APPROACHES OF PSYCHOLOGY

Any action a person takes can be explained from several different points of view. Suppose, for example, you walk across the street. This act can be described as the firing of the nerves that activate the muscles that move the legs that transport you across the street. It can also be described without reference to anything within the body: the green light is a stimulus to which you respond by crossing the street. Or your action might be explained in terms of its purpose or goal: you plan to visit a friend, and crossing the street is one of many acts involved in carrying out the plan.
Just as there are different ways of describing such a simple act as crossing the street, there are also different approaches to psychology. Many approaches are possible, but the five presented here provide an insight into the major conceptions of modern psychology. Because these diverse viewpoints will appear throughout the book, we will provide only a brief description of some main points.
One should bear in mind that these approaches are not mutually exclusive; rather, they tend to focus on different aspects of a complex problem. There is no “right” or “wrong” approach to the study of psychology. Most psychologists take an eclectic viewpoint, using a synthesis of several approaches in explaining psychological phenomena.

::Neurobiological approach::

The human brain, with its 12 billion nerve cells and almost infinite number of interconnections, may well be the most complex structure in the universe. In principle, all psychological events are represented in some manner by the activity of the brain and nervous system. One approach to the study of human beings attempts to relate behavior to events taking place inside the body, particularly within the brain and nervous system. This approach seeks to specify the neurobiological processes that underlie behavior and mental events. For example, a psychologist studying learning from the neurobiological approach is interested in changes that take place in the nervous system as the result of learning a new task. Perception can be studied by recording the activity of nerve cells in the brain as the eye is exposed to various visual displays.
Recent discoveries have made it dramatically clear that there is an intimate relationship between the brain’s activity and behavior and experience. Emotional reactions, such as fear and rage, can be produced in animals by mild electrical stimulation of specific areas deep in the brain. Electrical stimulation of certain areas in the human brain will produce sensations of pleasure and pain and even vivid memories of past events (Microelectrodes implanted in specific areas deep in the brain of this young man produce a sensation of pleasure when stimulated by a mild current. He had previously been driven to the brink of suicide by spells of deep depression. When the wired cap is attached to the microelectrodes, the man can produce pleasurable sensations by pressing a button on a control box. Brain stimulation studies with microelectrodes in animals are helping psychologists understand emotion-producing centers of the brain. Diagnostic procedures with humans, such as the one depicted here, are employed only in extreme cases, when other methods have failed to relieve suffering.).
Because of the complexity of the brain and the fact that live human brains are seldom available for study, tremendous gaps exist in our knowledge of neural functioning. A psychological conception of ourselves based solely on neurobiology would be inadequate indeed. For this reason, other methods are used to investigate psychological phenomena. In many instances, it is more practical to study antecedent conditions and their consequences without worrying about what goes on inside the organism.

::Behavioral approach::

A person eats breakfast, rides a bicycle, talks, blushes, laughs, and cries. All these are forms of behavior, those activities of an organism that can be observed. With the behavioral approach, a psychologist studies individuals by looking at their behavior rather than at their internal workings. The view that behavior should be the sole subject matter of psychology was first advanced by the American psychologist John B. Watson in the early 1900s. Before that, psychology had been defined as the study of mental experiences, and its data were largely self-observations in the form of introspection.
Introspection refers to an individual’s careful observing and recording of his or her own perceptions and feelings. It ranges from reporting immediate sensory impressions to the onset of a stimulus (for example, the flash of a light) to the long-term probing of emotional experiences (for example, during psychotherapy). As unlike as these “introspection” may seem, they have in common a private quality that distinguishes them from observations in other fields of science. Any qualified scientist can replicate an observation in the natural sciences, whereas the introspective observation can be reported by only one observer.
Watson felt that introspection was a futile approach. He argued that if psychology were to be a science, its data must be observable and measurable.
Only you can introspect about your perceptions and feelings, but others can observe your behavior. Watson maintained that only by studying what people do-their behavior-is an objective science of psychology possible.
Behaviorism, as Watson’s position came to be called, helped shape the course of psychology during the first half of this century, and its outgrowth, stimulus-response psychology, is still influential, particularly because of the work of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. Stimulus-response psychology (or S-R psychology for short) studies the stimuli that elicit behavioral responses, the rewards and punishments that maintain these responses, and the modifications of behavior obtained by changing the patterns of rewards and punishments (Skinner, 1981).
Stimulus-response psychology is not concerned with what goes on inside the organism, and for this reason, it has sometimes been called the “black box” approach. The activities of the nervous system inside the box, so to speak, are ignored or blocked from view. S-R psychologists maintain that a science of psychology can be based strictly on what goes into the box and what comes out, without worrying about what takes place inside. Thus, a theory of learning be developed by observing how learned behavior varies with environmental conditions-for example, what patterns of reward and punishment lead to the fastest learning with the fewest errors. The theory need not specify the changes that learning produces in the nervous system in order to be useful. In science and engineering, such an approach to the study of mechanical systems is referred to as an input-output analysis.
A strict S-R approach does not consider the individual’s conscious experiences. Conscious experiences are simply those events the experiencing person is aware of. You may be aware of the various thoughts that go through your mind as you solve a difficult problem. You know what it feels like to be angry or frightened or excited. An observer may judge from your actions which emotion you are experiencing, but the conscious process-the actual awareness of the emotion-is yours alone. A psychologist can record what a person says about his or her conscious experiences (the verbal report) and from this objective data make inferences about the person’s mental activity. But, by and large, S-R psychologists have not chosen to study the mental processes that intervene between the stimulus and the response.
Today, few psychologists would regard themselves as strict behaviorists. Nevertheless, many modern developments in psychology have evolved from the work of behaviorists.

::Cognitive approach::

Cognitive psychologists argue that we are not passive receptors of stimuli; the mind actively processes the information it receives and transforms it into new forms and categories. What you are looking at on this page is an arrangement of ink particles. At least, that is the physical stimulus. But the sensory input to the visual system is a pattern of light rays reflected from the page to the eye. These inputs initiate neural processes that transmit information to the brain and eventually result in seeing, reading, and (perhaps) remembering. Numerous transformations occur between the stimulus and your experience of reading. These include not only transformations of the light rays into some kind of visual image, but also processes which compare that image with others stored in memory.
Cognition refers to the mental processes of perception, memory, and information processing by which the individual acquires knowledge, solves problems, and plans for the future. Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of cognition. Its goal is to conduct experiments and develop theories that explain how mental processes are organized and function. But explanation requires that the theories make predictions about observable events, namely behavior. As we shall see, one can theorize about cognitive processes and how they work without resorting to neurobiological explanations.
The cognitive approach to the study of psychology developed partly in reaction to the narrowness of the S-R view. To conceive of human actions solely in terms of stimulus input and response output may be adequate for the study of simple forms of behavior, but this approach neglects too many interesting areas of human functioning. People can think, plan, make decisions on the basis of remembered information, and selectively choose among stimuli that require attention.
In its origin, behaviorism rejected the subjective study of “mental life” in order to make psychology a science. It provided a valuable service by making psychologists aware of the need for objectivity and measurement. Cognitive psychology represents an attempt to investigate mental processes once again, but-as later chapters will show-in an objective and scientific manner.
An analogy has been made between the strict S-R approach and a telephone switchboard: the stimulus goes in, and after a series of cross connections and circuits through the brain, the response comes out. Cognitive psychology can be considered analogous to a modern computer-or to what in its most general sense is called an “information processing system.” Incoming information is processed in various ways: selected, compared, and combined with other information already in memory, transformed, rearranged, and so on. The response output depends on these internal processes and their state at that moment.
Kenneth Craik, a British psychologist and one of the early advocates of cognitive psychology, proposed that the brain is like a computer capable of modeling or paralleling external events. “If,” he said, “the organism carries a ‘small-scale model’ of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it” (Craik, 1943). The notion of a “mental model of reality” is central to a cognitive approach to psychology.

::Psychoanalytic approach::

The psychoanalytic conception of human behavior was developed by Sigmund Freud in Europe at about the same time that behaviorism was evolving in the United States. Unlike the ideas discussed thus far, psychoanalytic concepts are based on extensive case studies of individual patients rather than on experimental studies. Psychoanalytic ideas have had a profound influence on psychological thinking.
The basic assumption of Freud’s theory is that much of our behavior stems from processes that are unconscious. By unconscious processes Freud meant thoughts fears, and wishes a person is unaware of but which nevertheless influence behavior. He believed that many of the impulses that are forbidden or punished by parents and society during childhood are derived from innate instincts. Because each of us is born with these impulses, they exert a pervasive influence that must be dealt with in some manner. Forbidding them merely drives them out of awareness into the unconscious, where they remain to affect behavior. According to Freud, unconscious impulses find expression in dreams, slips of speech, mannerisms, and symptoms of mental illness as well as through such socially approved behavior as artistic or literary activity.
Most psychologists do not completely accept Freud’s view of the unconscious. They would probably agree that individuals are not fully aware of some aspects of their personality. But they prefer to speak of degrees of awareness rather than assume that a sharp distinction exists between conscious and unconscious thoughts.
Freud’s theories of personality and the psychoanalytic method for treating mental disturbances will be discussed in later chapters. Freud believed that all of our actions have a cause but that the cause is often some unconscious motive rather than the rational reason we may give for our behavior. Freud’s view of human nature was essentially negative. We are driven by the same basic instincts as animals (primarily sex and aggression) and are continually struggling against a society that stresses the control of these impulses. Because Freud believed that aggression was a basic instinct, he was pessimistic about the possibility of people ever living together peacefully.

::Phenomenological approach::

The phenomenological approach focuses on subjective experience. It is concerned with the individual’s personal view of the world and interpretation of events- the individual’s phenomenology. This approach seeks to understand events, or phenomena, as they are experienced by the individual and to do so without imposing any preconceptions or theoretical ideas. Phenomenological psychologists believe that we can learn more about human nature by studying how people view themselves and their world than we can by observing their actions. Two people might behave quite differently in response to the same situation; only by asking how each interprets the situation can we fully understand their behavior.
In its emphasis on internal mental processes rather than behavior, the phenomenological approach is similar to the cognitive approach. There is a major difference, however, in the kinds of problems studied and in the scientific rigor of the methods used to study them. Cognitive psychologists are concerned primarily with how individuals perceive events and code categorize, and represent information in memory. They seek to identify variables that influence perception and memory and to develop a theory of how the mind works so as to predict behavior. Phenomenological psychologists, in contrast, are more concerned with understanding the inner life and experiences of individuals than with developing Theories or predicting behavior. They are interested, for example, in a person’s self-concept, feelings of self-esteem, and self-awareness.
Phenomenological psychologists tend to reject the notion that behavior is controlled by unconscious impulses (psychoanalytic theories) or by external stimuli (behaviorism). They prefer to believe that we are not “acted on” by forces beyond our control but instead are “actors” capable of controlling our own destiny. We are the builders of our own lives because each of us is a free agent-free to make choices and set goals and, thus/accountable for our life choices. This is the issue of free will versus determinism.The ideas of phenomenological psychologists on this issue are similar to those expressed by such existential philosophers as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus.
Some phenomenological theories are also called humanistic because they emphasize those qualities that distinguish people from animals-in addition to free will, primarily the drive toward self-actualization. According to humanistic theories, an individual’s principal motivational force is a tendency toward growth and self-actualization. All of us have a basic need to develop our potential to the fullest, to progress beyond where we are now. Although we may be blocked by environmental and social obstacles, our natural tendency is toward actualization, or realization, of our potential (Royce and Mos, 1981).
With its emphasis on developing one’s potential, humanistic psychology has been closely associated with encounter groups and various types of “consciousness-expanding” and mystical experiences. It is more aligned with literature and the humanities than with science. In fact, some humanists reject scientific psychology, claiming that its methods can contribute nothing worthwhile to an understanding of human nature.
As a warning that psychology needs to focus its attention on solving problems relevant to human welfare rather than studying isolated bits of behavior in the laboratory, the humanistic view makes a valuable point. But to assume that the difficult problems in today’s highly complicated society can be solved by discarding all that we have learned about scientific methods of investigation is fallacious indeed. To quote one psychologist concerned with this issue, “We can no more afford a psychology that is humanistic at the expense of being scientific than we can afford one that is ‘scientific’ at the expense of human relevance” (Smith, 1973).

::Application of different approaches::
The details of each of these different psychological conceptions will become clearer as we encounter them in subsequent chapters. Any aspect of psychology may be approached from several viewpoints. For example, in studying aggression, the physiological psychologist would be interested in investigating the brain mechanisms responsible for such behavior. Aggressive behavior in animals can be controlled by electrical and chemical stimulation of specific areas in the brain. A behavioral psychologist might be interested in determining the kinds of learning experiences that make one person more aggressive than another. He or she might also study the specific stimuli that provoke hostile acts in a particular situation. A cognitive psychologist might focus on how individuals represent certain events in their minds (in terms of anger-arousing characteristics) and how these mental representations can be modified by providing the person with different types of information. A psychoanalyst might want to find out what childhood experiences foster the control of aggression or its channeling into socially acceptable forms.- The humanistic psychologist might focus on those aspects of an individual’s life situation that promote aggression by blocking progress toward self-actualization.
Each approach suggests a somewhat different way to modify or change an individual’s behavior. For example, the physiological psychologist would look for a drug or some other biological means, such as surgery, for controlling aggression. The behaviorist would try to modify the environmental conditions to provide new learning experiences that reward non aggressive behavior. Cognitive psychologists would use an approach similar to that of the behaviorists, although they might focus more on the individual’s mental processes and strategies for decision making in anger-arousing situations. The psychoanalyst might probe the individual’s unconscious to discover why the hostility is directed toward certain people or situations and then try to redirect it into more acceptable channels. A humanistic Psychologist might be concerned with helping the individual explore his or her feelings and express them openly in an attempt to improve interpersonal relationship.
A broader goal for some humanistic psychologists is to change those aspect of society that Foster competition and aggression rather than cooperation.
In making these distinctions, we have overstated the case. Although some psychologists might consider themselves strict behaviorists and other might hold a firm psychoanalytic view, most are fairly eclectic. They feel free to select from several approaches the concept that seem most appropriate for the problem with which they are working. Put another way, all of these approaches have something important to say about human nature, and few psychologists would insist that only one of them contained the “whole truth”.

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