Biological approach


Hi all , I hope all of your exams and revision are going to plan. I thought I’d share some notes I’d made for approaches essays for the upcoming PSYB4 exam. I’ve included as many synoptic links as possible. Enjoy (or don’t)! 

Biological (came up in the June 2014 paper, so unlikely to come up for June 2014)

AO1 – Key assumptions underlying the theory

  • Darwinian theory – the evolutionary basis of behaviour (eg. fight and flight) and the notion that animals are inherently similar to humans, and that we can thus generalise findings from animal research to humans.
  • Determinism – human behaviour is determined by a combination of genes and genetic inheritance (Eg OCD/Schizophrenia). Animal behaviour is almost totally determined by genes.
  • CNS/Brain – both play an essential role in thought and behaviour. It is thus necessary to understand the workings/structure of the brain and NS more generally to understand behaviour. (eg. amygdala – responsible for emotions)
  • Chemical processes in the brain – responsible for different aspects of psychological functioning. Imbalance = abnormal behaviour/thought. (eg. OCD and serotonin/ Schizophrenia and excessive dopaminergic activity)

AO2 – Strength and weaknesses

  • S – Highly scientific methods of research 
  • eg. MRIs to give detailed pictures of brain structure/function. Controlled lab experiments for sleep patterns or to test drugs on animals.
  • High in internal validity
  • Developed new methods of investigation
  • Great advances in understanding the biological basis of behaviour
  • Replicability
  • BUT – scientific methods my not provide the same level of detail.
  • HOWEVER – biological app. does sometimes use case studies of brain damaged patients.
  • S – Useful theoretical applications
  • Explained OCD and schizophrenia, supported by empirical evidence
  • Offered explanations for criminality (extra Y chromosome theory)
  • Has furthered our understanding of certain behaviours/disorders
  • We can treat/prevent occurence
  • BUT – theoretical apps may be limited in their use – deterministic/reductionist
  • This raises various issues regarding free will – the ignorance of sociocultural/environmental influence on our behaviour is a negative outlook that raises serious implications for the judicial system – if criminals cannot help their actions, should they then be punished?
  • S – Useful practical applications
  • Led to the development of drug treatments – SSRIs for OCD, antipsychotics for Schizophrenia
  • Research within the approach has been put to good use
  • Relieved individuals of their suffering
  • BUT – biological treatments often have negative side effects
  • Only lead to partial improvement in symptoms
  • Other factors must be involved
  • W – Deterministic
  • Biological determinism – genes/neurotransmitters responsible for our behaviour eg. OCD caused by low levels of serotonin
  • Ignores role of free will
  • Resulting implications for society
  • People may adopt a fatalistic attitude – is there any point in trying to change if your situation is totally out of your control Ie. Criminality
  • BUT – also a strength – cause & effect – has allowed the development of effective drugs treatments such as SSRIs and the like – relieved many of the debilitating effects of their disorder
  • W – Reductionist
  • Psychological characteristics reduced to biological/physical processes
  • eg. neurotransmitter activity – serotonin/OCD – sociocultural factors ignored
  • Underestimates the role of other important factors on behaviour
  • May be better to explain behaviour from a sociocultural perspective/take a holistic view
  • BUT – adheres to scientific investigation – we can identify cause and effect to develop treatments by isolating single variables
  • W – More in favour of nature than nurture
  • Human behaviour explained in terms of heritability and biological processes
  • Overemphasis on the importance of these at the expense of environmental influence?
  • BUT – untrue to say the approach completely ignores this – phenotype influenced by genotype and environment


AO1 – Key assumptions underlying the theory

  • Thought processes influence behaviour – 
  • Conscious thought mediates behaviour by planning/controlling how to behave and monitoring that behaviour is appropriate for a given social situation.
  • Cog. factors that mediate our behaviour include perceptions, thoughts and feelings.
  • Unconscious processes, Ie. attention and memory also influence behaviour. Studies of subliminal perception suggest that we can be influenced by stimuli we can’t see or hear consciously.
  • Computer analogy – 
  • Mind processes information like a computer – drawing this comparison helps us to understand how humans process info.
  • Info is coded, processed, stored, retrieved from memory and a response is produced.
  • Information processing
  • Mental processes = information processing
  • Involves transforming, storing and retrieving info from memory
  • The use of models provides a mechanistic view of the human mind, which is useful in helping us to understand how we process info
  • Scientific methods of investigation
  • Believes that cognitive processes should be studied scientifically (ie. using lab experiments)
  • Brain affects our cognitive processes, so therefore, studying people with brain damage can be useful

AO2 – Strengths and weaknesses

  • S – Scientific methods of research
  • Highly controlled lab experiments collecting objective quantitative data
  • Eg. Sternberg’s experiment to investigate how we retrieve info from the STM
  • Findings are high in internal validity – extraneous variables are controlled (eg. environmental variables in Sternberg’s study)
  • Scientific research can general universal laws of behaviour, due to replicability (Ie. 7+-2 items principle)
  • BUT – uses some case studies of brain damaged patients – may or may not be generalisable due to unusual cases with limited samples
  • Some cognitivists rely on introspective reports, which are regarded as unscientific
  • S – Useful theoretical applications
  • Explains atypical behaviours such as schizophrenia/OCD/depression
  • Eg. people with OCD have an attentional bias and make catastrophic misinterpretations, leading to their compulsive behaviours
  • This is a strength as it has been useful and helped to develop effective treatments
  • BUT – with cognitive explanations it is difficult to establish cause and effect – does faulty thinking cause the disorder, or does the disorder cause the faulty thinking?
  • S – Useful practical applications
  • Eg. CBT aims to identify and challenge a patient’s negative thoughts – changing maladaptive thinking patterns into more adaptive ones
  • CBT has been effective (supported by Hollon et al) – who found that CBT was as effective as drug treatment
  • BUT – the biological approach would claim that OCD is a result of a lack of serotonin on the brain – this would lead to a completely different mode of treatment
  • If the underlying cause is not cognitive, then are individuals not receiving proper drug treatment?
  • W – Too mechanistic in its approach to explaining behaviour
  • Computer analogy depicts humans as little more than machines
  • Human attributes such as consciousness and self-awareness remain a mystery to cognitivists
  • The idea of a ‘man as a machine’ is seen as too simplistic and ignoring emotional and social facts in human behaviour
  • Eg. cognitive explanation for depression largely ignores the impact of emotions
  • Dehumanising
  • BUT – less reductionist that biological or behaviourist – explanations lie firmly at a psychology level
  • W -Uses lab experiments which often lack in ecological validity
  • Experiments into memory often involve the use of artificial stimuli and highly controlled conditions
  • Memorising trigrams is not exactly reflective of how we use memory in real life!
  • BUT – case studies of brain damaged patients are also used to investigate mental processes, which although less scientific, are more realistic
  • W – The approach is more interested in mental processes than actual behaviour
  • Research has focused on how we solve problems, how visual perception works etc.
  • Gives a limited view of the person as it doesn’t take into account their actual behaviour, just the info they output
  • BUT – this criticism is ironically the opposite of that made of the behaviourst
  • Perhaps the two approaches should be used in combination (eclecticism) eg. have combined for CBT – effective!


AO1 – Key assumptions

  • Determinism – extreme perspective – radical behaviourism. All behaviour is determined by past events. Knowledge of a stimulus allows prediction of a response/behaviour. Conversely, given a response, a stimulus can be specified. Behaviour, whether human or animal is controlled by external environmental factors.
  • Reductionism – complex human behaviour is said to be reducible to simple components (S-R bonds). Eg. behaving in a friendly way (complex behaviour) is involves a cluster of behaviours such as smiling, laughing and saying nice things. Each of these behaviours would be learned from the reinforcement of S-R bonds to form complex behaviour.
  • Environmentalism – Extreme view that all learning comes from experience and that heredity has no role to play
  • Biology/genetics play a minimal role
  • Behaviourist perspective falls firmly on the side of nurture
  • Empiricism – only that which can be observed, measured and recorded should be scientific psychology
  • Thoughts and feelings cannot be observed, therefore they are not within the scope of behaviourism
  • ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do sciences of chemistry and physics. It is granted that the behaviour of animals can be investigated without appeal to consciousness’

AO2 – Strengths and weaknesses

  • S – Use of scientific methods 
  • High standards of observation, measurement and replication
  • By concentrating on observable behaviour & using the experimental method, they were able to produce verifiable theories about behaviour
  • Allows extraneous variables to be controlled/high internal validity
  • Conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn = enhanced understanding of behaviour
  • Driving force in development as psych as a science
  • BUT – use of animals in research means that findings may not always be generalisable to humans
  • S – Useful theoretical applications
  • Offered explanations for acquisition of phobias and criminal behaviour through classical conditioning
  • Parsimonious theory (unlike psychodynamic) – doesn’t go beyond empirical evidence  and explains facts in the most economical way
  • BUT – ignores the role of biological processes in human behaviour – research evidence suggests that criminality may well be genetic
  • S – Useful practical applications
  • Treatments for phobias – systematic de-sensitaisation
  • Offending behaviour – token economy
  • Practical apps. in education and the training of guide dogs too
  • Has made important contributions which are useful and beneficial to society
  • BUT – whilst using behaviourist principles to treat phobias/offending behaviour in  controlled way seems to be effective, effects don’t always generalise to every day life
  • W – Deterministic
  • eg. explains all behaviour as resulting from environment/past experience (environmental determinism)
  • Denies existence of free will – are individuals not responsible for their own behaviour?
  • If criminality is a result of past experience, then should criminals still be held responsible for their actions?
  • Similar to bio approach/contrasts humanistic
  • BUT – more positive/less fatalistic than the biological approach – if offending behaviour is LEARNED, then it can also be UNLEARNED
  • W – Reductionist
  • Reduces complex behaviour to S-R bonds
  • Such as offending – conditioning
  • Mechanistic/overly simplistic
  • Ignores the role of genes and cognitive processes
  • ‘Degrading and scientifically inaccurate’
  • IN CONTRAST – SLT takes into account the role of these mediating cognitive factors in learning
  • W – Nurture, rather than nature – 
  • All human behaviour = environmental through conditioning
  • Ignores the nature side of the argument – perhaps taking an interactionist approach is the best way to understand human behaviour
  • IN CONTRAST – Biological approach comes down on the nature side, providing evidence of the role of genes and neurotransmitters in our behaviour


AO1 – Key assumptions

  • Social context – learning takes place in a social context – SLT needs to take account of other people in learning process as a result. eg. child may learn gender role by observing adult models in a social context
  • Observational learning – we learn through observing how others behave in social situations, observing rewards/punishments received for behaving in certain ways also (vicarious reinforcement).
  • The people we observe are models, and the characteristics of said model influences whether or not the observer imitates
  • Social conditions – Learning through observation doesn’t always result in performance. Social conditions have to be correct.
  • eg. We may observe models on TV that it is necessary to curtesy when meeting the queen
  • Said behaviour only will be imitated if we actually meet the queen.
  • Language – Language and other forms of symbolism allow us to turn experience into conscious though to reflect and plan future behaviours
  • These are mental processes and NOT passive responses
  • (Could link to Vygotsky – child cog. development)

AO2 – Strengths and weaknesses

  • S – Adopts scientific methods
  • eg. Bandura conducted controlled lab experiment in which children were exposed to either an aggressive, or non-aggressive role model. Children who observed an aggressive adult model displayed aggressive acts onto a bobo doll.
  • Experiments such as this = high internal validity/high control over EVs = useful in establishing cause and effect
  • Furthers our understanding of human behaviour
  • BUT – studies such as bobo doll study criticised on the grounds of ecological validity
  • Children may also respond to demand characteristics = lowers validity of study
  • S – Adopts a compromise position in the free will/determinism debate
  • Soft determinism – Bandura proposed the idea of reciprocal determinism – interaction between our environment and our cognitive processes = both influence each other = behaviour
  • We have a ‘degree of free will’/personal agency
  • Less fatalistic – we are not passive. More pos. than determinism
  • IN CONTRAST – behaviourism sees free will as an ‘illusion’- all behaviour shaped by past events
  • S – Useful theoretical applications 
  • Applied to explain offending behaviour; a child may observe a role model receiving a reward (ie. popularity) for stealing sweets
  • Child learns through vicarious reinforcement and may imitate behaviour later on.
  • Also, the concept of self-efficacy as defined by Bandura as ‘as one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations’ has been adopted by health and sport psychology
  • Pos. impact on society
  • BUT – applications are limited in their use – does SLT ignore biological factors?
  • W – Ignores the role of heredity/biology
  • Biological approach states that aggression is due to hormones/brain abnormality/genetics
  • Is SLT reductionist in that it explains behaviour at an environmental level, ignoring biological factors
  • BUT – acknowledges internal mental processes, so, less reductionist than biological in a way
  • W – Criticisms of Bandura’s experiments
  • Presence of demand characteristics due to nature of observational experimentation
  • Artificial environment
  • Little external validity – very rarely will an adult demonstrate aggression on a bobo doll and allow a child to imitate
  • Research on which the theory is based = weak, theory is weakened as a result
  • W – Not very good at explaining the learning of abstract ideas/concepts
  • Such as justice or fairness, through observation.
  • How can we learn a complex concept simply through observing role models?
  • Approach is limited and only explains some types of learning
  • BUT – the approach has been influential, acting as a bridge between behaviourism and cognitivism

Freudian/post-Freudian theories (came up in the June 2014 paper, so unlikely to come up for June 2014)

AO1 – Key assumptions

  • Unconscious processes – mental processes can occur at conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious levels. Human behaviour largely determined by unconscious motives and conflict. Unconscious stems from the three elements/tripartite structure of the personality – id, superego and ego, which are all in constant conflict.
  • Defence mechanisms – Our understanding of ourselves is distorted by defence mechanisms. Our little insight into our conscious mind does not provide an accurate picture of who we are.
  • Through these mechanisms (eg. repression, displacement) we distort reality to avoid the damaging psychological consequences/pain of the truth.
  • This is how we protect the conscious mind from anything painful or disturbing in nature
  • Childhood experiences – Early childhood experience have significant influence on adult personality/behaviour
  • How the child copes with conflict and unpleasant experiences in childhood will be repeated later on
  • Ie. Bowlby suggested that an infant who does not secure attachment with the mother in the first year of life will, without fail, have problems later in life (ie. inability to form close relationships)
  • Case studies – The best way to study humans is through the case study method. This allows the individual to be studied in detail – what is said and done can be interpreted by the analyst for unconscious/underlying motives.

AO2 – Strengths and weaknesses

  • S – Highlights the importance of childhood experiences
  • eg. John Bowlby – no secure attachment with mother = issues in later life forming close relationships
  • Important basis for psychological functioning
  • This is now accepted in psychology and professional areas such as social work and psychiatry
  • BUT – perhaps the importance on close early relationships is overemphasised – many children who have been deprived of an attachment with their mother in the first year of life go on to live perfectly normal lives
  • This shows that the theory is limited in its explanation of psychological development
  • S – Useful theoretical applications
  • S – Some useful practical applications
  • Ie. free association/dream analysis etc. – implemented to treat phobias – uncover the underlying unconscious thoughts that cause them
  • Freudian case studies = effective
  • BUT – Freud recorded his case studies unreliably – not objective, open to researcher bias
  • Many patients he treated were NOT fully recovered
  • W – Deterministic and pessimistic 
  • Humans are inherently bad
  • Perspectives on childhood experience/psychosexual development = troubling = ie. oedipus etc.
  • Inappropriate and overstated?
  • Also, many children that have negative experiences/phases in childhood go on to have perfectly normal adult lives
  • W – Relies on the case study method
  • eg. Little Hans
  • Cannot generalise from one case study, or even a few, to ALL children
  • Accuracy questionable – not objective, open to researcher bias
  • Unscientific
  • BUT – attempts to establish GENERAL laws of behaviour, which is what scientific psychology strives to achieve
  • W – Unscientific and untestable
  • Unfalsifiable hypotheses
  • Abstract concepts
  • Immeasurable
  • BUT – again, attempts to establish general laws of behaviour and views id, superego, ego as innate – scientific to some extent


AO1 – Key assumptions

  • Free Will – each human being is an active agent, able to choose, control and change their own behaviour
  • We control how we think and feel
  • Holism – the best way to explain, study and treat behaviour is by looking at the person as a whole rather than reducing them to component parts – ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’
  • Conscious thought – each person is a rational and conscious being and is no dominated by conscious, primitive instincts. It is best to study human behaviour by asking people about their conscious thoughts eg. via. interview .
  • Each person is unique – therefore, it is important to focus on the private,subjective experiences of each individual, rather than taking an objective approach. Humanism rejects the scientific approach.

AO2 – Strengths and weaknesses

  • S – Acknowledges the role of free will 
  • Humans are active agents, we have the power to choose and decide on our own behaviour. Person centred therapy encourages clients to develop their own solutions – optimistic
  • Places responsibility on the individual and sees them as capable of change
  • BUT – concept of free will not consistent with assumptions of science – humanism lacks empirical evidence
  • S – Takes a holistic view – 
  • Acknowledges the complexity of human thought and behaviour by considering them as a ‘whole’
  • BUT – holism, unlike reductionism, doesn’t lend itself to scientific psychology – lacks empirical evidence to support its claims
  • S – Some useful theoretical/practical applications – 
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs useful in business and education
  • Client-centred therapy for stress/anxiety/divorce/bereavement – a more ‘person-centred’ alternative to Freudian psychoanalysis
  • Approach has benefitted society – useful for mild depression/anxiety
  • BUT – limited in use – does not successfully treat more serious disorders, such as schizophrenia, wherein people often lack insight into their conscious thoughts and are unable to discuss them rationally
  • This raises further issues into the key assumptions underpinning the theory
  • W – Unscientific
  • Lacks empirical evidence to back up claims that other approaches DO have. Eg. The biological approach has a wealth of supporting evidence and is largely a more accepted psychological approach
  • Complete rejection of the scientific approach into studying human behaviour because emphasis is placed on the private subjective experience of the individual
  • No support for theory – is it completely unfounded?
  • W – Relies on unstructured interviews
  • Cannot be replicated
  • Hard to analyse – involve collecting qualitative data regarding a person’s thoughts and feelings (private subjective experience)
  • Interviewer might stray from focus
  • Relies on participants having a good insight into their own thoughts/feelings and reporting them accurately (memory is an issue here)
  • BUT – qualitative methods are useful, providing more rich, detailed info about experience of humans than experimental methods can provide
  • They can help us understand WHY people think or behave in a certain way
  • W – Problems with the concepts of free will and self-actualisation
  • Some needs are missed from self-actualisation and it is perhaps too simplistic a view of human thought and behaviour
  • Abstract concepts which are not directly observable, objectively measurable, or even definable
  • Unfalsifiable – unscientific

Eclectic approach

Click Here to see my notes on the eclectic approach, complete with an essay plan 🙂


AQA PSYB3 Revision – Biological and sociocultural explanations for schizophrenia

Biological explanations

  • Also called the ‘medical model’ which sees mental disorders as having physical causes.
  • Favours the use of biological treatments, Ie. Drugs.


  • States that the disorder is passed on from generation to generation through genes. The basic idea is that some people are born with a gene (or genes) that predispose them towards developing the disorder.
  • The most influential theory is the diathesis stress theory, where ‘schizophrenic genes’ are triggered by stressful experiences, such as family dysfunction.
  • Evidence comes from family studies, such as Kendler et al, who found that first-degree relatives of those with schizophrenia were 18 times more at risk of developing the disorder.
  • This would indicate that the closer two people are genetically, the higher the concordance for schizophrenia is likely to be. The risk of schizophrenia in the general population is around 1%, so this is much higher in comparison.
  • Gottesman and Shields supported this notion and claimed that the likelihood of developing the disorder is 46% for those who have two parents with the disorder.
  • If there was no genetic element then there should be no difference in the level of risk of first-degree relatives and a random member of the public. But research shows that there is a difference, therefore, this is a strength of the genetic explanation.
  • Yet, though family studies have confirmed that schizophrenia tends to cluster in families, they do not show how much of this is due to genetic or environmental influence. Are first degree relatives more likely to develop the disorder because of genes, or because they have shared an environment with a sufferer? As this is a clear limitation on the evidence on which the theory is based, the genetic explanation for schizophrenia is also weakened as a result.
  • However, twin studies have also been conducted to separate out the contribution nature and nurture in the explanation of schizophrenia. As MZ twins share 100% of their genes and DZ twins only share 50%, if schizophrenia is a genetic disorder, then the concordance rates for MZ twins should be greatr.
  • Average concordance rates from five studies 1969 – 1976 =  MZ = 46% and DZ = 14%.
  • If there was no genetic factor, then there should be no difference between MZ and DZ twins, but the fact that there is a difference suggests a strong genetic link for schizophrenia, supporting the biological explanation.
  • Equally, as the concordance rates for MZ twins are not 100%, schizophrenia cannot be wholly genetic. Therefore, this is a weakness of the genetic explanation, as there must be other factors that come into play, such as a stressful experience or environment.
  • The genetic explanation can be evaluated as follows:
  • Strength = concordance rates for MZ twins are around 3 times that of DZ twins. For example, meta-analysis showed concordance for MZ twins was 46% compared to 14% for DZ twins, suggesting that schizophrenia is caused by genetic factors. If a broader definition of schizophrenia is adopted to include similar disorders, then MZ concordance is even higher. This is a clear strength as it supports a genetic explanation.
  • Weakness = evidence from older twin studies is less reliable due to changes in diagnostic criteria. Nowadays, diagnosis is much more rigorous than it was 40 years ago, due to the use of the DSM, meaning that some research may lack external validity, as some people diagnosed then would not be given the same diagnosis today. Therefore, this is a weakness of the genetic explanation.
  • Weakness = twin studies often involve small samples as it is difficult to get large ones, due to the fact schizophrenia (and twins) are quite rare and hard to acquire. This means that data/the sample may not be generalisable to the whole populated and therefore, this is a weakness of theory due to the limitations of the evidence on which it is based.

Neurochemical explanation

The dopamine hypothesis

  • It was previously thought that excessive dopaminergic activity on the brain was the cause of schizophrenic symptoms.
  • When healthy people took drugs that increase dopaminergic activity in the brain, such as amphetamines, they had psychotic symptoms similar to those experienced by people with schizophrenia.
  • When people with schizophrenia take these drugs, it makes their symptoms worse.
  • Neuroleptics (drugs that block dopamine receptors) reduce psychotic symptoms.
  • Randrup et al supported this notion, as he found that behaviour similar to that found with schizophrenia could be induced in rats by administering amphetamines (thus, causing the release of dopamine) and that the effect could be reduced with anti-psychotic drugs (which inhibit dopamine).
  • Compelling as this evidence is, psychologists have reservations regarding its generalisability. As rats are clearly very different and less complex than humans, it is difficult to apply these findings to people.
  • The early theory that schizophrenia was linked to an overactive dopaminergic circuit in the brain was not supported by post-mortem studies, as not everyone with schizophrenia had increased dopaminergic activity on the braon.
  • The theory was modified (this is a strength if you’re including it as evaluation in an essay). Schizophrenia wasn’t caused by an increase in dopamine per se, but instead, by the heightened sensitivity of the receptors for dopamine that led to schizophrenic symptoms.
  • Supporting evidence for the modified theory comes from post-mortem studies (which have shown that people with schizophrenia have many more D2 receptors than in ‘normal’ brains) and studies using PET scans (which have reported a substantial increase in D2 receptors in patients with schizophrenia.)
  • Seeman et al found using PET scans, six times the density of D4 receptors in the brains of people with schizophrenia, suggesting a link between the disorder and an increase in dopamine receptors, supporting the neurochemical explanation.
  • Evaluation points for the neurochemical explanation are as follows:
  • Weakness = The explanation is too reductionist as it reduces the disorder merely to the influence of chemicals such as dopamine. The explanation is therefore too simplistic, ignoring the influence of environmental and genetic factors.
  • Weakness = The dopamine hypothesis is too limited an explanation, as other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin have also been linked to the disorder. Furthermore, it is suggested that dopamine is only responsible for positive symptoms. This means that the dopamine hypothesis is evidently limited and weakened by the fact it doesn’t explain the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
  • Weakness = It isn’t possible to establish a cause and effect relationship. Is excess dopamine a cause or an effect of the disorder? It has been suggested that drugs used to treat schizophrenia may actually increase levels of dopamine, as neurons struggle to compensate for the sudden deficiency. Also, this is merely correlational data, as there is no knowledge of a patient’s dopamine levels before they were diagnosed, which poses further issues to the neurochemical explanation. Due to a weakness of the evidence on which the theory is based, the explanation is weakened as a result.

Sociocultural explanations

  • Doesn’t see abnormality as something within the individual (ie. at a biological or cognitive level), but within the wider social context in which the person exists.
  • Abnormal behaviour is seen as a product of societal/familial interaction.

Labelling theory

  • Based on Scheff’s sociological theory of mental illness
  • In society there are many residual rules (implicit, culture-bound assumptions regarding appropriate conduct) and Scheff referred to mental illness as being a violation of such residual rules.
  • In other words, is schizophrenia just a term we use to describe people who have broken some culture-bound residual rules?
  • Scheff believes that we all violate residual rules occasionally, but somebody who breaks many of these may be labelled as either ‘mentally ill’ or ‘schizophrenic’.
  • This label may then determine how they are perceived by others in society and how their behaviour is interpreted as a result. People will treat them according to their label.
  • For example, in Rosenhan’s ‘Sane in insane places’ study, ‘normal’ behaviour was interpreted as a ‘symptom’ of mental illness due to the label that had been assigned to the pseudo-patients.
  • This label may also influenced the individual to behave in a manner that fits the label that they have been assigned based on societal stereotypes.
  • The label creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the individual starts to behave in ways expected of someone with that label.
  • People begin to accept their new social role and find it difficult to fit back into normal society. Other people get to know about their illness; they may be unable to find wor; and if they’re hospitalised, the attention that they get may reinforce their behaviour.
  • Thomas Szas argues that using medical terms such as ‘treatment,’ ‘illness,’ and ‘diagnosis’ is a form of societal control that robs individuals of their liberty.
  • Labelling people as ‘mentally ill’ is a way of excluding people who don’t conform to our social and cultural norms.
  • Key Study: Rosenhan’s ‘Sane in insane places’
  • Aim: To investigate the reliability of mental illness diagnosis
  • Method: 8 pseudo-patients pretended to experience auditory hallucinations that said ‘empty,’ ‘hollow,’ and ‘thud’.
  • All patients were admitted to hospital (7 were diagnosed with schizophrenia and 1 was diagnosed with bipolar depression).
  • Once admitted, they behaved normally but felt a sense of powerlessness and fear, and their behaviour was interpreted by staff as ‘schizophrenic’.
  • Results: Pseudo-patients had difficult convincing the hospital staff that they were sane.
  • They were hospitalised for between 7 and 52 days. Normal behaviour was interpreted as abnormal.
  • A patient writing notes was deemed to be showing ‘obsessive compulsive writing behaviour’.
  • Once labelled, the label stuck and the patients were only discharged with ‘schizophrenia in remission’.
  • Conclusion: The study showed how patients were perceived according to the label that they had been assigned, supporting the labelling theory explanation of schizophrenia

Evaluation of labelling theory and Rosenhan’s study

  • Strength = Labelling theory is demonstrated clearly by research evidence, as Rosenhan found that 8 pseudo patients in his study, who all demonstrated behaviour deemed to be ‘normal’  that didn’t break any of society’s residual rules, had their actions interpreted by hospital staff to be a ‘symptom of their disorder’. This shows the sticky effect of labelling – once somebody is given a label, it stays with them and they are perceived differently by others in society, supporting the theory as a result.
  • Weakness = Labelling theory only explains how symptoms are maintained, not how they are caused or acquired. As the cause of the symptoms cannot be determined, it is much harder to treat the disorder, and as a result, many people go untreated. This is a clear limitation of labelling theory, as it has negative ethical implications regarding sufferers of the disorder whose conditions may worsen due to a lack of appropriate treatment.
  • Weakness = Labelling theory also ignores compelling genetic evidence. There is clearly a strong genetic link to the disorder, as suggested by the average concordance rates of schizophrenia in MZ and DZ twins. Monozygotic twins, who share 100% of their genes, had a higher concordance rate (46%) than that of Dizygotic twins (14%) who share 50% of the genes. If there was no genetic element to the disorder, we would expect these concordance rates to be the same. Therefore, labelling theory is limited in its explanation of schizophrenia, as it is too reductionist in its application, not considering the scientific studies that suggest biological causation.
  • Weakness = Labelling theory has also been criticised on the grounds that it trivialises a very serious disorder. Distressing symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations and thought and speech disturbances may be dismissed as a mere violation of residual rules. As this does not acknowledge the real suffering of schizophrenics, who may go untreated as a result, this is another limitation of the theory. Due to the effectiveness of drug treatments, perhaps a biological approach would be more appropriate explanation for causation.

Expressed emotion explanation (family dysfunction)

  • It has been suggested that schizophrenia may be the result of maladaptive behaviour and poor communication within the family.
  • Expressed emotion has been identified as a possible stress factor responsible for causing or contributing to the development of schizophrenia. (Schiffman et al) – Nb. Consider the diathesis stress model that proposes a biological/genetic cause that may predispose an individual towards developing the disorder, but a sociological trigger that results in the expression of the disorder/faulty gene (read the diathesis stress section of this post for more detail).
  • A family high in expressed emotion may display the following characteristics: high levels of interpersonal conflict (family arguments), difficulties in communicating effectively with each other, difficulties in listening to eachother, highly critical and controlling parenting.
  • Nomura et al found that when a person recovering from the active phase of schizophrenia goes back into a family context where there are lots of arguments and the patient is subjected to a lot of criticism, hostility and disapproval, they’re likely to relapse and revert back to the highly active phase of the disorder, exhibiting many of the severe positive symptoms.
  • Recovery is effectively slowed down.
  • Key Study: Brown et al
  • Aim: Investigated the impact of expressed emotion in the family on the recovery of schizophrenics (Nb. NOT the cause)
  • Method: People revering from schizophrenia and discharged from hospital were followed up over a 9 month period. Interviews with family members were conducted to determine the level of expressed emotion.
  • Results: Families with high expressed emotion levels resulted in 58% of the schizophrenics returning to hospital, compared with only 10% in families with low expressed emotion levels.
  • Conclusions: Expressed emotion as a pattern of family communication is an important factor in determining how well people recover from schizophrenia.
  • Evaluation: Yet, interviewees may give socially desirable answers to give off the impression that they get along better with their family. Results could also be exaggerated by respondents, indicating that their situation is worse than it actually is.
  • Butzlaff and Hooley supported this notion as they reviewed over 20 studies of expressed emotion. They found that 70% of schizophrenics in high EE families relapsed within a year compared with just a 30% relapse in low EE families, supporting a family dysfunction explanation.
  • Bebbington and Kuipers conducted meta-analysis of 26 studies from a variety o countries and found that relapse in high EE families was 50% where in the low EE families, it was only 21%, implying that high expressed emotion is a significant risk factor in the relapse rates for the disorder.
  • Expressed emotion theory can be evaluated as follows:
  • Weakness = Family interactions are only studied after an individual has been diagnosed. As research only takes place once a family member has been diagnosed, we do not know what interaction was like before diagnosis. This poses issues in determining a cause and effect relationship, as high expressed emotion could actually be the resulting effect of the troubling nature of schizophrenic symptoms and its diagnosis. This is a clear weakness of the research upon which the theory is based.
  • Strength = EE theory has had useful practical applications, as it has led to the development of an effective form of family therapy where relatives are shown how to reduce levels of EE. This is supported by Hogarty et al, who found that such therapy can significantly reduce relapse rates, and this is a clear strength, as is shows that something good has come from diagnosis, rather than just a negative label.
  • Weakness = There are issues with how EE is measured, as it usually involves using one interview with the family, who could potentially give socially desirable answers. This is a problem, as it might not be sufficient evidence to give an accurate or valid picture of family interaction. This is another weakness of the research on which the theory is based, and as the research is weak, so is the theory.

The Diathesis stress model

    • This explanation considers both genetic and environmental stressors.
    • Suggests that genetic predisposition, plus a trigger (ie. major life event/adverse family circumstances) can lead to the development of schizophrenia.
    • The model therefore proposes a that both the nature argument and the nurture argument lack validity, as clearly, an interaction of both nature and nurture takes place.
    • This multidimensional approach, which takes into account genetic predisposition/nature, combined with environmental/nurture factors is a far more comprehensive approach to explaining schizophrenia, as it incorporates both arguments.

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.