Holism and reductionism - Issues and debates

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

Holism and reductionism
Issues and debates


Holism concerns the viewpoint that, to be understood, behaviour should be considered in its entirety, as a whole, while reductionism concerns the viewpoint that behaviours should be reduced (broken down) into their basic components in order to be comprehended. Levels of explanation relate to what type of explanation is required. At a more reductionist level this would involve understanding behaviour from more of a biological standpoint, such as from a biochemical, neural, evolutionary or genetic viewpoint. At a more holistic level this would involve comprehension of behaviour from more of a psychological standpoint, such as learned associations, mental processes, emotions and socio-cultural influences. The holism—reductionism debate has implications for what kind of academic discipline psychology should be. If a reductionist stance is adopted, it places greater emphasis on scientifically determined, biological explanations, while if holism is adopted, greater emphasis is placed on other factors and levels of explanation, such as behaviourist, cognitive and social psychological ones. Biological reductionism involves explaining behaviour using biological systems, such as genetics or biochemistry, while environmental (stimulus—response) reductionism involves learned associations, such as those seen in classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning theory, which form the behaviourist perspective.


Fig 8.4 Various levels available to consider a behaviour

Focal study

Davis et al. (2013) assessed the role that genetics played in the causation of OCD and Tourette’s syndrome. The researchers used a study method called genome-wide complex trait analysis, which allows simultaneous comparison of genetic variation across the entire genome, rather than the usual method of testing genes one at a time. The genetic data sets of 1,500 participants with OCD were compared against 5,500 non-OCD controls. (The study also compared the data sets of 1,500 Tourette’s syndrome sufferers with 5,200 non-Tourette’s controls.) The results showed that both OCD and Tourette’s syndrome had a genetic basis, though more so in Tourette’s syndrome, and that although there were some shared genetic characteristics, the two disorders had distinct genetic architectures. This suggests the two are separate disorders with some overlap. The findings also fit a reductionist explanation, as they reduce the understanding of the disorders to a single biological explanation.


• Pichichero (2009) reported that case studies from the US National Institute of Health showed that children with streptococcal (throat) infections often displayed OCD symptoms shortly after becoming infected. This supports the idea that such infections may be having an effect on neural mechanisms underpinning OCD. Again this is a biological reductionist explanation, as it reduces OCD to a single biological explanation.

• Di Gallo (1966) reported that 20 per cent of people experiencing traumatic car accidents developed a phobia of travelling in cars, which is explicable by classical conditioning, as the neutral stimulus of the car became associated with a fear response. Not travelling by car is negatively reinforcing, as it reduces anxiety, which is explicable by operant conditioning. These are therefore examples of environmental reductionism.

• Boury (2001) found that depressives misinterpret facts and experiences in a negative fashion and feel hopeless about the future, supporting a cognitive explanation for depression, which is more of a holistic explanation than a biological one would be.

Positive evaluation

Image Reductionist explanations mean that an explanation can be rigorously scientifically tested under controlled conditions as there are fewer factors to consider. This means that empirical work can be conducted on an explanation and this gives it academic weight.

Image Humanistic psychology uses holism, as humanism believes that people can be understood only by being viewed in their entirety, rather than through single aspects.

Negative evaluation

Image Many psychologists acknowledge that the likelihood that a behaviour has a purely biological explanation is low. The complexity involved in every behaviour means that a purely reductionist explanation is rarely accepted as sufficient.

Image A reductionist explanation may mean that other explanations are ignored and underplayed. In the case of mental illness this could lead to a recurrence of the disorder, as all the factors have not been considered. For example, the behaviourist explanation of anorexia nervosa sees it as being learned through conditioning experiences. Therefore the treatment involves patients being positively reinforced for weight gain. However, once a target weight is reached and the patient is released from hospital, they will often relapse because the explanation (and the treatment) did not address the underlying non-behaviourist reasons for the patient being anorexic.

Practical application

Biological reductionism has led to biological therapies, such as drugs, that help sufferers of mental disorders. The improvement such treatments incur often then allows more psychological therapies, for example CBT, which are more rooted in holism, to be delivered, creating an interactionist approach to treatment.