Approaches to Psychology

The psychological approaches serve as lenses for analyzing behavior, and reflect and shape our conception of human nature. They determine which aspects of behaviour we consider important and worthy of study, which questions we ask, and which methods of study we employ.

1. Biological Approach: Brain, Genes, and Behavior

The biological approach focuses on understanding how physiological and biochemical processes might produce psychological phenomena. It views humans as complex animals and focuses on genetic and physiological influences on behavior. Explanations for behavior are reduced to the workings of genes, the nervous system, hormones, neurotransmitters, and more.

2. Psychodynamic Approach: The Forces Within

The psychodynamic approach sees thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as stemming from the interaction of innate drives and society's restrictions on the expression of those drives. It focuses on personality processes, stressing the influence of internal needs, conflicts, and defence mechanisms on behavior.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was the most influential of the psychodynamic theories. He emphasized the role of unconscious impulses and defences, as well as the role importance of early childhood experiences. He argued that the most important urges are sexual and aggressive, and because they are not approved of by society, we all feel conflicts between getting our needs met and alienating other people. Our personality, according to his theory, is determined by the way we resolve those conflicts (primarily in our earliest years of life).

Later theorists saw attachment and interpersonal connection as primary drives. In general, psychodynamic theorists believe that much of human behavior is unconscious and rooted in childhood.

3. Behavioral Approach: The Power of the Environment

The behavioral approach sees behavior primarily as learned responses to predictable patterns of environmental stimuli. Behaviorists emphasize the role of the external environment and learning in behaviour, and deny that humans freely choose how to behave.

Pavlov's study of classical conditioning and Skinner's studies of operant conditioning exemplify this approach. This approach uses animals in order to glean general principles of learning that might then be applied to humans.

Behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner believed that psychology should restrict itself to the study of observable stimuli and responses, and felt that control over the environment was the key to bringing about positive social an personal change.

4. Cognitive Approach: The Thinking Human

The cognitive approach views humans as rational information processors and problem solvers whose higher mental processes allow them to think, judge, imagine, and plan. Its roots lie in structuralism, functionalism, and Gestalt psychology. It focuses on studying problem solving, attention, expectations, memory, and other thought processes. It developed largely as a reaction against behaviorists’ belief in focusing solely on observable events.

5. Humanistic Approach: Freedom and Actualization

The humanistic approach stresses the importance of conscious motives, freedom, and choice, and rejects Freud’s psychoanalytic emphasis on unconscious determinants of behaviour, and behavorists’ focus on external stimuli. It sees humans as people motivated by a desire for optimal growth and self-actualization, the reaching of one’s individual potential. It sees each person as having a unique set of needs, desires, skills, and abilities that he or she must be able to express in order to be happy and well-adjusted. This approach sees people as basically good, and tends to focus on positive aspects of development (e.g. how to feel good about yourself). Each individual is seen as the only one who can decide what his or her attitudes and behaviors will be.

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