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AQA A-level Psychology Issues and Debates In Psychology

This section provides revision resources for AQA A-level psychology and the Issues and Debates 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:

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Gender Bias in Psychology

The A-level psychology specification states you need to know about the following for gender and culture in psychology:

  • Androcentrism
  • Alpha bias
  • Beta bias
  • Universality
  • Cultural bias including ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

What is Gender Bias?

Gender Bias In Psychology

Gender bias is the distorted view that behaviours observed may be typical of behaviours for both men and women. 

For example an experiment involving only men may produce a set of results. If we assume the behaviours are typical of both genders, there is an argument for gender bias here as it may well be that women may actually behave differently.

Take Milgram's obedience study from the social influence chapter as an example. This involved only men in the study and found high levels of obedience among them with 62% of them going all the way up to 450 volt shocks.

Assuming the results may be the same for women could be argued to be gender biased but this may not necessarily be true. It may be that women may have even higher obedience rates or potentially even lower.

There's different types of gender bias that can occur which we will explore below.


Androcentrism refers to when theories or views are based exclusively from a male view-point.

Since it's inception, psychology and most of society until recently has been male dominated. Most psychologists were men and therefore the theories they created tended to be from a male centred world view often at the exclusion or neglect of women. This is described as androcentrism and may result in either alpha bias or beta bias.

Alpha Bias

Alpha bias is when the differences between men and women are exaggerated which results in alpha based theories that devalue one gender in comparison to another.

A prime example of this Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytical Theory which portrayed women as significantly inferior to men. This is because his theories reflected the 19th century culture in which he lived when men are more powerful and more educated and thus regarded as more superior than women. His alpha-based theory of psychoanalysis viewed femininity as a failed masculinity and exaggerated the differences between men and women.

As Josselson (1988) pointed out regarding Freud's theory: "women are seen as being inferior to men because they are jealous of mens penises and because they cannot undergo the same Oedipus conflict as boys do. Because the superego develops from the Oedipus conflict, women therefore must be morally inferior because they have a weaker identification with their mothers".

Beta Bias

Beta bias can also occur due to androcentrism.

People may assume that what is true for men will also be true for women and thus minimise the differences between the two genders. The result of beta bias is usually that the needs of one gender (most often women) are ignored.

One good example of this is research into the fight-or-flight response which we covered in the biopsychology chapter. Biological research has often been conducted with male animals due to different hormone levels in females that may make the research more difficult. It was assumed that the fight-or-flight response would apply also to females but this was found not to be true by Shelley Taylor et al (2000). Their findings suggested females had a different tend-and-befriend response at times of stress.

Beta-bias therefore resulted in the differences going undiscovered and the stress behaviour was not fully understood.


Universality concerns the aim to develop theories that apply to all people, which may include real differences.

It would not be appropriate to try and eradicate gender differences as a way to address gender bias as this approach in itself suffers from beta bias. The solution would therefore be to recognise differences but not superiority of one gender over another.

A good example of this concerns research by Kohlberg (1969) and his theory of moral development. This suggested moral decisions we make are based on an ethic of justice. This theory was based on research with boys and men where they were asked to describe what behaviour would be right in certain situations in relation to fairness. Beta bias was evident here as he assumed that the male responses would also apply to females and all people.

Gilligan (1982) highlighted that aside from the obvious all male sample, the dilemmas presented by Kohlberg were also biased as the participants all had what she described as a 'male orientation' that was concerned with justice. When Kohlberg subsequently tested women, he found they were less morally developed than men according to his study and this is a good example of alpha bias.

His original beta bias of now meant the differences were exaggerated between men and women. Gilligan proposed an alternative theory proposing women favoured a care orientation, compared to mens justice orientation. Gilligan's approach showed that men and women were simply different but it was not biased because neither kind of moral reasoning was considered superior, just simply they were different.

Evaluating Gender Bias

One way in which androcentrism can be countered is to take a feminist perspective similar to what Carol Gilligan did in response to Kohlberg's theory of moral development.

Feminist commentators such as Judith Worrell (1992) have suggested a number of criteria that would help avoid gender bias in research. For example, she suggested women should be studied within meaningful real-life contexts and participate in research rather than be the objects of study. Diversity within groups of women should also be examined rather than comparisons made simply between men and women. Lastly, it was proposed that a greater emphasis should be placed on qualitative research methods that focus on qualitative data as opposed to numerical data.

Other criticism suggest it is the nature of the methods used to test or observe participants that are actually biased so males and females appear to be different. Other issues may include the gender of the researcher themselves. Rosenthal (1966) found male experimenters were more pleasant, friendly and encouraging to female participants than to male participants. The results found that male participants subsequently performed less well on the tasks they were assigned.

Feminists have also argued that laboratory experiments have also been notoriously biased against women. For example, findings created within a controlled setting of a laboratory would tell us little about the experiences of women outside of such a setting. Eagly and Johnson's meta-analysis (1990) found men and women were more alike in terms of leadership style in real world settings compared to laboratory settings.

Avoiding beta bias itself has potential negative consequences for women. While on one side, equal treatment under the law has allowed women greater access to education and employment opportunities, Hare-Mustin and Marecek have pointed out that this can draw attention away from the special needs of women too. For example, equal parental leave ignores the biological demands of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding that are placed on women in the name of equal treatment.

Cultural Bias in Psychology

Most of psychological research tends to suffer from a western bias, which is not really surprising given most of the psychologists in the world are educated in the west, as are much of the participants involved.

Therefore the theories produced often have a western world view and suffer from cultural bias as it is assumed the findings can be applied to other cultures.


Ethnocentrism is the assumption that one ethnic or cultural group is superior to other cultural groups as we use our own cultural group as a basis for judgement of others.

This does not necessarily mean that other groups are seen in a negative light but but there is a tendency to view the behaviours and beliefs of our own group as 'normal' or more superior in some way whereas other groups may be seen as 'strange' or deviant in some way.

Alpha bias: Ethnocentrism is one example of alpha bias because ones own culture is considered to be better with the consequence being that other cultures practices are devalued. A good example of this is the western value of individualism over collectivism and how western society places greater value on independence and dependance is seen as undesirable. In collectivist cultures, dependance and collectivism is seen as more valuable.

Beta bias: Ethnocentrism can also lead to a beta bias if researchers believe that the world view they hold is the only view. A good example of this is IQ testing where American IQ tests are believed to be appropriate to use all over the world because there is an assumption that the American standard was universal and could be cross-culturally applied.

Cultural Relativism

The opposite of ethnocentrism in psychology is cultural relativism.

This is the idea that all cultures are worthy of respect and we should try to understand the way in which other cultures see the world.

Alpha bias: Cultural relativism can also lead to an alpha bias where assumptions of real differences can lead investigators to overlook universal similarities between cultures. An example of this is research by Mead (1935) in Papua New Guinea. Initially Mead concluded that there were significant differences in gender due to culture only to then later recognise significant universals too such as all men being more aggressive across the cultures than women.

Beta bias: Cultural relativism is often discussed when applied to diagnosing mental disorders. For example, one definition of abnormality concerns statistical infrequency which we covered in the psychopathology chapter. Behaviours that are statistically infrequent in one culture may be more common in another. Schizophrenia is a good example of this as one of the diagnosis criteria is hearing voices which may be a common experience in other cultures. If it is assumed the same diagnostic rules apply universally, we may incorrectly classify people as mentally ill based on a diagnostic criteria that is only relevant in western cultures.

Evaluating Cultural Bias

One of the ways in which ethnocentrism could be countered is through encouraging indigenous psychologies and the development of different groups of theories in different countries.

One such example is Afrocentrism which is a movement whose central proposition is that all black people have their roots in Africa and therefore psychological theories be rooted in African-centred values. Afrocentrism disputes the view that European values are universally applicable to non-europeans and suggests that at worst, they devalue non-European people while at best being irrelevant to the life and culture of people of African descent.

One way in which to tackle cultural bias is by using studies with samples from different cultural groups. Smith and Bond (1998) found that in one European textbook, 66% were American, 32% European and only 2% came from the rest of the world. In addition, Sears (1986) found that 82% of studies used undergraduates with 51% being American psychology students.  An American student was calculated to be 4000 times more likely to be a participant in a psychology study than a random non-westerner. This therefore suggests that a significant amount of psychology is based on middle-class, academic young adults who are often male. This would make psychological findings not only unrepresentative on a global scale but also within Western culture.

A perfect example of the consequences of cultural bias and the damage that can be done was the US Army IQ test which was used before the outbreak of the First World War. The test results showed European immigrants below white Americas and African-Americans as falling at the bottom of the scale with the lowest mental age. This had profound effects in terms of attitudes towards people with enduring stereotypes concerning certain ethnic groups and their intelligence (Gould, 1981).

Another issue to be aware of with cross-cultural research is the unfamiliarity with research tradition. As you have seen, most participants tend to be western, often young students. Within Western culture, the participants may have some familiarity with the general aims and objectives of the study or it could at least be assumed by them. The same knowledge and 'faith' in scientific testing may not extend to cultures that do not have the same historical experience of being part of such research. Therefore demand characteristics may be exaggerated when working with people from local western cultures (Bond and Smith 1996) and this may impact the validity of the research.

Free Will and Determinism

For issues and debates in psychology, you will need to know the following:

  • Free will and determinism: hard determinism and soft determinism; biological, environmental and psychic determinism.
  • The scientific emphasis on causal explanations.

Free Will

Free will is used to describe how an individual is capable of self-determination and controlling their behaviour i.e. they are free to choose and are not acting in response to any internal or external pressures.

One thing to note is free will does not necessarily mean people just make random decisions but merely they have the freedom to choose.

The humanistic approach is one of the few approaches to adopt a free will perspective on behaviour. Humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers argued that self-determination was an important part of human behaviour and without it, self-development and self-actualisation were not possible. 

Rogers (1959) argued that as long as an individual remains controlled by other people or things, they cannot take responsibility for their own behaviour and will struggle to change it. Humanistic psychology was also central to Rogers client-centred therapy as he saw people as being free to effect change in their lives by choosing to see their situation differently. 

Evaluating Free Will

B.F.Skinner has proposed that free will is actually an illusion. Just being able to decide between different courses of action is not free will but it may simply give us the illusion of having free will according to him. Skinners point was that a person may choose to buy a particular car for example or go to see a particular film, but in fact these choices are determined by previous reinforcement experiences.

On the other hand even if free will is simply an illusion there is research to suggest that this has benefits.

Every day experience gives us the impression that we are constantly exercising our free will through all the different choices we make on any given day. This may give face validity into the concept of free will and research suggests that people who have an internal locus of control, which is to believe that they have a high degree of influence over events and their own behaviour, tend to be more mentally healthy. A study by Robert et al (2000) showed adolescence with a strong belief in fatalism, which is to say that they believed their lives were decided by events outside their control, were at significantly higher risk of developing depression. This suggests that even if we do not actually have free will, the fact that we think we do has a positive impact on our mind and behaviour.

There is some neurological studies of decision-making which have suggested that we do not actually have free will and our behaviour is predetermined. Studies by Benjamin Libet (1985) have demonstrated that brain activity determines the outcome of simple choices we make before we are even aware of them. The researchers found that activity related to whether to press a button with the left or right hand occurs in the brain up to 10 seconds before the participants reporting to being consciously aware of making the decision. This demonstrated even our most basic experience of free is determined by our brain before we are even aware ourselves.


Determinism is the opposite of free will and is the idea that we have no control or choice in the actions we take.

Determinants for our behaviour come from a variety of sources ranging from biology (i.e. genetics, hormones) learning and even thought. Determinism has varied after years of debate and progression in psychological research from an extreme stance to varying degrees of determinism such as soft determinism and hard determinism.

Biological determinism is one viewpoint and research into the human genome is producing increasing amounts of evidence of genetic influences on behaviour. For example, research into intelligence has identified particular genes in people with high intelligence such as the IGF2R gene (Hill et al, 1999). Genetics in turn influence the structure of the brain and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine have also been found to influence behaviour in people, including disorders such as schizophrenia.

Environmental determinism is another viewpoint. Behaviourists believe all behaviour is due to previous experience and through the processes of classical conditioning and operant conditioning (either directly or indirectly). For example, phobias have been described as developing due to a consequence of conditioning i.e. a fear of dogs due to previously having been bitten. Treatments such as systematic desensitisation have also shown how phobic responses can be unlearned. Learning theory has also been applied in a variety of different explanations from aggression to eating behaviour too.

Psychic determinism is based on Freud's psychoanalytical theory of personality and suggests that adult behaviour determined by a mixture of innate drivers and early experience. According to Freud, behaviour is driven by the libido which focuses on erogenous zones such as the mouth or anus. If a child becomes frustrated or overindulged during any stage of their development, then according to this theory, the libido is tied to that specific erogenous zone and the individual is fixated on that area. The method of obtaining the satisfaction that characterised the stage will dominate into their adult personality.

Evaluating Determinism

It is unlikely that 100% of genetic determination will ever be found for any types of behaviour. For example, studies that compare identical twins who have the exact same genetic make up have only found approximately 80% similarity on intelligence or about 40% similarity for disorders such as depression. In other words if one twin has a high IQ, there's only an 80% chance that the other twin will have the same despite being genetically identical. Therefore genes do not determine behaviour entirely and environmental influences are also believed to still play a role.

When comparing environmental concordance rates they to do not show conclusive results either which highlights that it is likely a combination of genetics that may outline peoples 'potential' and then environmental influences determine whether individuals will meet this potential.

Another view is that there is no such thing as total determinism (Dennett 2003). Chaos theory proposes that very small changes in initial conditions can subsequently result in major changes also known as the butterfly effect. Therefore the conclusion is that causal relationships are actually probabilistic rather than deterministic, which means they increase the probability of something occurring rather than being the sole cause.

Another issue is determinist explanations have a tendency to oversimplify human behaviour. Deterministic explanations may be appropriate for non-human animals, but human behaviour may be less rigid or influenced by such innate drives. For example, cognitive factors such as thinking, values, beliefs systems may all play a role in overriding biological impulses.

A major risk of deterministic explanations is that people may use them as an excuse for their behaviour. For example, in criminal cases in the US murderers may claim that their behaviour is determined by inherited aggressive genetics or tendencies and therefore should not be punished or held accountable for the behaviours. One such case is Steven Mobley, who killed a pizza shop manager in 1981, but claimed this happened because he was "born to kill "and this was evidenced by his family history of violence. This defence was rejected and Mobley was sentenced to death however it highlights the problematic nature of a deterministic position.

The opposite is also true should we accept a deterministic position. If we assume mental health disorders such as schizophrenia are caused by an individuals biology (due to genes and neurotransmitters), then treatment should follow their genetics or neurotransmitters and this and its self would block the consideration of other treatments that may be beneficial, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy which has been shown to be effective in combination with drug treatments.

The Nature-Nurture Debate

The nature-nurture debate concerns the question as to how much of our behaviour is down to biology or the environment. 

Are we the way we are because of some innate biological elements like our genetics or hormones? Or is the environment and learning a better explanation for the people we become and the behaviours we engage in? This is fundamentally what this debate is about.

The Role of Nature

Nativism is the term used to describe the stance that is in agreement with the nature side of the argument. Introduced by René Descartes (1596-1650), he suggested that when born, the human soul is already equipped with an understanding of certain key concepts such as time.

This explanation predates any theories of genetics so were unproven however did form the fundamental nativist view that we are born with predispositions and pre-programmed behaviours. Support for the nativist view now comes from biological research which has examined genetics and hormones, often through twin studies.

Genetic explanations: Family, twin and adoption studies have shown that the closer people are genetically, the more likely that they will develop similar behaviours. This has shown to be true for disorders such as schizophrenia and criminal behaviours. For example, concordance rates between genetically identical twins is 40% while non-identical twins have concordance rates is 7% (Joseph, 2004).

Evolutionary explanations: Evolutionary explanations suggest that a behavioural characteristic that promotes survival and reproduction will be naturally selected. This is based on Darwin's theory of natural selection and proposes that behaviours and characteristics that are adaptive will be passed on to subsequent generations as they aid survival and reproduction. For example, Bowlby (1969) proposed that attachment was adaptive because it meant an infant was more likely to be protected and therefore survive. Bowlby also proposed that attachment promoted close relationships which would foster successful reproduction, thus attachment behaviours are naturally selected through genetic mechanisms

The Role of Nurture

Behaviourist adopt the view of philosopher John Locke who described newborn infants as a blank slate on which experience is written.

Behaviourism: behaviourist take the view that all behaviour can be explained in terms of experience with B.F.Skinner using  the concept of classical and operant conditioning to explain how learning occurred. Attachment is explained by behaviourists in terms of classical conditioning, for example, the mother is associated with food which brings pleasure, or operant conditioning as food reduces the discomfort of hunger and is therefore rewarding.

Social Learning Theory: social learning theory is another explanation on the side of the nurture debate. Proposed by Bandura, this saw behaviour has acquired through learning and added the new dimension of indirect (vicarious) reinforcement. Bandura acknowledged that biology did have a role to play, for example, he acknowledged that the urge to behave aggressively might be biological, but the important point regarding social learning theory was a person learns to express anger through environmental influences whether through direct or indirect reinforcement.

The Interactionist Approach

The interactionist approach sits between nature and nurture and argues the true answer is both genetics and the environment play a part in behaviour. This approach proposes that genetics give us a predisposition and potential to act in a certain way however the expression of these genetics is moderated by the environment.

A good example of this is intelligence where the interactionist approach argues that we have a genetic predisposition to attain a certain level of intelligence and we can only reach this potential if the environment is ideal. A number of environmental factors may determine this such as poor diet poor education brain injury poor parenting etc.

Nature-Nurture Evaluation

One way in which the nature-nurture debate has been conceptualised is via the diatheses-stress model.

The diatheses-stress model is often used to explain mental disorders such as schizophrenia or phobias and suggest that people may be born with certain genes that predisposition them to develop a certain order. Through identical twin studies research has shown that both twins may not develop a disorder even if one already has such which suggests that the expression of a gene depends on experience or psychological stressors that trigger the condition. This means that a persons predisposition will only be expressed if triggered through sufficient environmental stressors.

One major issue in attempting to identify whether it is nature or nurture that is causing behaviour is that it is incredibly difficult to separate the two and how they have influenced an individual. For example, even in identical twin studies it can be argued that both twins having an almost identical upbringing and environment may be causing the higher concordance rates. Identical twins may be treated exactly the same by friends and family where as non-identical twins may be treated as more individuals which would explain the lower concordance rates among them.

Other explanations have suggested that nature may affect nurture with genes exerting an influence in a number of ways. For example a child who is more aggressive due to the genetics may in turn evoke an aggressive response from those around it. This response then becomes part of the child's environment and affects the child's development and upbringing causing it to become even more aggressive. Another view point is it may be nurture that affects nature. Maguire et al (2000) studied London taxi drivers and showed that the region of the brain is associated with spatial memory is bigger than in control groups. This is not because they were born this way but because the hippocampus had responded to increased use. This demonstrates how environmental factors may intern affect biological elements.

Holism and Reductionism

Holism and reductionism is all about explaining behaviour at different levels.

The key focus is which level provides the best explanation of behaviour, and whether the 'whole' is greater than the sum of all its parts. This view is the basis of holism in psychology and proposes that the idea or attempt to break up behaviour is inappropriate as it can only be understood by analysing the person or behaviour as a whole.

Reductionism, on the other hand, it's all about analysing behaviour and breaking it down into its individual parts and it is based on the scientific principle of parsimony: this is the view that all phenomena can be explained using the most basic (lowest level) principles. This is often the most simplest level as an explanation.

What is Reductionism?

  • Biological reductionism looks to explain behaviour using biological systems which could include genetics, physiology of the body and brain, biochemistry such as hormones and neurotransmitters and even evolution. It is referred to as biological reductionism because in terms of the level of explanation it is as reductionist in psychology goes as you are breaking behaviour down to the fundamental basics. For example, it has been suggested that schizophrenia is caused by excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine and because drugs block dopamine, this in effect reduces the symptoms of the disorder.
  • Environmental (stimulus-response) reductionism is linked to the behaviourist approach. Behaviourist propose that all behaviour can be explained in terms of simple stimulus-response relationships between behaviour and events and the environment. For example the behaviourist explanation offered for attachment is reduced to a set of probabilities where the mother is likely to provide food which is reinforcing (reduces discomfort) hence she is seen as a rewarding individual which becomes conflated with being 'loved'.

What is Holism?

Holism is the opposite of reductionism and focuses on systems as a whole rather than individual parts and suggests that we cannot predict behaviour based just on the knowledge of these individual components.

Those who take this viewpoint do not deny the potential of genetics or biochemistry but argue that human behaviour is far more complex and due to this it is necessary to view things from a greater perspective.

Humanistic psychology takes the holism stance and believes individuals react as an organised whole rather than a set of stimulus response machines. The social context the individual is in may be considered as important, as well as the friends and family around them in terms of influence. For this reason, holism offers a higher level explanation through social groups however suffers from being less scientific and it makes behaviour harder to predict unlike reductionist explanations. The advantage however is that it does not ignore the complexity of human behaviour.

Evaluating Holism and Reductionism

Biological reductionism used in cases such as schizophrenia or depression can help facilitate the development of biological therapies such as drugs that look to tackle these disorders. Drug therapy has been shown to help people suffering from mental health issues and help alleviate symptoms and improve the lives of sufferers.

Most psychologists acknowledge that the likelihood that behaviour is purely biologically driven is low and most accept that the complexity involved in every behaviour means that a purely reductionist explanation is insufficient. In addition, taking a reductionist viewpoint may mean that other explanations are ignored and underplayed, for example cognitive behavioural therapy, an alternative for drug therapy, has been shown to be effective for those suffering from depression as it tackles belief systems. In such cases, a reductionist viewpoint and its subsequent treatment may lead to addressing the symptoms rather than the underlying cause.

Environmental reductionism was developed as a result of experiments with animals which poses the problem of generalising the concept to humans. Such an approach may be appropriate to explain the behaviour of animals, however humans are far more complex and influenced by social context, cognition, intention and motivation and various other factors including cultural influences. Therefore such behaviourist explanations may not be suitable as a means to describe human behaviour.

Research into conformity provides support for the case for holism. There are social behaviours that can only emerge within certain group contacts and cannot be understood at the individual level or if broken down to its simplest form. For example, the effects of conformity to social roles as well as de-individuation of the prisoners and guards in the Stanford prison experiment cannot be fully understood by simply studying the participants as individuals. Analysing the interaction between participants and the behaviour of the entire group was more important in understanding what was occurring and this demonstrates how a holistic explanation can provide a more complete understanding that reductionist approaches ignore.

Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches

  • Idiographic is derived from the Greek word 'idios' which means 'private or personal'.
  • Nomothetic is derived from the Greek word 'nomos' which means 'law'.

The Idiographic Approach

The idiographic approach is therefore research that focuses more on the individual as a means of understanding behaviour rather than trying to create general laws of behaviour. This approach sees people studied as unique entities all with their own subjective experiences, motivations and values without comparison to a larger group, standard or norm.

The idiographic approach is therefore a qualitative based approach with a focus on gaining insights into human behaviour by studying individuals in depth rather than numerical data gained from studying numerous individuals and extrapolating average characteristics or trends. The approach may employ call qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews, case studies or thematic analysis.

Examples of the idiographic approach include the work of Sigmund Freud and his case study of Little Hans as well as his psychodynamic approach. Humanistic psychologists also favour the idiographic approach as they are focused on studying the whole person and seeing the perspective of the world from the individual.

The Nomothetic Approach

The nomothetic approach looks to explain behaviour through the development of general principles and universal laws and provide a benchmark against which people can be compared, classified and measured to form a basis for which likely future behaviour can be predicted and/or controlled.

The nomothetic approach is closely aligned with the scientific method within psychology such as experiments. This includes the study of large numbers of people in order to establish universal explanations on why people are similar or different from one another.

As the nomothetic approach involves the study of large numbers of people to draw general conclusions, it is seen to favour quantitative methods which are based on numbers, measures of central tendency and dispersion, graphs and statistical analysis.

General laws of behaviour that have been created using the nomothetic approach include behaviourist explanations including classical and operant conditioning. Cognitive psychology is also a nomothetic approach as it aims to develop general laws of behaviour that can be generalised through cognitive processes.

Eysenck's research into personality through the use of psychometrics is another example of the nomothetic approach as this involved the collection of large amounts of data which used factor analysis to produce the different personality types.

Evaluting Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches

  • The majority of psychology is based on the nomothetic approach as this allows for patterns and trends to be ascertained, which in turn means that predictions can be made as well as interventions devised where necessary, for example, for mental health issues. In comparison, an idiographic intervention is time-consuming and it would therefore be too difficult and impractical to implement.
  • The idiographic approach suffers from the inability to produce general predictions about behaviour which makes treatments difficult to devise. For example it would be for too time-consuming to produce personal therapies for each individual. Another major criticism of the idiographic approach is it is not as scientific as the nomothetic approach.
  • One issue with a nomothetic stance is that theories are often not an exact fit an adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. This inevitably makes them inappropriate for some peoples situations. When applied to interventions, this means people are forced to use interventions that may not be appropriate and have only moderate success rates.
  • Rather than seeing the two approaches as distinctly different, some argue they should be seen as complimentary of one another rather than contradictory. Million and Davis (1996) suggested research should begin with the nomothetic approach and once generalisations, laws, and trends have been identified, they could then shift the focus onto a more idiographic understanding.

Ethical Implications of Research Studies and Theory

The ethical implications of psychological research concerns the way that research impacts on those who take part in the study and also the way in which the findings are then communicated to the public and subsequently used.

Socially sensitive research refers to studies which have potential social consequences or implications, either directly for those that took part in the study or for individuals that may be represented by the research.

Ethical Implications

Sieber and Stanley highlighted 4 considerations in the research process where ethical issues with social consequences may occur:

  1. The research question: by simply asking a research question, for example is there a difference in IQ between races or is homosexuality inherited?, may cause harm to particular race groups or those with particular sexual orientations because it may reinforce prejudices.
  2. The conduct of research and treatment of participants: one main concern is the confidentiality of the information that is collected from studies, for example if a participant confesses to a crime should confidentiality be maintained?
  3. The institutional context: research may be funded by private or commercial organisations that may subsequently misuse the data in a way that makes the outcome look more favourable for their products or drugs. Additionally the media may also obtain reports of such research and misrepresent the findings.
  4. Interpretation and application of findings: research findings may also be misused for other purposes than originally intended. A good example of this was the development of IQ tests by psychologist which was subsequently used to demonstrate that certain race groups were inferior. Some other research also lead to the castration of individuals within society in the USA.

Social Sensitivity

Social sensitivity refers to any psychological research that may have a wider ethical implication and impact outside of the research context itself. The research might go on to affect people or groups within society which could include any of the following:

  • The participants in the research study itself, friends or families.
  • The researcher themselves or the institution where they work.
  • Groups of people essentially impacted by the nature of the socially sensitive research, including sub cultures and sub groups such as those with certain religious beliefs, ethnicities or groups that may have a particular sexual preference.

Siebar and Stanley identified 10 types of ethical issues that relates specifically to socially sensitive research:

  • Privacy: during the research process, the researcher may extract more information than is necessary or the participant intended to give which may be considered an invasion of privacy and may lead to social policies informed by such.
  • Confidentiality: those taking part in research may be less inclined to divulge information in the future if their confidentiality is breached and further relevant research may be compromised.
  • Valid methodology: in some research there may be cases of poor methodology and therefore invalid findings which scientist involved may be aware of, however, the media or public may not, and such poorly conducted studies may shape important social policy to the detriment of other groups.
  • Deception: this may include self deception whereby the research may lead people to form untrue stereotypes about themselves or others i.e. believing men are better at maths or believing themselves not to be capable based on findings.
  • Informed consent: potential participants in studies may not always understand what is involved, particularly where deception is necessary for the study.
  • Equitable treatment: all participants should be treated in an equitable manner, and appropriate resources which are vital for the participants well-being are made available and not withheld from one group whilst allowing another group to benefit from such.
  • Scientific freedom: while the scientist may have a duty to engage in scientific research, they also have an obligation not to harm participants as well as institutions within society.
  • Ownership of data: some of the problems with deciding ownership of research data rises when there is sponsorship of the research (e.g. if a university department or private commercial organisation has sponsored such) and the public accessibility of the data.
  • Values: Psychologists may vary in their orientation towards either subjective approaches (idiographic) or more scientific approaches. Sensitive issues may arise when there is a value clash between the scientist and potential recipient of the research.
  • Risk/benefit ratio: the risks or cost of research should be minimised, but problems may still arise determining risks as well as benefits e.g. how the research findings are interpreted by the public and media.

Evaluating Ethical Implications and Socially Sensitivity

  • Although there are some ethical implications associated with research into controversial topics, Sandra scarr (1988) argues that studies involving underrepresented groups and issues can help promote a greater sensitivity and understanding. She also argued that this can help reduce prejudice and encourage acceptance. In addition, socially sensitive research has also benefited society, for example, research into the unreliability of eyewitness testimony as conducted by Elizabeth Loftus has reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice within the legal system. This demonstrates how socially sensitive sensitive research may benefit society.
  • There is also clear evidence of how such research can be used to prejudice against people and minorities too. Henry Goddard (1917) issued IQ tests to immigrants when they arrived in the US and claimed that his findings demonstrated how the majority of Russians, Jews, Hungarians and Italians were "feeble-minded". He failed to highlight that many of his tests required an understanding of the English language. William Shockley (1952) made similar claims 50 years later when he claimed there might be genetic reasons that black people in America tended to school lower in IQ tests compared to whites. Arthur Jensen (1969) claimed genetic group differences is why compensatory education for ethnic minorities had failed. The 1994 book the bell curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray again reignited this debate by claiming intelligence and race we're linked. This all demonstrates the ethical implications of investigating socially sensitive topics and how prejudices can be reinforced by looking into such topics.
  • It is not always possible to see what the effects of research might have on society participants or the researcher. This makes it hard to predict the possible ramifications of the research. The decision to undertake the research is not an  objective decision so there is potential for bias from the decision-makers which means that socially sensitive research may still cause problems from time to time. Additionally, Yesica guidelines set for research permission viewed by some as too strict. There are areas of research which could elicit helpful findings and benefit people significantly however, the research cannot be conducted due to the research process causing issues for participants society or the researcher.
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