Comparison of approaches - Approaches

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Comparison of approaches


Differing psychological approaches can be compared and contrasted on a series of criteria that highlight the similarities and differences between them. The debates for comparison are: free will and determinism, nature—nurture, holism and reductionism, idiographic and nomothetic approaches, science versus non-science, and extrapolation from animals. The diagrams provided show the approximate position of each approach along the debate continuum, to show how the approaches compare.

Free will versus determinism

Free will is the ability to behave as one consciously wishes to. Determinism sees behaviour as controlled by factors outside of conscious control.

• Determinism: the biological approach sees behaviours generated from physiological sources and therefore outside of conscious control. The behaviourist approach sees behaviour as due to learned stimuli and responses and therefore controlled by experience. The psychodynamic approach sees behaviour as controlled by the unconscious mind over which individuals have no conscious control.

• Free will: the humanistic approach sees individuals as having full control over their thoughts and behaviour. The cognitive approach sees individuals as having the conscious ability to change ways of thinking (though how information is processed is determined by past experience).


Fig 5.7 Free will and determinism continuum


Nature sees behaviour as determined by internal innate factors. Nurture sees behaviour as determined through external environmental factors.

• Nature: the biological approach sees behaviour as rooted in genetics (though the idea of phenotype acknowledges environmental influence).

• Nurture: the behaviourist approach sees all behaviour as learned through experience, with no innate input.

The cognitive approach acknowledges nature through innate thought mechanisms, but also acknowledges nurture through environmental influences shaping mental processes.

The psychodynamic approach believes in nature due to the existence of innate drives, but recognises that nurture affects how parents raise children. Humanism sees nature present in innate drives to improve oneself, with nurture also present in the environment helping this process.


Fig 5.8 Nature—nurture debate continuum

Holism versus reductionism

Holism sees a person as a whole rather than the sum of their constituent parts. Reductionism sees behaviour as explicable through reference to the simplest mechanisms at work.

• Holism: the psychodynamic approach generally regards an individual as a whole (though seeing drives as underpinning behaviour is somewhat reductionist) and does not use scientific methods, so rejects experimental reductionism. Humanism regards individuals as wholes and also rejects experimental reductionism.

• Reductionism: the biological approach reduces behaviour to physiological causes and uses the reductionist experimental method. The behaviourist approach reduces behaviour to stimuli and responses and also relies upon the experimental method. The cognitive approach reduces mental processes to basic components to understand them and again uses the experimental method.


Fig 5.9 Holism and reductionism continuum


Idiographic explanations focus on the uniqueness of an individual. Nomothetic explanations concentrate on what individuals share in common.

• Idiographic: humanism sees individuals as unique, with no scope for generalising to others. The psychodynamic approach focuses on the unique childhood of each individual and favours the individualistic case study method (though is nomothetic in generalising from innate drives).

• Nomothetic: the biological approach sees humans as having a shared physiology, while the behaviourist approach seeks to establish general laws of behaviour that apply to everyone. The cognitive approach sees underlying mental processes as being generalisable to all humans and that people are similar in processing information like a computer.


Fig 5.10 Idiographic and nomothetic continuum

Science versus non-science

Science focuses on objective measurements conducted under controlled laboratory conditions. Non-science concentrates on methods of study other than those conducted under objective, laboratory conditions.

• Scientific: the biological approach is very scientific in experimentally measuring physiological output. The behaviourist approach is also very scientific in focusing on measuring observable behaviour (though social learning is not directly observable, so is less scientific). The cognitive approach uses controlled laboratory experiments, though as mental processes are not directly observable it is not as scientific as the biological and behaviourist approaches.

• Non-scientific: the psychodynamic approach is very subjective in its research methods and provides no scientific evidence of concepts such as the unconscious mind. Humanism rejects scientific analysis of behaviour and sees measuring behaviour scientifically as inappropriate in understanding individuals.


Fig 5.11 Scientific methods continuum


Extrapolation from animals concerns generalising the findings from animal studies to an explanation of human behaviour.

• Extrapolation: the biological approach generalises from animal studies, as animals are seen as physiologically similar to humans. The behaviourist approach also generalises, as it sees learning mechanisms as similar for animals and humans.

• Non-extrapolation: the cognitive approach does not generalise from animals, as animals do not use human forms of language to think (though some studies of perception are generalised from animals). The psychodynamic approach focuses solely on humans, with no animal experimentation or comparisons. Humanism sees animal experimentation as scientific and therefore inappropriate in understanding human behaviour.


Fig 5.12 Extrapolation continuum

Practical application

One practical application of psychological approaches is combined treatments for mental disorders. Separate treatments taken from different psychological approaches are combined. For instance, drug treatments (from the biological approach) are often given to depressives first, to reduce symptoms, and then cognitive behavioural therapy (from the cognitive approach) is administered to create a more effective treatment.