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Philosophical Debates in Psychology

How would you live your life if you really accepted that humans have no free will and everything you do is predetermined? How would this change if you accepted that our free will can overcome any innate tendencies? Psychological findings often relate to or even support certain philosophical ideas. In this article, we'll explore the key philosophical debates that can…

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Philosophical Debates in Psychology

Philosophical Debates in Psychology

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How would you live your life if you really accepted that humans have no free will and everything you do is predetermined? How would this change if you accepted that our free will can overcome any innate tendencies? Psychological findings often relate to or even support certain philosophical ideas. In this article, we'll explore the key philosophical debates that can be sparked by psychological research.

  • First, we'll provide an overview of the key philosophical issues and debates in psychology.
  • Next, we'll discuss the free will and determinism debate in psychology and its potential implications.
  • Then, we'll look at the importance of nature and nurture and the general conclusion of the nature vs. nurture debate in psychology.
  • Moving along, we'll go through some examples of the reductionism vs holism debate psychology.
  • We'll discuss the key ideas surrounding the idiographic vs nomothetic approaches debate.
  • Finally, we'll sum up the current debates in psychology.

Philosophical Debates in Psychology,  Nicolas-André Monsiau painting  of Aspasia conversing with famous men, Vaia

Fig. 1 - Philosophical debates, many of which were initiated in ancient times, have remained relevant for centuries or even millenniums.

Philosophical Issues and Debates Psychology

Philosophical debates discuss the nature of reality and the human condition. Although philosophy might seem abstract at first, it has important implications for how we approach life. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind what philosophical assumptions are promoted by psychological research and what are the implications for all of us.

The key philosophical debates you need to know when evaluating psychological theories include:

  • Free will vs. determinism

  • Nature vs. nurture

  • Reductionism vs. holism

  • Idiographic vs. nomothetic approaches

We'll look at the meaning of each of these concepts, and how to spot them in psychological theories

What is the Free Will and Determinism Debate?

Psychology as a scientific discipline is very much interested in determining the causes of human behaviour. Psychology aims to understand the factors that predict behaviour and other psychological outcomes. This approach makes many psychological studies fall closer to the deterministic side of this spectrum.

The free will and determinism debate is concerned with the issue of whether we are in control of our behaviour or whether the way we behave is a result of external factors like the environment or genetics.

An example of a free-will argument is that no matter the external factors, we have free choice when it comes to our actions.

For example, just because we are angry and have aggressive tendencies doesn't mean we have to act out with violence.

While a deterministic perspective looks at the factors that predict violence (e.g. upbringing, genetics, emotional state) and proposes that these influences can predict or determine violence. Thus, if someone commits violence under such conditions, it might not have been truly their choice.

Think about the implications of the free will versus determinism debate for our justice system, which assumes that our actions are a result of our free will. If we accept that some factors make people commit crimes outside of their free will, can we really punish them?

Free Will and Determinism in Psychology

One approach in psychology, which stresses the importance of a free will, is the humanistic approach. Humanistic psychology states that while external factors can influence us, ultimately, we have the final say in whether or not we take the action.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Freud’s psychodynamic approach. This approach sees behaviour as a result of unconscious memories, emotions and conflicts, stemming from childhood experiences. According to this theory, we're governed by forces we're not even aware of and our past is bound to influence our current actions and states.

Within determinism there exists:

  • Hard determinism
  • Soft determinism
  • Environmental, biological, and psychic determinism

What is the Importance of Nature and Nurture?

Another philosophical debate that comes up in psychology is the nature vs. nurture debate. Nature vs. nurture has become an important issue because if we can identify where our behaviours come from, we can effectively modify unhelpful behaviours either through biological or environmental interventions.

The nature versus nurture debate is concerned with whether our behaviours are shaped by our biology, aka, nature (genes, brain structure etc.) or whether it's the result of our upbringing (nurture).

Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology

Chomsky’s (1965) nativist theory of language attributes language development to an innate biological mechanism. This theory proposes that we are equipped with a neural structure called a ‘language acquisition mechanism’, which is the encoder for language.

  • Thus, the ability to acquire language is an innately present and hard-wired mechanism, which is also why children can learn a language so easily.

On the other hand, behaviourism stresses the importance of the environment in shaping our behaviours. A basic assumption of behaviourism is that we are born as a ‘tabula rasa’ (a blank slate). This approach suggests that humans acquire all behaviours the same way any other animal does, through interacting with the environment.

  • We learn to engage in behaviours that are rewarded by our environment, and seize behaviours that are punished.

Philosophical Debates in Psychology, leaf, magnifying glass and the word "nature" spelled with cube letters, VaiaFig. 2: The nature and nurture debate aims to identify what types of factors influence our behaviours.

General Conclusion of the Nature vs. Nurture Debate

As you can imagine, the causes and correlates of human behaviour, development, personality or psychological outcomes are incredibly complex. The answer is rarely just the genes or just the environment. In most cases, psychological phenomena are caused by a complex interaction of both influences.

The interactionist approach in the nature vs. nurture debate proposes that behaviour is shaped by the interaction between nature and nurture, considering both sides of the argument and how they intertwine.

The interactionist approach in psychology recognises that to provide a sufficient explanation of behaviour we need to recognise a number of factors including biological, environmental, social, psychological and cultural factors.

What Is the Reductionism vs Holism Debate Psychology?

Reductionism is a common scientific approach which aims to understand complex phenomena by breaking them down into smaller and smaller parts. Chemists break things down into elements, physicists into atoms, biologists into cells and neuroscientists into synapses.

The assumption is that by understanding the parts, we can understand the whole system.

We break apart the jigsaw into its individual pieces, rather than looking at the whole picture.

Reductionism vs. holism debates whether we should break down concepts like people’s behaviour into smaller parts to understand it, or whether we should always look at the big picture.

Holism argues that to understand the system, we need to look at it as more than just a sum of its parts. They recognise that the components of each system are interconnected, they influence and regulate each other, and we can't study these interactions when we only look at single components.

Reductionism and Holism in Psychology

An example of a reductionist approach in psychology is behaviourism.

Behaviourism is reductionist because it reduces the causes of all behaviours to the interactions with the environment. It fails to consider the role of our biology, cognitions, emotions, or even the influence of others on shaping the way we behave.

This limits its ability to explain and modify complex behaviours.

An example of a holistic approach in psychology is social psychology.

Social psychology recognises that individual behaviour is affected by our social system. When we are in a social context, different forces will influence our behaviour than when we are on our own.

Philosophical Debates in Psychology, woman scientist working with a microscope, Vaia Fig 3: Reductionism is common in science, it involves breaking systems down into their individual components.

What are the Idiographic vs. Nomothetic Approaches?

The idiographic vs. nomothetic approaches debate is concerned with whether we should aim to identify the universal principles or classifications of human behaviour, or whether individual people are unique and cannot be understood using general concepts.

The idiographic approach stresses the uniqueness of each individual, while the nomothetic approach compares individuals against general and shared concepts.

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic Approaches in Psychology

In the study of personality, Freud's psychodynamic theory of personality is an example of an idiographic approach. When conceptualising the personality of his patients, Freud looked at each of them individually, in the context of their personal experiences and their feelings in response to these experiences.

Freud used case studies to demonstrate his theory. Using qualitative studies is in line with the idiographic approach, while quantitative studies are often associated with the nomothetic approach.

In contrast, the Big Five Model of Personality is an example of a nomothetic approach. This model argues that everyone's personality can be described in relation to predefined personality traits like openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

Summary: Current Debates in Psychology

In summary, you consider studies, theories, or approaches in psychology in the context of all four of these debates when evaluating them. It's important to note that theories are rarely purely on one side of the debate, they can fall anywhere on the spectrum between the two extremes.

Moreover, just because a theory is reductionistic or deterministic doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. However, we need to consider its limitations and what the implications are if we accept it.


Philosophical Debates in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • The free will and determinism debate is concerned with the issue of whether we are in control of our behaviour (free will) or whether the way we behave is a result of external factors like the environment or genetics (determinism).
  • The nature versus nurture debate is concerned with whether our behaviours are shaped by our biology (nature, i.e., our genes, brain structure etc.) or whether it's the result of our upbringing (nurture).
  • Reductionism vs. holism debates whether we should break down concepts like people’s behaviour into smaller parts to understand it (reductionism), or whether we should always look at the big picture (holism).
  • The idiographic approach stresses the uniqueness of each individual, while the nomothetic approach compares individuals against general and shared concepts.

Frequently Asked Questions about Philosophical Debates in Psychology

Examples of philosophical debates are free will vs. determinism debate, nature vs nurture debate, reductionism vs holism debate and idiographic vs. nomothetic approaches debate.

The main debates in psychology include:

  • Free will vs. determinism 

  • Nature vs. nurture 

  • Reductionism vs. holism 

  • Idiographic vs. nomothetic approaches 

Philosophical debates discuss the nature of reality and the human condition. When it comes to debates in psychology, there are typically two sides with opposite ideas about the nature of human behaviour or the way we should approach research into human behaviour.

Issues and debates in psychology is a subtopic of psychology that explores ongoing discussions about the nature of human behaviour and internal psychological processes.

The free will vs. determinism debate, which debates the existence of free choice, and the nature vs. nurture debate, which investigates the causes of human behaviour.

Nature vs. nurture has become an important issue because if we can identify where our behaviours come from, we can effectively modify unhelpful behaviours either through biological or environmental interventions. 

Final Philosophical Debates in Psychology Quiz

Philosophical Debates in Psychology Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

Is Chomsky's Universal Grammar Theory (1965) nativist or empiricist?

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Answer

Nativist.

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Question

How does empiricism contrast with nativism?


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Answer

Empiricism claims that our minds are a 'tabula rasa' (blank slate) at birth and that they are gradually filled with knowledge and experiences. These shape our behavior. On the other hand, nativism claims that our behaviour is innate and arises from our genes.

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Question

What are the philosophical debates in psychology?

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Answer

  • Free will vs. determinism 

  • Nature vs. nurture 

  • Reductionism vs. holism 

  • Idiographic vs. nomothetic approaches 

Show question

Question

How would biology psychologists explain schizophrenia?

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Answer

Biology psychologists tend to reduce its explanation to a single component, dopamine. 

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Is holism considered a scientific concept?

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Answer

No, it does not rely on scientific methods and empirical experimentation.

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Question

What is the interactionist approach in psychology? 

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Answer

The interactionist approach explains the development of psychological traits, disorders, and behaviour as a product of both biological and environmental influences.

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Question

Can nature and nurture influence each other?

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Answer

Nature can influence nurture but nurture can't influence nature.

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Question

Which of these are examples of the interactionist approach in psychology?

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Answer

The diathesis-stress model of schizophrenia.

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Question

Outline the Meehl's model of schizophrenia

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Answer

In 1962 Meehl proposed a model, which explained schizophrenia as a result of the combination of having the schizophrenia gene (schizogene) and exposure to chronic stress in childhood (eg. being raised by a controlling and distant mother). 

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Question

Is schizophrenia a genetic disease?

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Answer

Yes. Adoption studies suggest that schizophrenia is heritable (eg. Heston, 1966). Ripke 2014 found that schizophrenia is a polygenic disease, meaning it is influenced by variations of many genes. 

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Question

Are all people with some genetic vulnerabilities associated with schizophrenia at the same risk of developing the disorder?

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Answer

No, the more genetic variations characteristic of the disorder a person has the more vulnerable they are to the disease, meaning they need fewer environmental stressors for the disorder to develop.

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Question

What factors other than genes can create vulnerability to schizophrenia?

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Answer

Environmental factors, for example family dysfunction.

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Question

What are the three ways in which nature influences nurture, according to Scarr and McCartney (1983)?

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Answer

  • Passive – we are provided the environment by our biological parents.
  • Reactive – our temperament can influence how others react to us, which shapes our experiences.
  • Active – our temperament and biological tendencies will influence what kind of environments we seek out.

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Question

How can cannabis use affect people vulnerable to developing schizophrenia?

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Answer

Cannabis use can trigger a psychotic episode, specially in people with high vulnerability.

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Question

What are the strengths of the interactionist approach?

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Answer

The interactionist approach has greater explanatory power than theories based only on nature or nurture influences. Combining various influences allows us to better predict individuals' traits. 

Moreover, it has important implications for treatment of psychiatric disorders.

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Question

What are the implications of the diathesis-stress model on clinical practice?

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Answer

  • By identifying individuals at risk of schizophrenia we can inform them about potential triggers like cannabis use and minimise their future risk of psychosis. 
  • The interactionist approach also stresses the role of trauma and therefore the importance of incorporating therapy into treatment in addition to medication.   

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Question

Niche peaking is an example of ____ .

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Answer

Nature influencing nurture.

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What is the nature-nurture debate in psychology?

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Answer

The nature-nurture debate concerns the origins of psychological traits. The nature approach argues that biological factors determine psychological traits, while the nurture approach points to the environmental factors that shape who we are. 

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Question

What is behavioural genetics?

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Answer

Behavioural genetics is the science of nature vs nurture influences. It investigates how much genes and the environment account for the variation in psychological traits.

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Question

What do family studies investigate?

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Answer

Family studies investigate what is the correlation of the trait between individuals with different degrees of relatedness. 

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What is the main method of studying environmental vs biological influences?

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Answer

Family studies

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What are the types of family studies?

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Answer

Family studies include twin studies and adoption studies.

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What do adoption studies investigate?

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Answer

Adoption Studies investigate if adopted children, raised by the adopted family tend to share traits more with their biological family or the family that raised them. 


Therefore, adoption studies examine the impact of the environment on psychological characteristics. 

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Question

What does it mean if the behaviour of adopted children correlates more with their adopted family than their biological family?

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Answer

It means the behaviour developed likely due to the influences of nurture rather than nature.

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What does it mean if the behaviour in adopted children correlates more with the behaviour of their biological relatives but not adopted relatives?

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It means the behaviour is likely determined by the influence of nature rather than nurture.

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What are the limitations of adoption studies?

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Answer

  • Adoptions are relatively rare and hard to study.
  • Involving the biological family in adoption studies can be unethical if they don't wish to reunite.
  • Adoption studies assume that adoptees are placed in a different environment, while children are often adopted into families that resemble their own.
  • Adoption studies rely on correlational data, causality can't be inferred.

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What do twin studies investigate?

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Twin studies examine similarities between monozygotic and dizygotic twins.

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What proportion of their DNA do Monozygotic and Dizygotic twins share?

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Answer

Monozygotic and dizygotic twins both share 50% of their DNA.

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Question

If a certain behaviour is on average more commonly shared between MZ twins but less likely to be shared by DZ twins, what does it tell us about the heritability of the behaviour?


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Answer

It suggests that the behaviour is more heritable.

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Question

What are the limitations of twin studies?

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Answer

  • Twins are not representative of the non-twin population, growing up a twin is unusual and can attract different experiences and expectations than compared to most people.
  • Twin studies assume MZ twins are more similar than DZ twins only because they share more genetic material. Factors other than genetics can explain greater similarities between MZ twins.  
  • Twin studies assume both MZ and DZ twins share 100% of their "nurture" so their environment growing up. Yet, siblings within the same family may have quite different experiences growing up for example due to peer influences.
  • Twin studies rely on correlational data, causality can't be inferred.

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Question

How do twin studies assess heritability?

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Answer

Twin studies use concordance rates to assess heritability. 

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Question

What were the findings of the Minnesota twin study?

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Answer

Overall twins reared apart were just as similar in terms of personality, attitudes occupational and leisure interests as twins reared together indicating a high degree of heritability of those traits.


 It was concluded that genes strongly impact behaviour and account for 70% of the variance in intelligence.

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What are the limitations of the Minnesota Twin Study?

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Answer

The Minnesota twin study was criticised for not using a control group, adopting false assumptions about the sample as well as using invalid methods of calculating heritability.

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Question

Matt and Luke are playing rock paper scissors; Luke shouts I'm feeling lucky today. What type of point of view is this?

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Answer

Free-will

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Lucy is working hard to study because she thinks the harder she studies, the better grades she will get. What concept does this statement represent?

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Answer

A belief in free-will.

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Question

Free will suggests that our actions are guided by ___ .

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Answer

External factors.

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Question

Studies that aim to identify predictors of human behaviour fall closer to which end of the free will vs. determinism debate?

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Answer

Determinism.

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Question

Which of the following approaches is considered deterministic? 

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Answer

Psychodynamic.

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Question

Why is nature vs. nurture an important debate? 

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Answer

Nature vs. nurture has become an important issue because if we can identify where our behaviours come from, we can effectively modify unhelpful behaviours either through biological or environmental interventions. 

Show question

Question

True or False: Reductionism assesses and reduces complex systems to their individual parts.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Lucy is in the market to buy a new smartwatch. When judging the quality of a smartwatch, she only looks at its price. This is an example of a ____ approach to assessing the smartwatch.

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Answer

Reductionist.

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Question

What is the interactionist approach?

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Answer

The interactionist approach in the nature vs. nurture debate proposes that behaviour is shaped by the interaction between nature and nurture, considering both sides of the argument and how they intertwine. 


The interactionist approach in psychology recognises that to provide a sufficient explanation of behaviour we need to recognise a number of factors including biological, environmental, social, psychological and cultural factors.

Show question

Question

What is reductionism?

Show answer

Answer

Reductionism is a common scientific approach which aims to understand complex phenomena by breaking them down into smaller and smaller parts.

Show question

Question

True or False: Holism assumes that by understanding the parts, we can understand the whole system.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

How is social psychology holistic?

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Answer

Social psychology recognises that individual behaviour is affected by our social system. When we are in a social context, different forces will influence our behaviour than when we are on our own. 

Show question

Question

How does behaviourism stress the importance of the environment in shaping behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Behaviourism suggests that humans acquire all behaviours through interacting with the environment. We learn to engage in behaviours that are rewarded by our environment, and seize behaviours that are punished. 

Show question

Question

Which theory of personality is an example of a nomothetic approach?

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Answer

The Big Five model of personality.

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Question

True or False: Belief in determinism promotes moral behaviour.

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Answer

False.

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Question

What is soft determinism?

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Answer

While soft determinism allows some degree of free will and acknowledges that some behaviours are more constrained than others, i.e., the degree of free will may vary depending on the behaviour and the situation.

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Question

A person was born into a low-income family and cannot afford to pay for food. They had no option but to steal the food. This example promotes ______ reasoning.

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Answer

Deterministic.

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