Learndojo icon
Latest Specification Fully Covered.

AQA A-level Psychology Approaches In Psychology

This section provides revision resources for AQA A-level psychology and the Approaches In Psychology chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your A-level psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

AQA A Level Psychology Signups
aqa gcse psychology social influence
AQA A Level Psychology Approaches in Psychology Revision
A* Grade Resources used by thousands of schools and students.
Everything You Need, Fully Covered
The best investment you'll make.

We've covered everything you need to know for this Approaches in Psychology topic to smash your exams.

  • The latest AQA GCSE Psychology specification (2024 onwards) has been followed exactly so if it's not in this resource pack, you don't need to know it.
  • We've provided practice questions at the end to help you get better with this topic.
  • Completely free for schools, just get in touch using the contact form at the bottom.
  • Teachers can print and distribute this resource freely in classrooms to aid students and teaching.
  • Instant download, no waiting.
Download Resource Pack
The Emergence Of Psychology as a Science

The Origins of Psychology

The A-level psychology specification states it wants you to know about the origins of psychology and specifically the work of Wilhelm Wundt, Introspection, and the emergence of psychology as a science and therefore our focus will be on providing content that tackle these elements.

You may get small questions asking just about introspection, or the emergence of psychology as a science or even a big broad question which allows you to incorporate everything (including Wundt’s contribution).

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt is credited as being the first psychologist when in 1875 he created the first psychological laboratory in Germany, Leipzig.

Wundt later founded the institute of Experimental Psychology with Gustev Fechner in 1879. His approach led towards the acceptance of psychology as a science within its own right as it moved away from the realms of philosophy, physiology and biology. Granville Stanley-Hall is credited as establishing the first American laboratory in 1883 with the American Psychological Association founded in 1892.

Wundt wished to study the structure of the human mind and believed this could be achieved by breaking down behaviours such as perception and sensation into their basic elements. His approach was known as structuralism and the technique he used became known as introspection which is latin for “looking into”.


Approaches in psychology introspection

Wundt trained participants to become self-aware enough to observe and report back their inner mental processes and emotional states within experiments when subjected to stimuli such as pictures or auditory tones and then describe what they experienced.

Participants are shown an object for example and then asked to report how they were perceiving it. This information was then used to generate general theories about perception and mental processes and gain insight into their workings. Wundt initially believed all aspects of human behaviour could be investigated via experiments using introspection like this including memory and perception. Wundt later realised that learning, language and emotions could not be studied through laboratory experiments. This was in part due to such self-reports being found to be unreliable and difficult to replicate and ultimately subjectively down to the individual.

Introspection Evaluation

Introspection was found to be inaccurate. It relied on responses which could not be observed nor was it possible to use it effectively to formulate theories on memory or perception. Introspection was also difficult to replicate between participants highlighting its unreliability when compared to behaviourist explanations such as classical and operant conditioning which could be replicated.

Introspection was only suited for people who were able to show an ability to have self- awareness so it was not appropriate in understanding all behaviour from people. In addition it did not uncover unconscious attitudes or bias people may hold which influence behaviour and choices people make as they were unaware of them. For these reasons it was found to be inaccurate.

The Emergence Of Psychology as a Science

For psychology to be accepted as a science it had to adopt the scientific methods of other natural sciences such as chemistry and biology.

Psychology relies on empiricism, also known as the empirical method, which gathers knowledge from observation and experience. Empiricism is based on the assumption of determinism and that all behaviour has a cause and if this is the case it can also be predicted within different situations. This technique became known as the scientific method.

The scientific method uses investigative methods which are objective, systematic and replicable. Objectivity looks to insure researchers do not let their bias or preconceived ideas influence their collection and recording of data. Being systematic involves conducting experiments in an orderly way with measurements carried out accurately while considering possible influences to recording that may occur.

Replicability is about reliability so that studies and observations are replicated when conducted by other researchers to insure validity in results. If different results are obtained this would mean they are not universally acceptable as true.

The development of theories within psychology follows the scientific cycle of building, refining and falsifying on observations, developing theories and testing these again with objective, systematic and replicable observation.

The Emergence Of Psychology as a Science

Evaluating Psychology as a Science

  • As psychology relies on the same scientific methods as other natural sciences which includes the systematic, objective and replicability of research, it is seen as a credible science. Research can also replicated and verified to test the reliability of findings and theories into human behaviour. As psychology see’s all behaviour as deterministic, experiments can be created to establish the cause and effect relationship through empirical and replicable research.
  • However, of all the natural sciences, psychology is the most inferential with direct cause and effect being hardest to establish between data observations and theories which look to explain the findings. When compared to biology or chemistry, the results even between replicated studies vary more greatly which weakens the case for psychology being a credible science.
  • Another weakness is not all behaviour or the workings of the mind can be explored or explained by psychological research and the scientific method. This means predicting behaviour becomes impossible as the scientific method itself may be inappropriate within psychology.
  • As the scientific approach focuses on objectivity and control within observations, when used to explain human behaviour through controlled environments, the situations may be contrived to natural settings. This would invariably tell us little about how people behave outside the laboratory settings and the findings may only be limited to the experiments themselves.

The Behaviourist Approach

The behaviourist approach assumes human behaviour can be explained mostly through a basic form of learning known as conditioning and learning through experience.

Conditioning involves forming learned associations between a stimuli and a response (either positive or negative) and assumes humans are born as a blank slate without genetic influences on behaviour.

There are two types of conditioning which explain human behaviour which are; classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning and Pavlov's Research

classical conditioning Pavlov's Dog

Classical conditioning originated through the work of Pavlov (1927) and occurs through learning by association.

A behavioural response is learned when it becomes associated between a previously neutral stimulus and a reflex response. The natural stimulus is called the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and the natural response to it is known as the unconditioned response (UCR).

In Pavlov’s experiments of classical conditioning the UCS was food given to the dog which produced the unconditioned response of salivating (UCR). By introducing a neutral stimulus of a bell (NS) which is rang shortly before this food (UCS) is given, after many pairings of the two, the NS (bell) is able to produce the same response of salivation without the UCS (food). The NS (bell) is now known as a conditioned stimulus (CS) and the response of salivation is known as the conditioned response (CR).

Pavlov found that he was able to condition his dogs to produce the conditioned response of saliva at the sound of a bell (CS) even in the absence of food this way. There were important factors that affected conditioned learning this way, first of which was time. If the NS is not introduced immediately before the UCS or if the time is too long between the two, conditioning will not occur. Pavlov also found that the conditioned response was not permanent and over time, if no food (or UCS) is given, the conditioned response of saliva will eventually cease to occur (extinction). When the conditioned stimulus (food) and unconditioned stimuli are paired once again, the link between the two and the conditioned response is re-established again faster than initially made. Pavlov also found that animals will produce the conditioned response to other stimuli which may appear similar to the conditioned stimulus.

Classical Conditioning Evaluation

  • Behaviourist explanations such as classical conditioning have been shown to have validity and reliability as an explanation for learning as they have been successfully recreated in replicated studies.
  • Another strength of classical conditioning is, as it assumes all behaviour is learnt it can simply be unlearnt. This has led to real world applications through the training of sleep behaviour in babies to even dogs and obedience training. Our understanding of classical conditioning has also led to the development of therapies which eliminate or reduce phobias through systematic densensitisation. This therapy replaces a learned anxiety based response from feared objects or situations with a relaxation based response to reduce anxiety. The effectiveness of this approach can only be possible if the behaviourist approach has validity as an explanation for behaviour and learning.
  • A major weakness however, is classical conditioning as an explanation for behaviour and learning is criticized as being dehumanising and mechanistic with people being reduced to simple programmable stimulus-response units. The theory is therefore too reductionist as it portrays humans as far too simple than they are and the theory does not account for the free will and ability for conscious thought everyone has.
  • The approach is also deterministic in assuming behaviour will always remain the same until unlearnt which is not necessarily true as people are known to change behaviour dramatically and with little to no reason due to free will. This may be better explained through cognitive explanations which is able to link behaviour to prior thoughts through Ellis’s ABC model which undermines behaviourist explanations as they can not account for this.
  • Another weakness to this approach is it cannot fully explain nor treat all disorders such as schizophrenia for example which has been linked to biological causes (high dopamine). This explanation would then result in behaviorist treatments and this may only treat the symptoms rather than the true underlying cause which may not lead to long lasting solutions with the true cause persisting. It may be that symptoms are behavioral while the cause is potentially biological in some cases which this explanation for behaviour completely ignores.
  • Behaviourist explanations such as classical and operant conditioning have mainly been tested only in animal studies which while providing us the ability to test various conditions to understand how behaviour is learned, the results may not generalize over to humans. This is because laboratory experiments involving humans are usually contrived in nature and may not explain everyday learning for us. Also animals are far simpler in thought patterns while humans can “think” beyond simple scenarios they may be presented with which behaviourist explanations do not account for.

Operant Conditioning and Skinner's Research

Operant Conditioning and Skinners Research

Operant conditioning works on the principle of learning through consequences and there are 3 main ways behaviour may be learnt; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement strengthens a particular behaviour that freely occurs which makes it more likely to occur. Positive reinforcement focuses on encouraging a pleasurable response while negative reinforcement looks to remove something unpleasant from happening.

Skinner (1938) popularised operant conditioning through his work on rats. He found that when a rat which was placed in a special cage accidentally pressed a lever and was rewarded for this behaviour with food, it would subsequently press the lever consciously to obtain more food as this behaviour had become positively reinforced through gaining the reward of food. When the food pellet ceased to be given by the lever the rat would eventually stop pressing it as extinction of the behaviour occurred.

Behaviourists propose human behaviour is learnt this way and made more likely if perceived positive rewards are associated with engaging in particular behaviours. Negative reinforcement works by removing unpleasant stimuli from happening.

Skinner experimented with this by providing unpleasant loud noises which the rat could switch off through the press of a lever. He found negative reinforcement also reinforced behaviour this way as rats would repeatedly press the lever to avoid unpleasant noises. He also found that when the lever led to punishments such as electric shocks being administered, they were less inclined to press it highlighting how punishment can stop a behaviour from occurring altogether. Aversive behaviours in humans are proposed to be negatively reinforced as we try to avoid unpleasant outcomes by engaging in particular behaviours while punishments cause some of our behaviours to cease completely.

Operant Conditioning Evaluation

  • A strength of skinner's research into operant conditioning was it relied on the experimental method which allowed the use of controlled conditions through the skinner box. This allowed causal relationships between two variables to be established as he could see how manipulation of the consequences of behaviour (IV) affected behaviour itself (DV). This also allowed accurate predictions on behaviour to be made too.
  • A criticism of skinner's work and research into operant conditioning as an explanation for behaviour is it has relied heavily on animals such as rats and pigeons. They are significantly different from humans and therefore the findings may lack external validity to real world situations for humans. This is because humans have free will and behaviour is not so easily determined by positive or negative reinforcement.
  • Operant conditioning focuses only on observable behaviour however does not factor in the influence of thoughts and cognitive processes. Due to this operant condition can not account for impulsive or spontaneous behaviours that people engage in sometimes that may have no perceived benefit and for this reason the explanation is too simplified and not holistic enough to explain all types of behaviour.
  • The explanation also suggests that we do not have control over our own behaviour as we act merely on reinforcement which is deterministic. This raises ethical and legal issues especially if someone can argue they are not responsible for their own actions when committing crimes for example as they have no free will of their own which behavioural explanations discount completely.
  • Although operant conditioning is easy to test and verify in laboratory settings with animals, a major weakness is it is difficult to generalise the findings to humans. This is because experiments such as skinner's box are contrived and have no mundane realism when applied to daily scenarios humans face meaning we may not be able to draw the same conclusions outside the artificial setting of a laboratory.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory Bandura

Bandura’s social learning theory suggests learning occurs through not only direct experience and observing the consequences of ones own behaviour but also through vicarious learning and the observation of other peoples actions (models) and the consequences they face, be they positive or negative. Model’s can be live models which carry out out an attitude or behaviour and this may be a parent, teacher or peer group member or a symbolic model which may be someone from the media. These models provide examples of attitudes or behaviours which are observed and reproduced through a process known as imitation. Imitation of behaviour and attitudes is learnt much more quickly through models than conditioning. There are 3 key factors which determine whether a behaviour will be imitated;

  1. The characteristics of the model
  2. The confidence the observer has in their own ability to copy the models behaviour
  3. The observed consequences of the behaviour in question

Imitation of a model is more likely if the observer is able to relate and identify with the model. Identification with the model is therefore a key determinant of imitation and this may be through the observer believing the model is similar enough to them that they would experience similar consequences themselves through the behaviour.

Gender is one factor which research has found to make identification with the model easier (Shutts et al (2010) and thus make social learning more effective.

Bandura found that behaviour observed and seen as rewarding by children was more likely to be repeated compared to behaviour which was punished. This was coined vicarious reinforcement as individuals learnt about the consequences of behaviour through others rather and compare the outcomes to themselves.

Social learning theory unlike behaviourism, factors internal cognitive process that occur prior to imitation and these are known as meditational processes. Behaviour is not instantly imitated and there are four meditational processes Bandura documented. These are Attention, Retention, Reproduction and Motivation. Behaviour must first grab the attention of the individual, retention involves the behaviour being remembered or mental representations of the behaviours use while reproduction involves the observer believing they have the ability to reproduce the behaviour themselves.

Lastly there must be motivation for the observer to use the behaviour in a given situation where they see the rewards of its use outweighing the potential costs.

Social Learning Theory Evaluation

The main supporting evidence for social learning theory comes by Bandura himself in a study known as The Bobo Doll study.

This involved children observing aggressive and non-aggressive adult models and then being tested to see whether they would imitate the behaviour themselves. Children were aged 3-5 years old, both male and female. Half were exposed to adult models behaving aggressively towards a life-size Bobo doll and the other half were exposed to non-aggressive models. Following exposure to the model, children were “frustrated” by being shown toys that they were then not allowed to play with.

Children in the “aggression” condition reproduced a good deal of physically and verbally aggressive behaviour similar to the model. Children in the non-aggressive group exhibited virtually no aggression towards the doll. This supports social learning theory and demonstrates how children may acquire aggressive acts by modeled behaviour by others.

Bandura & Walters conducted a separate study to try and identify why a child would be motivated to perform the same aggressive behaviours in the absence of a model. Children were divided into 3 groups with each seeing a different ending to a film of an adult model behaving aggressively towards a bobo doll.

Group 1 saw the model rewarded for showing aggressive behaviour, Group 2 saw the model punished for showing aggressive behaviour and Group 3 observed the model but there were no consequences for the aggressive behaviour.

They found that the children’s subsequent behaviour was affected depending on which ending they had watched. Children in Group 1 who saw the model rewarded for aggression showed a higher level of aggression in their own play. Children in Group 2 who saw the model punished showed a low level of aggression in their play, while those with no reward (Group 3) were somewhere in between. This supports social learning theory and the idea of vicarious learning and reinforcement influencing the learning and imitation of behaviour.

Identification being important for imitation is also supported through research. Fox et al (2009) exposed participants to computer generated virtual humans who either looked similar or different and engaged in exercise behaviour or loitering behaviour. For participants who observed models that looked similar to themselves and engaged in exercise, in the 24 hours that followed, researchers found these participants were more likely to engage in exercise behaviour themselves when compared to participants who observed virtual models loitering who were different to them. This lends support for identification with the models being important for retention and imitation of behaviour.

Another strength for social learning theory is it can be considered a more holistic approach than behaviourism for example, which focuses only on observable behaviours. Social learning theory also includes cognitive processes (meditational processes) which has more face validity as thoughts proceeding behaviour is something people can generally relate to.

A weakness however is social learning can not explain all behaviour particularly when there appears to be no apparent role model for individuals to have learnt from. This weakness is more evident when imitation revolves around psychopathic behaviours or abnormal behaviours which are limited to just one individual within the family with no opportunity to learn from a model. Therefore social learning as an explanation for all behaviours is not appropriate and biological explanations may be better suited in some cases involving mental disorders.

Another major issue is the problem of determining causality between someone being exposed to behaviour and imitation. Increased association with deviant peers according to this theory, increases the probability of the individual adopting the same values however establishing cause and effect is difficult. It may be that the individual had such attitudes prior to exposure which explains their interest in such peer groups. Therefore confounding variables such as individual differences and personality may be a factor affecting results.

Another issue that arises is ethical issues in social learning research. Children in Bandura’s study were exposed to aggressive behaviours with researchers knowing full well that they may learn this beyond the study which raises concerns. Testing such social learning on people now would be unethical but also difficult to establish the scientific credibility of this theory.

One of the major issues with applying social learning to human behaviour is the complexity of all the different external exposures people experience which is impossible to isolate as the cause or whether internal factors influence this or not. For example social learning theory would explain the development of gender role behaviour due to modeling through peers, parents and media however genetic predispositions as well as the person's own internal locus of control is not fully considered. This makes it incredibly difficult to say for certain social learning is what causes behaviour rather than innate factors.

Another issue is the explanation portrays us humans as being driven purely based on reinforcements for particular behaviours. Plenty of examples exist where people could easily benefit from a given behaviour but choose not to, e.g. finding someone's wallet and handing it in to the police instead of keeping it. There is more complex cognitive processes occurring therefore which social learning theory does not fully explain.

The Cognitive Approach

The next section is the “cognitive approach” which focuses on the study of internal mental processes and a small section on the emergence of cognitive neuroscience.

The study of internal mental processes includes the role of Schema’s and the use of theoretical computer models while cognitive neuroscience is separate. The potential full 12 marker for AS students and 16 marker for A level will likely focus on outlining and evaluating everything however and while smaller questions may ask you separate questions for each, the content below should help inform your answer.

The cognitive approach focuses on peoples perception, interpretation, storage as well as the manipulation of information by studying the internal mental processes to understand behaviour.

The cognitive approach assumes thought processes can and should be studied scientifically through laboratory studies. It also see’s the mind work similar to a computer with most of cognitive psychology often referring to the information processing model and metaphors such as “encoding, processing and retrieval” are used to explain what occurs within the human brain.

As cognitive processes are not actually visible to be tested directly, psychologists must study them indirectly through making inferences about results gained from observing behaviour.


Schema’s are a cognitive framework and represent ideas and expectations the person holds about a person or situation.

They form through experience and aid in making future predictions of events or situations for us and remain unique to each individual as our experiences are subjective to ourselves. This means we see the world dependent on our own experiences and therefore our own version of reality is created through influences from these schema’s.

Schema’s can be useful as they allow us to fill in the gaps when information is lacking based on past experiences however they may also exclude anything which does not conform to our established expectations or ideas about the world. This can be problematic as Schema’s can cause individuals to focus on things which confirm people’s pre-existing beliefs and ideas rather than allow us to accept new ones. Recall and memory as well as perception may therefore also be influenced by Schema’s as we “see what we want to see” and remember only select or biased versions of events.

The Role Of Theoretical & Computer Models

Theoretical models such as the multi-store memory model and working memory model have been created to try understand how cognitive processes work in the formation of memories.

Theoretical models provide a scientific means to test ideas and make predictions however these are simplified versions which are based on research evidence to make inferences about mental processes which can not be directly tested. They provide an illustrative way to display different memory stores, cause and effect and how mental processes occur in a linear way between different stores e.g. how information passes from the environment to the sensory store and then to short-term memory and long-term memory.

Such models assume that the mind works similar to that of a computer and through a series of processing steps; for example the information processing model proposes a simple 3-step process involving input, processing and output.

Computer programming has allowed us to make inferences on how the human mind may work in a similar way and comparisons have been drawn between how we receive information using computer related terminology. For example, using the information processing model information is inputted through our senses and processed and encoded in memory. Long-term memory is compared to the hard-drive of a computer's memory while RAM may relate to working memory and a temporary workspace.

Models therefore provide a means to test individual elements; when results do not fit with the model it can easily be changed or updated.

The Emergence Of Cognitive Neuroscience

The advancement of technology has led to the emergence of cognitive neuroscience which allow researchers to study the living brain. This has brought together brain scanning technologies when studying cognitive processes involved in memory and attention giving detailed information about which brain structures are involved in different mental processing.

Neuroimaging techniques such as PET scans and FMRI highlight different parts of the brain as active when engaging in cognitive activities which test memory, perception, attention and even emotions.

For example Burnett et al (2009) found guilt highlighted numerous brain regions including the medial pre-frontal cortex which was associated with social emotions. Patients suffering from brain damage may also be used to take part in cognitive tasks while undergoing scans to see how the brain reacts. When they are compared to “normal” people and their brain functioning, the pattern of brain activity and differences can help make inferences on how cognitive processes function normally.

The Cognitive Approach Evaluation

The cognitive approach provides us with useful applications and can be applied in various areas of psychology.

For example this approach has helped us better understand how we form impressions of other people within social psychology and how we may form biases that can influence how we interpret other people's behaviours due to our schema’s.

When applying the cognitive approach to psychopathology it has also highlighted that dysfunctional behaviour can usually be attributed to faulty or irrational thought processes which preceded the behaviour itself further highlighting its validity.

This approach has also led to practical real world applications and the development of CBT based treatments which have proven effective in the treatment of OCD and depression which could only be effective if the problems themselves were cognitive based as this approach suggests.

The cognitive approach uses experimental methods to conduct research as it provides researchers with a rigorous method to collect and evaluate evidence which is a major strength of this approach. The conclusions researchers draw from these findings are therefore much more than methods such as introspection can offer as repeat studies and show reliability through finding similar results.

A major weakness however is that the cognitive approach relies on computer based models to explain how human coding occurs. Terms such as “encoding, storage and retrieval” are taken from computer terminology and there is a huge difference between information processing which occurs with machines and organic biological structures such as the human mind. For example the human mind is more prone to errors, forgetting or “retrieving” incorrect information from memories which computers do not do. Therefore basing cognitive processes on computer-based understanding lacks validity as it may not be a true fit for how the human mind actually works and limits us from exploring new perspectives which may be better suited.

Such explanations are also over-simplifying how the mind works as it is much more complex than we can map using such models which limit us. Such use of models portray humans as mechanistic and lacking free will which is also not evidently accurate.

Many studies into cognitive psychology tend to use contrive tasks or tasks that have little to do with everyday behaviour in their natural settings. For example studies tend to be in laboratory settings using methods to test memory that people would unlikely face such as random word lists or digits. This is unlike how memory is used in everyday life nor does it actually explain how people may forget memories. Due to this we are drawing conclusions into experiments which lack ecological validity and would lack external validity and generalisation to real life situations. Much of cognitive psychology could therefore be argued to lack ecological validity as it does not reflect real life behaviour.

The emergence of PET scans and FMRI has supported some elements of the cognitive approach and the use of models. For example brain imaging has confirmed that short- term memory and long-term memory are separate stores highlighting that the use of models to explain how such areas of the brain was distinctive from one another has validity.

The Biological Approach

The specification states that for the biological approach, you need to know the following:
  • The influence of genetics on behaviour
  • Biological structures and neurochemistry (and how it affects behaviour)
  • Genotype and Phenotype
  • The genetic basis of behaviour
  • Evolution and behaviour
The biological approach attempts to explain all behaviour through biology, particularly focusing on genetics, neurochemistry and hormonal changes as well as how evolution may have shaped human behaviour.

The Influence Of Genetics On Behaviour

The Influence of Genetics on Behaviour - phenotype genotype

Genes carry instructions for the development of characteristics such as intelligence, temperament or height however their expression will be dependent on how genes interact with one another but also the influence of the environment.

The way psychological characteristics such as behaviour are determined by either genes or the environment is known as the nature-nurture debate and the main focus on how genetics influence behaviour has looked at genotype and phenotype.

A genotype is the person's individual make-up which provides the genetic code for how the individual should develop and their characteristics. Every person has a unique genotype (except identical twins) within their cells.

The phenotype of an individual is what actually happens to the individual once the genotype interacts with the environment. The expression of phenotype is not always as the genotype dictates and this occurs due to a number of reasons. A person's genotype may dictate a particular height for an individual however environmental influences such as poor nutrition may not provide the required nutrients to reach this. Therefore the phenotype is the height they actually become which may not be their genetic potential as the genotype dictates. The same is believed to occur for psychological characteristics such as behaviour; there may be a genetic predisposition for certain behavioural traits however the environment may cause it to be inhibited.

The Genetic Basis Of Behaviour

The genetic basis for behaviour has focused on trying to identify exactly how much behaviour is influenced by genetics and genotype and how much can be attributed to environmental influences and phenotype.

Work to disentangle heritability and the variation of traits within a population that can be attributed to genetic differences has focused on identical and non-identical twins. If identical twins who share 100% of the same genetics show a higher likelihood of sharing behaviours or disorders when compared to non-identical twins then genetics and genotypes are believed to account for this. As both sets of twins likely share the same environments, genetics is assumed to be the only difference between both pairs of twins.

Research findings vary but it is believed genetics can account for up to 80% for characteristics such as intelligence which would invariably affect behaviour.

The Influence Of Biological Structures On Behaviour

The biological structures of the brain consist of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) both of which influence behaviour.

The CNS consists of the brain and the spinal cord and these send messages to and from the environment. They also act as the centre point from which all the physiological elements of the individual are controlled and coordinated such as breathing, heart-rate and even the senses.

The PNS comprises of the somatic and autonomic nervous systems (ANS) and sends and receives information to and from the CNS. The ANS is important for survival as it manages the bodies response to any threats while the somatic system controls the muscles and receives information from the skin e.g. temperature.

These nervous systems carry messages all over the body through individual nerve cells known as neurons. These transmit nerve impulses as electrical signals and most aspects of behaviour are under these neurons control including breathing, eating and even sexual behaviour.

The Influence Of Neurochemistry On Behaviour

Neurochemistry and its influence on behaviour focuses on hormones and neurotransmitters.

Hormones are chemicals which are produced by the endocrine systems such as the pituitary gland. Hormones stimulate receptors on the surface or inside of cells and their presence causes physiological reactions which alters the activity of the cell. For example the hormone testosterone has been indirectly linked to aggression with some psychologists believing it causes “status seeking behaviour”. Other studies have found it energised players as high levels have been found in sports players whenever they played in their home territory.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals which travel via the cerebral fluid and are released when nerve impulses reach the end of a neuron. Some trigger the receiving neuron to send an impulse while others inhibit (stop) impulses being sent. Neurotransmitters which trigger a release from receiving neurons to stimulate the brain are known as excitatory neurotransmitters while those that inhibit impulses are known as inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Dopamine and Serotonin are two neurotransmitters psychologists have focused on as they are believed to affect behaviour. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter related to drive or motivation and serotonin an inhibitory neurotransmitter which helps stabilise moods. Some research has also found low levels of serotonin can lead to increased aggression (Crocket et al 2008). High amounts of dopamine has also been linked to Schizophrenia.

Evolution and Behaviour

Evolution and Behaviour

Charles Darwin's natural selection theory is used to explain behaviour from an evolutionary perspective and is based on the idea of adaptiveness.

A random mutation in the genetic make-up of an animal due to environmental pressures will lead to a physical characteristic change or behavioural change. This would in turn either increase their chances of survival and re-production or lower it.

Animals compete with one another for access to resources such as food, shelter and mates and if this mutation increases the chance of survival they become more likely to gain access to such resources over their competition which may not have this mutation. If they succeed in reproducing, this adaptive trait may get passed on to their subsequent offspring who may benefit from it also increasing their reproductive fitness and survival. Psychologists believe various psychological characteristics such as aggression and intelligence can also be explained through this evolutionary explanation. Aggression is seen throughout the animal kingdom as well as in humans and may have served the purpose of increasing survival rates and resources as well as the protection of territory.

Research into aggression has focused on the MAOA gene as a possible explanation which may invariably be explained through environmental pressures of the past shaping its existence in men.

The Biological Approach Evaluation

The biological approach uses the scientific method such as the experimental method as its main form of investigation which gives this approach validity. Studies using this approach take place in highly controlled laboratory settings which are reliable as they make replication of the same experimental conditions for the verification of results possible. The results gained are also more objective as they are based on biology compared to subjective reporting or observations which also give the biological approach more validity.

The biological approach is also one of the strongest supporters of the “nature” argument in the nature-nurture debate as it explains behaviours through genetic influences. This is also backed up by research studies which have found higher concordance rates for psychopathological behaviours such as depression or even aggressive tendencies among relatives.

Another major strength of the biological approach is it can make clearer predictions regarding behaviour and possible links it has to biology. For example predicting the effects neurotransmitters have on behaviour becomes easier when looking at those who are genetically related. This in turn has contributed to the development of drug treatments and real world applications, for example high concordance rates between family members for depression has led to identifying common neurochemical imbalances and then creating drug therapies which help reduce depressive symptoms. Research into biological rhythms such as circadian rhythms has also led to the improvement of working conditions for people, for example those working shift patterns.

A major weakness for the biological approach is it is considered reductionist as it attempts to break down complex human behaviour and explain it through the smallest parts such as genetics, hormones and neurochemical imbalances. This stops us from considering other possible explanations for behaviour which may also be contributing such as cognitive, emotional or cultural factors.

Humans free will and ability for conscious thoughts is also overlooked with biological explanations which is another limitation. Explaining behaviour through biology such as genetics raises serious ethical issues particularly when applied to criminality. For example trying to explain criminal behaviour through genetics could lead to the genetic screening of the population to identify those with a predisposition for criminal behaviour. Such individuals may be stigmatised even if they pose no such risk. Alternatively if individuals find they have such a predisposition for criminal behaviour or psychopathological disorder they may use this as a defense to avoid taking responsibility for behaviour within the courts too. A practical real world application of such screening however could be that individuals who are at risk of developing certain disorders can try take steps to avoid situations which may trigger them or develop coping skills which could prevent them from being as vulnerable.

The Psychodynamic Approach

The specification states that for the psychodynamic approach, you need to know the following:
  • The role of the unconscious
  • The structure of personality
  • Defence mechanisms
  • Psychosexual stages

The Role of the Unconscious

The Psychodynamic Approach

Freud believed there were parts of the mind which was inaccessible to conscious thought and he referred to this as the unconscious mind.

To illustrate this he used an iceberg as a metaphor to describe the different layers. The tip of the iceberg above the water represented the conscious mind that we are aware of. Slightly below this was the “preconscious” which stored information which was capable of becoming conscious but was not done so without us thinking about it. The bottom and biggest layer represented the unconscious mind which was unaccessible yet according to Freud controlled most of our everyday behaviours. This unconscious mind would reveal itself in slips of the tongue, during creative moments or even neurotic symptoms.

Freud believed the unconscious mind controlled both our waking and sleeping minds and its role was to actively suppress and prevent traumatic memories from reaching our conscious awareness through the use of defence mechanisms.

The structure of personality

Freud divided personality or “the mind” into three components: the Id, Ego and Superego.

  • The id is the instinctual basis of personality and is present from birth and operates only in the unconscious mind. Freud proposed it drove an individual's biological needs and operated on the pleasure principle i.e. needing instant gratification regardless of situation (the need to eat when hungry for example).
  • The ego represented the rational component of personality which mediates between the the demands of the id, the external world (reality) and the superego. Freud proposed the ego develops from the age of two as a child begins to develop the ability to reason and learn not everything is always possible how they want them to be. The ego operates on the reality principle and forms the planning part of personality.
  • The superego develops from the age of 4 and is divided into the conscience and ego- ideal. It operates on the morality principle as children internalise societal moral codes on right or wrong while also producing feelings of guilt for bad behaviour. It also determines appropriate behaviour with the ego-ideal representing what a person strives to become which is mostly influenced by parenting.

Freud believed a healthy adult would have a strong ego which was able to mediate between the id and its instinctual demands and the superego’s moral values. An individual with the id in charge would be hedonistic and pleasure seeking with little concern for morality. On the other hand he believed that if the superego was in control an individual would be guilt-ridden by even socially acceptable pleasures.

Defence Mechanisms

Defence mechanisms are used to reduce anxiety when faced with situations an individual is unable to deal with rationally.

Freud believed these operated unconsciously and worked by distorting the perception of reality to stop the individual becoming aware of unpleasant thoughts or feelings which may damage the ego.

The three defence mechanisms Freud outlined were Repression, Denial and Displacement.

Repression involves unconsciously pushing and blocking difficult thoughts out of the conscious mind. Freud proposed that forgetting was motivated and done so for a reason, for example the mind would deliberately forget traumatic episodes to avoid confronting difficult events. Although repression pushed thoughts into the unconscious they may still affect the person in their normal life; for example someone who is abused by parents when young may not recall this due to repression but they may then struggle to form relationships in adult life due to this early abuse.

Denial is when an individual refuses to accept the reality of situations as a way to deal with worrying or unpleasant information. An individual may simply ignore what has occurred and try to continue as if it did not happen e.g. ignoring the death of a loved one or an alcoholic denying they have a drink problem despite it causing them problems.

Displacement involves the redirection of feelings, which may be hostile at times, towards a less threatening target than where they originated from. Examples of displacement may involve someone taking out their frustrations towards family members when the original cause of the feelings may be from somewhere else (work). This is almost cathartic as it provides psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions.

Psychosexual Stages

Freud's Psychosexual Stages

Freud believed personality developed through a sequence of 5 stages known as the psychosexual stages.

According to Stevens (2007) Freud used the term “sexual” in a broad sense referring to any kind of bodily stimulation which produced pleasurable sensations. As an individual experiences tension through the build up of sexual energy (libido), pleasure is attained through its discharge and over the five stages this energy is expressed in different ways and through different parts of the body.

  1. The Oral stage lasts from birth to approximately 18 months with the infant obtaining pleasure through feeding, sucking and biting through the use of the mouth.
  2. The Anal stage occurs between 18 months to 3 years with the child’s focus being on the expulsion of faeces and bodily waste and toilet training becoming a major focus for them to learn to control this. The ego also begins to develop with the child becoming aware of the demands of the world and others.
  3. The Phallic stages occurs from 3 to 6 years with a child’s focus moving to the genitals and them receiving pleasure from self-exploration and masturbation. For boys the Oedipus complex occurs where they pursue their mother as a love interest while experiencing hostility towards their father who is seen as a rival. As these feelings are uncomfortable, they are pushed into the subconscious and the child begins to identify with the father as a means of resolving the castration anxiety they experience. For girls the Electra complex is triggered as the young girl realises both herself and her mother lack a penis and this leads to “penis envy” whereby she turns to her father as a love interest. According to Freud the Electra complex is resolved once she gives birth to a male child.
  4. The Latent stage occurs from 6 to 12 years of age with the conflicts of the previous stages being repressed and children unable to remember much of their early years. The child may also begin to develop a mastery of the world around them and consolidate the character habits they formed in the three previous stages of psychosexual development.
  5. The Genital stage spans through puberty and adult life and plays the role of psychological detachment and independence from the parents. Sexual energy is focused on the genitalia with the ego being established and the persons focus shifting from pleasure gratification to secondary process-thinking and gratification through friendships, intimate relationships and family/adult responsibilities.

The Psychodynamic Approach Evaluation

  • The psychodynamic approach includes and explains the importance of how childhood experiences may affect later development in people which is largely accepted by most psychologists such as Bowlby to be important.
  • This approach also incorporates the role of the subconscious and feelings and how they may drive certain behaviours in people which they may not necessarily be able to explain. The approach also highlights the importance of a child’s upbringing and strengthens the case for reforms providing real world applications for us to apply particularly around children's rights.
  • Freud's approach also suggested new methodological ways for psychologists to gather evidence which was based on case studies and observable evidence rather than subjective introspection. The psychodynamic approach also provided alternative explanations for disorders such as depression and anxiety adding credit to psychological causes rather than necessarily biological. This also led to the development of treatments such as psychotherapy which a large scale review by De Maat et als (2009) found to show significant and maintained improvements after treatment adding further credibility to the psychodynamic approach.
  • There is also scientific support for the psychodynamic approach through the use of scientific methodology. Fisher & Greenberg (1996) concluded after examining over 2500 studies that psychoanalysis compared well with other psychological studies and there appeared to be support for unconscious motivations in behaviour as well as the existence of defence mechanisms such as repression, denial and displacement.
  • One of the major weaknesses of Freud’s psychodynamic approach is that his ideas are very difficult to test reliably. Other psychologists therefore argue his ideas are unscientific and cannot be proven as trying to test whether a methodology has reached the unconscious mind is difficult.
  • Freud’s psychodynamic approach is gender biased as his views on female sexuality were much less developed than his male views. Although his views were based on sexual development which would apply to both genders, his theories focused primarily on male sexuality. This is problematic considering how much influence the psychodynamic approach still holds today but also as an explanation for behaviour it may have limited validity across both genders.
  • Much of the evidence for the psychodynamic approach comes from case studies which lack reliability and population validity due to the lack of generalisation. Evidence gathered could also be argued to apply only to the individuals involved. The case studies for which Freud founded this approach on were also based on people from western backgrounds and it could be argued that this approach is culturally biased and not apply to people of different cultures.
  • Psychoanalysts assume mental disorders are due to traumatic memories which are locked in the unconscious and freeing them through psychotherapy helps individuals deal with their issues better. However other cultures do not value such insight in the same way. For example people in China prefer to avoid distressing thoughts and ignore discussing them which is a major contrast to western viewpoints which believe in open discussion and insight.
  • A major strength of psychoanalysis is the comprehensive nature of the theory to explain aspects of human behaviour outside the realm of psychology. Psychoanalysis can be used to question and understand the meaning of people's behaviour through analysing people’s work. For example literature such as Hamlet has been analysed to find repressed messages within the text to try and understand Shakespeare own psyche. A major criticism with using psychoanalysis like this and with patients however is interpretations will be subjective to the practitioners own interpretation of what the patient tells them. Some could argue that analysing patients would tell you more about the practitioner than the patient themselves which would make this approach unscientific and difficult to prove.
  • Research evidence also suggests that therapies based on the psychodynamic approach appear to have limited effect which would mean the approach itself is invalid. Eysenck (1952) conducted a meta-analysis of thousands of psychoanalytic patients and found it appeared to work for 66% of the patients. However when compared to a control group of patients who received no therapy, 70% of people suffering from mental illness without intervention also showed improvement. This would suggest the explanation lacks validity as an approach to explaining mental illnesses.

Humanistic Psychology

The specification states that for humanistic psychology, you need to know the following topics:

  • Free will
  • Maslow’s hierarchy and self-actualisation
  • Focus on the self
  • Congruence
  • The role of conditions of worth
  • The influence on counseling psychology

Free Will

Humanistic psychology views free will as a core assumption to this approach and see’s people with full conscious control over themselves and the choices they make as well as their own behaviour.

Humanistic psychology also see’s people responsible for how they develop and progress in life although this approach acknowledges the constraints society may impose through social rules, laws and morals which restrict people’s free will. Ultimately this approach believes people have the ability to choose to do something if they want to do it.

This approach also see’s people as having the ability to reflect on their feelings and experience’s and initiate personal change and growth themselves.

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Self-Actualisation

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Self-Actualisation

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs focuses on the 5 stages he believed explained peoples motivations and behaviour.

  • The first and most basic needs which people strive to meet are physiological needs around survival such as food, water, sex, sleep and oxygen.
  • Following this people strive to meet safety needs such as personal safety, security through employment and resources, stability and freedom from fear of harm be it psychologically or physically.
  • The third level looks at establishing a sense of love and belonging through acquiring friendships, intimate relationships and intimacy.
  • The forth level looks at building a persons self-esteem needs through confidence, achievement, attaining the respect from others and status.
  • The final level looks at achieving self-actualisation which Maslow believed was about a person achieving their potential and a sense of well-being and satisfaction. This may be through creativity, acceptance of others and having good sense of reality and the world around them.

The drive to achieve this potential involves people working through the four previous stages in an attempt to achieve self-actualisation. A person can not progress to the final stage without achieving the previous stages.

Focus on the self

The focus on the self comes from the work of Carl Rogers and refers to peoples perception of themselves as a person. Rogers believed that people had two basic needs which were to achieve a positive regard from other people and to achieve a feeling of self- worth through having a positive regard of oneself. This feeling of self-worth developed in childhood through the interactions the child has with their parents as well as contact with significant other figures in their lives as they develop such as friends and intimate partners.

Psychological health, according to Carl Rogers, was determined by what people thought about themselves and their sense of self-worth. Carl Rogers suggested we had 3 versions of ourselves which need to integrate for people to achieve self-actualisation and reach their potential.

The first was the self-concept and this was how people felt they were as a person. Self- esteem is closely linked to this self-concept as people with low self-esteem would view their self-concept as poor and have a low regard for their own ability.

The ideal self is the version of themselves people wished to be and who they are working towards becoming.

The real self is the person people actually are (rather thank felt or thought they were). This becomes subjective between people as humanistic psychology views everyone to perceive and judge things differently.


Congruence occurs when a persons ideal self and self-concept are seen as the same. If a persons self-concept and ideal self are different then a state of incongruence occurs.

Carl Rogers believed that for self-actualisation to occur it was necessary for a person to experience congruence. An important factor in achieving congruence, according to Carl Rogers, was “unconditional positive regard”. This mean’t that a person must be loved for who they are by someone else unconditionally and this may come from parents, other family members or even friends or partners.

The Role Of Conditions of worth

The conditions of worth are the requirements a person perceives significant others have put upon them and they need to meet in order to be loved and accepted. These conditions may be either real or perceived by the individual.

An example may be a child feeling like they need to achieve good grades in order to be loved by their parents as the parents have set an expectation of doing well academically and thus the condition is overtly set in the child’s mind. They may have also observed disappointment when a sibling does poorly and this may have set the condition indirectly. These conditions of worth lead to a child experiencing conditional positive regard and believing they can only be loved if they meet these “conditions of worth”.

According to Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard is important for people to reach self-actualisation and with conditions set for them to be loved, this makes self-actualisation more difficult to achieve.

The Influence On Counselling Psychology

The humanistic approach and the work of Carl Rogers has led to the client-centred approach with therapists focusing on building a relationship with clients and making them feel comfortable and accepted so they feel unconditional positive regard.

This helps nurture a relationship where patients can be completely open and honest. Humanistic psychologists then act as guides or facilitators which help patients better understand themselves to reach their potential and self-actualisation.

A positive, empathic and unconditional positive regard helps foster acceptance and an understanding which helps remove any conditions of worth people may have. With this removed patients can then move towards being their true self and congruent and behave how they wish to rather than in a manner to please others around them.

This client centred approach has influenced CBT practices which integrates the humanistic client focused practice. A meta-analysis by Elliott (2002) found that humanistic therapies showed significant improvement in patients when compared to control groups and this effectiveness has led to a resurgence of the humanistic approach within counselling psychology.

The Humanistic Approach Evaluation

A major strength of Maslow’s hierarchy being part of the humanistic approach is it is supported by research which suggests it may have relevance on a much larger scale than simply individual growth. Hagerty (1999) found that lower level needs such as physiological needs and safety needs were more prevalent in countries of early economic development. This was evident when looking at the relationship between economic growth and Maslow’s hierarchy across 88 countries over a period of 34 years. Countries with advanced stages of economic development saw esteem needs and self-actualisation through academic achievement and higher educational enrollment rates as more important. Education is seen as an indicator for the drive people have to reach self- actualisation through self-improvement highlighting the application this theory has to economic development within countries.

Another strength of the humanistic approach is it its focus on treating everyone as unique and the need to treat everyone this way is supported by research findings in gender research. Research into gender differences has repeatedly shown that differences within men and women are far greater than between men and women (Hyde, J.S (2005). This supports humanistic psychology’s assumption that everyone should be treated as unique as differences are greater between one gender than across genders highlighting the need treat everyone as unique.

A major weakness of the humanistic approach is its ideas such as Maslow’s hierarchy, the conditions of worth and the focus on the self are hard to test or gather any meaningful scientific evidence to support them having validity. Also as the focus is on the subjective experience of the individual, this again is difficult to test. Therefore it could be argued that the humanistic approach lacks credibility and is merely speculation as we can not objectively validate its assumptions. A strength however is the acknowledgement of free will which is supported by our own feelings and understanding of how we are as humans. Although intuitively correct this is again difficult to validate when explanations such as social learning, genetics and cognitive explanations all offer testable explanations which undermine this key assumption in humanistic psychology.

Another major weakness of the humanistic approach is it unrealistically assumes people are inherently good and interested in personal growth. The theory ignores the fact that people can be pessimistic or self-destructive and the view that the development of personality is directed simply by personal growth is oversimplified. The humanistic approach also assumes problems arise due to people being unable to self-actualise and encouraging people simply to focus on their own personal development may be unrealistic when situational factors need may be the true cause.

The humanistic approach could also be argued to be culturally biased and based on the assumptions of western society. For example Maslow’s hierarchy does not appear to apply in eastern countries such as China. Nevis (1983) found belongingness needs were more important than physiological needs and self-actualisation meant what contributions people could make to their community rather than individual improvement. Subsequent studies have confirmed stark differences showing the humanistic approach appears to be culturally biased with western societies more focused on the personal identity and their individual needs while other cultures such as China, Japan and Korea define self-concept through social relationships.

email us icon
Teachers and Schools Get Free Resources
That's Right! We give free access to teachers and schools for our growing library of content covering A-level and GCSE subjects! As well as access to our premium downloadable revision packs!
Get in Touch
Learndojo iconstudents revising

Welcome Back.

Don’t have an account? Create Now

Lost your password?

Create a free account.

Already have an account? Login Here

student account
Student Account Signups
Teacher Account Signups