1. What are the key approaches, issues and debates in psychology and how can I include them in my essays? (AQA)

You must discuss approaches, issues and debates in your essays in order to demonstrate good evaluation skills, to meet the assessment objectives AO2 and AO3. You must show an understanding of why an issue/debate is important for a particular topic and why it might influence our thinking about a particular approach or study.


·         The Biological Approach: Believes us to be a consequence of our genetics & physiology – we become ill, medically and/or psychologically, because of physiological or genetic damage, disease or accident – it is the only approach in psychology that examines thoughts, feelings & behaviours from a medical/biological viewpoint.


·         The Behavioural Approach: Assumes all behaviours are learnt (via operant & classical conditioning) & that our experiences & environment make us who we are.


·         The Cognitive Approach: A relatively modern approach that focuses on how we think, with the belief that such thought processes affect how we behave.


·         The Psychodynamic Approach: Proposes that our behaviour is influenced not just by conscious experience but by experiences & processes buried in our unconscious – says our personality is made up of 3 components – ID (pleasure complex – reservoir of basic inherited instincts e.g. sex & aggression), SUPEREGO (represents our moral conscience which develops during childhood), EGO (tries to protect us from anxieties using defence mechanisms e.g. repression into the unconscious).

Issues and Debates

·         Psychology as a science: Science emphasises objectivity. However, psychologists are people doing experiments usually on other people. They may have beliefs & expectations which in turn may influence the findings of an experiment. Also, the participant may react to the presence of the experimenter in unexpected ways.


·         Methodological issues: E.g. sampling, demand characteristics, social desirability.


·         Reductionism in psychology: Reductionism refers to explanations at the lowest & most detailed level. In psychological terms it is the belief that our behaviour can be explained entirely by one factor or group of factors. E.g. a common criticism of Evolutionary Psychology is that it does not consider our conscious thoughts or external influences. Similarly, the Behavioural approach only considers external stimuli and not evolved, predetermined behaviours.


·         Free will & determinism: We assume that individuals take responsibility for their actions & therefore have the free will to choose whether to do wrong or right. However, if behaviour is fully caused by factors outside the person’s control, then they do not have free will and cannot be responsible for their own actions.


·         Nature vs nurture: Central question is the extent to which our behaviour is determined by our genes we inherit from our parents vs. the influence of environmental factors e.g. home, school & friends. Extreme position is that behaviour is entirely determined by genes or conversely by our environment. Topics which are hotly debated under the nature vs. nurture argument include attachments and aggression.


·         Ethical issues: Most psychological studies involve ethical issues e.g. deception, privacy, psychological & physical harm. It is therefore important that BPS has strict guidelines that psychologists should follow when conducting research to protect participants from any harm.


·         The use of non-human animals in psychological research: Issue of generalizability of animal research findings to humans. The basic principles of behaviourism were largely based on Skinner’s work with rats and pigeons – can we really apply animal behaviour to human behaviour?


·         Gender bias: There are a number of consequences of committing this bias in psychological theories & studies – including:

§  Scientifically misleading

§  Upholding stereotypical assumptions

§  Validating sex discrimination

§  Avoiding gender bias does not mean pretending that men & women are the same.

o   Alpha bias: Theories that acknowledge real differences between men & women. These can be promoting or devaluing either sex i.e. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development view that women in many respects are ‘failed men’.


o   Beta bias: Theories that ignore or minimise differences between men & women. E.g. a study which only uses male participants & applies the findings to females, attachment theory ignores role of fathers.


o   Androcentrism: Taking male thinking/behaviour as normal, regarding female thinking/behaviour as deviant, inferior, abnormal etc.


·         Cultural bias: Psychology is predominantly a white, Euro-American enterprise. In some texts, more than 90% of studies have US participants, samples are predominantly white middle class.

o   Emics: Constructs particular to a specific culture i.e. an example of cultural relativism.


o   Etics: Constructs that are universal to all people, allowing cultural differences to be ignored.


o   Ethnocentrism: Occurs when a researcher assumes that their own culturally specific practices or ideas are ‘natural’ or ‘right’. E.g. early theories of relationship formation such as social exchange theory – heavily influenced by western capitalist ideas of personal possessions and worth.


Examples of applying approaches, issues & debates to specific topics

·         Biological rhythms (Biological rhythms & sleep):

o   Issues: Culture bias – many cultures have a siesta so their sleep rhythm is not circadian; case studies & small samples are not generalizable; animal studies may or may not be generalizable.

o   Debates: Siesta behaviour suggests nurture is also involved in circadian sleep rhythm.

o   Approaches: Very biological, but some research suggests individual differences.


·         Clinical characteristics & issues surrounding classification + diagnosis (Psychopathology):

o   Issues: Ethical issues are concerned due to the sensitivity of researching disorders, such as the giving of informed consent. There are also methodological issues such as the artificiality of criteria & the cut-off between normal & disordered. There are also cross-cultural differences in what is considered abnormal behaviour.

o   Debates: The classification systems could be argued to be deterministic in action.


·         Factors affecting addictive behaviour (the psychology of addictive behaviour):

o   Issues: There are cultural issues as to which behaviours (and their extent) count as addictions.

o   Debates: Nature & nurture interact, as some factors are innate e.g. personality, & others are environmental e.g. advertising & social norms.

o   Approaches: Cognitive explanations are important, e.g. in attributional style, but there are many factors involved, as the biopsychosocial explanation suggests.

Practice going through specific research studies/theories relevant to each topic, and picking out the relevant issues/debates or approaches.

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