead to neutral or negative consequences. He thought that free will is an illusion. Like Aristotle and Locke before them, behaviorists such as Watson, E. L. Thorndike, and B. F. Skinner took the position that behavior is determined mainly by environment and experience rather than by genetic inheritance. In Germany, Gestalt psychologists studying perception disagreed with structuralists and behaviorists, maintaining that psychologists should study the whole conscious experience.
In Austria, Sigmund Freud also disagreed with behaviorists. He treated patients with mental disorders by talking with them over long periods to reveal unconscious conflicts, motives, and defenses in order to enhance each patient’s self-knowledge. His psychoanalytic theory focused on unconscious internal conflicts to explain mental disorders, personality, and motivation. Freud thought that the unconscious is the source of desires, thoughts, and memories below the surface of conscious awareness and that early life experiences are important to personality development. Variations of psychoanalysis by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, Heinz Kohut, and others are collectively known as the psychodynamic approach.
By the middle of the 20th century, in disagreement with both behaviorists and psychoanalysts, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and other psychologists thought that humans have unique qualities of behavior different from other animals. The unique qualities of free will and potential for personal growth guide behavior and mental processes. Humanists emphasize the importance of people’s feelings and view human nature as naturally positive and growth seeking. Using interview techniques, humanists believe that people have the ability to solve their own problems.
At about the same time, research on the physiological bases of behavior flourished. Technological advances enabled biologists to extend knowledge far beyond Weber’s, Fechner’s, and von Helmholtz’s work to examine how complex chemical and biological processes within the nervous and endocrine systems are related to the behavior of organisms. Many biological psychologists think that the mind is what the brain does.
An offshoot of the biological approach, evolutionary psychologists, returning to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, explain behavior patterns as adaptations naturally selected because they increase reproductive success.
Technological advances also permitted psychologists to renew their study of consciousness (thinking and memory), currently called cognition. Cognitive psychologists emphasize the importance of receiving, storing, and processing information; of thinking and reasoning; and of language to understanding human behavior. Jean Piaget studied cognitive development in children, laying part of the foundation for preschool and primary educational approaches.
In the second half of the 20th century, travel and the economy became more global, greatly increasing interactions among people from different cultures. Psychologists recognized that people from different cultures interpret gestures, body language, and spoken language differently from one another. Psychologists began to study social and environmental factors that influence these cultural differences in behavior. The sociocultural approach examines cultural differences in an attempt to understand, predict, and control behavior.
No single theoretical approach explains all aspects of behavior, although all provide a framework for studying and understanding behavior. Most psychologists adopt ideas from multiple perspectives. Psychologists who use techniques and adopt ideas from a variety of approaches are considered eclectic. The biopsychosocial model integrates biological processes, psychological factors, and social forces to provide a more complete picture of behavior and mental processes. The model is a unifying theme in modern psychology drawing from and interacting with the seven approaches to explain behavior.