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DEBATES SHEET: the information on this sheet will help you to complete the ‘some’
section at each station. This sheet will be made available online after the lesson.
The behaviourist approach and key debates
The behaviourist approach is deterministic: people’s behaviour is assumed to be entirely controlled by
their environment and their prior learning, so they do not play any part in choosing their own actions.
The approach takes the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, believing that apart from a few
innate reflexes and the capacity for learning, all complex behaviour is learned from the environment.
Their insistence that all learning can be accounted for in terms of law-governed processes like classical
and operant conditioning, reflects a nomological approach to studying human behaviour (although
behaviourists never ignore individual differences, since every person’s history of learning is unique). The
behaviourists’ view that all behaviour, no matter how complex, can be broken down into the
fundamental processes of conditioning makes it a highly reductionist approach to psychology.
The psychodynamic approach and key debates
The psychodynamic approach rejects the idea that people have free will. A person’s behaviour is
determined by their unconscious motives which are shaped by their biological drives and their early
experiences, making this a deterministic approach. With reference to the nature-nurture debate, the
psychodynamic approach takes an interactionist position: it agrees that we are driven by innate,
biological instincts (nature) but also maintains that the expression of these is heavily modified by our
upbringing (nurture). The psychodynamic approach also occupies the middle ground in the debate
between nomological and ideographic approaches to psychology. Whilst Freud argued that human
behaviour is governed by universal processes that apply to everyone (the psyche, the psychosexual
stages), reflecting a nomological understanding, psychodynamic psychologists agree that the exact ways
in which these processes manifest themselves in the individual is unique in every case. Their case-study
approach to research reflects this uniqueness and exemplifies an ideographic way of studying people.
However, because the psychodynamic approach generally explains complex behaviours as
manifestations of more primitive biological drives, it is widely regarded as a reductionist approach to
psychology rather than a holistic one.
The humanistic approach and key debates
The humanistic approach explicitly states that people have free will, which sets it apart from other
approaches (with the possible exception of some cognitivists). It could be suggested, however, that their
position on free will is incoherent, since at the same time as insisting on people’s ability to choose their
actions, they explain how our behaviour is determined by our treatment at the hands of others and an
innate set of needs. In the nature-nurture debate, humanists favour nurture, because of the influence of
experiences on a person’s ways of perceiving and understanding the world, but also acknowledge the
influence of biological drives and needs. Their belief in the uniqueness of each individual inclines them
toward an ideographic approach to psychology. Because they believe that human experience must be
engaged with as such, humanistic psychologists do not attempt to break behaviour down into more
fundamental processes. As such, their approach to psychology is explicitly holistic, rather than
The biological approach and key debates
Biopsychologists are generally deterministic in their outlook. As might be expected, they tend to favour
the nature side of the nature-nurture debate. Because they take a very scientific approach to studying
people their approach is nomological – they are most interested in the features that people have in
common and in understanding the fundamental laws of human behaviour. Their scientific approach also
inclines them to explain human behaviour in a reductionist manner, by breaking complex processes
down into more fundamental biological ones.
The cognitive approach and key debates
Cognitive psychologists are divided on the issue of free will. Some believe people can choose their
actions, others are more deterministic and suggest that we can no more decide on our own behaviour
than a computer can. In the nature-nurture debate, cognitive psychologists take an interactionist
position, believing that our behaviour is influenced by learning and experience (nurture) but also by our
brains’ innate capacities as information processors (nature). The approach is basically nomological in
outlook, as its focus is on establishing the information processes that are common to all people.
Cognitive psychologists are generally reductionist although they vary about how far psychological
processes should be broken down when explaining them. Some suggest that cognitive processes can be
broken down ultimately into biological processes, whereas others believe there is a level beyond which
it makes no sense to reduce cognitive processes to a more fundamental level.
Social learning theory and key debates
Although the approach appears less mechanistic than behaviourism, social learning theorists generally
do not believe in free will, and take a deterministic view of human behaviour. Their emphasis on the
role of cognitive and motivational factors may appear to give freedom of choice a role in behaviour, but
it should be remembered that a person’s motivation is the product of learning that took place at an
earlier time and that therefore their ‘choices’ are not free. They share with the behaviourists a tendency
to favour the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, although it is generally assumed that the
capacity for observational learning must be innate. Like behaviorism and other scientific approaches to
psychology, social learning theory is nomological in its outlook and holds the similarities between
people to be more important than the differences. Along with the nomological outlook comes a
reductionist approach to explaining behaviour, whereby even the most complex things that people do
are explained in terms of relatively simple fundamental processes of learning.