AQA PSYB4 PPQ – Discuss how the biological approach helps psychologists to understand human behaviour. In your answer, refer to two topics you have studied in psychology.

Just thought I’d post my most recent psychology essay! I’ve only just started learning the PSYB4 module, so I’ll have some better essays on this soon, as well as some PSYB3 essays.


The biological approach believes humans have evolved through Darwinian evolution and therefore, certain behaviours have evolutionary explanations. For example, we have evolved to have a ‘fight or flight’ response to threatening situations. Our sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action by releasing adrenaline and increasing heart rate, and this is said to have an evolutionary basis as it aids survival. However, the biological approach s criticised for focusing too much on the nature side of the debate. This is a weakness as it may be an overemphasis on the importance of evolutionary factors and biological processes at the expense of psychological and environmental factors. Yet, it is untrue to say the biological approach ignores environmental factors completely, as it is known that the phenotype is influenced by both genotype and the environment. For example, in a situation where identical twins, who share the same genotype, are separated at birth, can potentially have different phenotypes, which can reflect in both their personality and their physicality as they are treated differently by their parents. Therefore, this is a clear acknowledgement of environmental influence by the biological approach, as it recognises how those who are expected to exhibit the same behaviour as they share exactly the same genetic make up, can show different behavioural tendencies depending on how they’re brought up. Furthermore, the diathesis stress theory of schizophrenia acknowledges how an individual may be genetically predisposed to developing the disorder, but that it takes a stressful life event to trigger the disorder. This is a clear strength of the biological approach, as a knowledge of genetic predisposition can lead an individual to avoid the environmental stress factors that incite the disorder, and therefore, deter its onset altogether.

Another assumption of the biological approach is that human behaviour is strongly determined by our genes and genetic inheritance. For example, it is thought that disorders such as OCD and schizophrenia may be genetic, as evidence shows that they run in families. Evidence from this comes from Pauls et al, who found that those with a first degree relative with OCD are more likely to develop the disorder. Furthermore, Kendler found that those with a first degree relative with schizophrenia are 18 time more at risk of developing the disorder themselves. However, the biological explanations of OCD and schizophrenia are deterministic, claiming that the disorder is beyond the control of the individual. This is a weakness as it ignores the role of free will and sees us as powerless to change. This has implications for the criminal justice system, as it raises questions such as ‘are criminals responsible for their own behaviour?’ meaning that custodial sentencing may be an unwarranted and unethical punishment, as offenders are unable to stop themselves from committing offences. In addition, this deterministic view also has negative implications for society, those with OCD and schizophrenia may adopt a fatalistic attitude, assuming that they cannot change their behaviour because it already fixed in their genetic make up.

Furthermore, the approach is reductionist as it explains OCD and schizophrenia at the level of genetics, ignoring factors such as upbringing and socio-cultural factors, despite compelling evidence that schizophrenia may be a result of labelling. This is a weakness as it is dehumanising, presenting humans as biological machines, underestimating the role of other important factors on our behaviour. For example, it may be better to explain human behaviour from a social or cultural perspective, as sociocultural theories, such as labelling theory, have shown clearly the damaging effects of labelling an individual with medical terms such ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘mentally ill,’ as others may interpret normal behaviour as a symptom of their disorder, and they can become ostracised from society as a result. In spite of this, biological reductionism is also a strength, as by isolating just one factor, it allows researchers to investigate that factor scientifically in order to establish cause and effect relationships. For example, experimental research is useful, where an IV is manipulated and all other variables are controlled, as by determining causation, researchers may be able to find treatments to aid those with behaviours that lessen their quality of life.

The biological approach assumes that the central nervous system, especially the brain, plays an essential role in thought and behaviour. For example, the amygdala in the limbic system plays a role in emotions. Evidence from this comes from Morris et al, who found that the amygdala shows high levels of activity when a person is shown fearful faces, suggesting that this particular area of the brain plays a role in our ability to recognise fear, thus implying that our reactionary behaviour has a biological basis. This is a strength as it demonstrates how the biological approach has been useful in explaining how and why we are able to recognise fear in another person. This may serve the evolutionary function of keeping us safe as if we can recognise emotion in someone else we can avoid the dangerous situation ourselves. Furthermore, this research is highly scientific. Morris used PET scans which is a precise and objective method of investigation. This is a strength of the biological approach as the research is high in internal validity and can be replicated precisely. This scientific approach enables psychologists to develop universal laws of behaviour and make predictions about human behaviour.

The biological approach believes chemical processes in the brain are responsible for psychological functioning. For example, OCD is though to be caused by low levels of serotonin and schizophrenia is thought to be a result of excessive dopaminergic activity. This is supported by Seeman et al, who found six times the density of D4 receptors in the brains of people with schizophrenia, supporting the claim that the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine may cause the symptoms of schizophrenia. This is a strength of the approach as there is a clear link between schizophrenia and an increase in dopamine receptors, inferring that chemical processes are indeed responsible for schizophrenic behaviours. Research such as this has developed in useful practical applications, such as the development of drug treatments. For example, SSRIs for OCD and antipsychotic drugs for schizophrenia. This is a strength as it shows the biological approach has been beneficial and has made important contributions to society, improving the quality of life  for sufferers by lessening the debilitating effects of their disorders. However, the neurochemical explanation of schizophrenia is limited as there is evidence to suggest that family dysfunction, such as high levels of expressed emotion can trigger the development of the disorder. This highlights the importance of considering both the influences of nature and nurture on our behaviour, as the treatments that have resulted from this theory, such as family therapy, have been effective, as Hogarty et al suggests that such therapy can significantly reduce relapse rates.

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