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Reductionism and Holism

Should we study human psychology and behaviour as a whole? Or can complicated behaviours be broken down into simpler components? When we raise these questions, we come across two opposing points of view in psychology, a debate that has been long present in psychological research, known as reductionism and holism. While there is no right or wrong answer, it's important to understand the strengths and limitations of each perspective and approach. 

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Reductionism and Holism

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Should we study human psychology and behaviour as a whole? Or can complicated behaviours be broken down into simpler components? When we raise these questions, we come across two opposing points of view in psychology, a debate that has been long present in psychological research, known as reductionism and holism. While there is no right or wrong answer, it's important to understand the strengths and limitations of each perspective and approach.

  • First, we will provide a definition of holism and reductionism.
  • Then we will explore how holism and reductionism in psychology.
  • Moving on from this, we will explore whether the different Approaches in Psychology fall under the holistic or the reductionistic spectrum.
  • Lastly, we will be evaluating holism and reductionism, discussing reductionism vs holism strengths and weaknesses.

Reductionism and Holism, picture of the earth, VaiaFig. 1 - Reductionism and holism are two Approaches in Psychology that explore concepts either from simple components or the whole component.

Holism vs Reductionism

Reductionism and holism are two approaches to studying people and behaviour. Reductionism is the view that aims to break down psychological processes into small and simple elements. In contrast, holism holds that we should consider human behaviour as a whole rather than its parts because many factors contribute to human behaviour.

Reductionism is based on the scientific assumption of parsimony, which states that the answers to all problems should be the simplest possible explanation.

On the other hand...

Holism comes from the Greek word ‘holos’, which means ‘whole’, ‘all’, or ‘complete’. Holism holds that we should consider human behaviour as a whole because many factors contribute to human behaviour. Holism can be summed up in the phrase: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Holism and Reductionism in Psychology

Holism in psychology examines the human mind and behaviour as a whole rather than examining distinct parts. Reductionism in psychology examines the human mind and behaviour in parts rather than looking at human behaviour as a whole. A good example can be seen in visual illusions.

In 1912, a group of psychologists aimed to explain how visual illusions were perceived and why the human brain was faulty in some of its perceptions.

If you were asked to report what you seeing the picture below, you would most likely state that you see a white triangle. In fact, there is no triangle. Your brain interprets the parts of the images, making a holistic representation of the separate features, and hints to you that there is a triangle.

Psychology, Issues and debates in psychology, Philosophical debates in psychology, Reductionism and holism, Picture of the visual illusion of the presence of a white triangle, Vaia.Fig. 2 - Visual illusion of the presence of a white triangle.

Gestalt Psychology, thus, was the first psychology school that mentioned the debate between holism and reductionism. It can be treated like the nature-nurture or the free-will versus determinism debates. There is no right or wrong answer, but both approaches have different assumptions, and psychologists, researchers and students need to be aware of these and assess their implications.

Holism vs Reductionism: Psychology

Holism views behaviour as a whole and reductionism views behaviour in parts; we can therefore examine the differences between holism and reductionism in psychology through a holism vs reductionism debate. Reductionism includes biological, cognitive and behavioural approaches, whereas holism includes humanistic, social, and psychodynamic approaches.

Reductionist Approaches

Some reductionist approaches in psychology are biological, behavioural, cognitive, social, and psychodynamic approaches. Rose (1976) proposed several levels of explanation for reductionism. The lowest level is biological explanations (e.g., genes, Brain Structure). These are followed by psychological explanations (e.g., cognitive, behavioural). The highest level is social explanations.

The Biological Approach

Biological psychologists attempt to explain human behaviour in terms of endogenous processes by looking at neurochemicals, genes, Brain Structure, and hormonal activity. This approach is called biological reductionism.

Excess dopamine in The Brain causes Schizophrenia. Thus, this approach explains Schizophrenia with a biological component.

The Cognitive Approach

This explanatory approach reduces behaviour to cognitive explanations such as attentional processes or Memory.Cognitive psychologists attempt to explain behaviour by breaking it down into isolated Variables. They apply machine reductionism by portraying people as information-processing systems and disregarding emotional influences on behaviour.

Models such as the multi-store explanation of Memory explain Memory as such. This explanation divides Memory into three stores: sensory, short-term, and long-term.

The Behavioural Approach

Behaviourism explains behaviour with simple responses: stimuli, response, reinforcement and punishment. This approach is also called environmental reductionism because it explains simple and complex behaviour in terms of stimulus-response.

Holistic Approaches

Holistic approaches in psychology explain human behaviour by investigating and examining humans as whole persons and not just the sum of mental processes and functions in their simplest forms.

Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic Psychology is considered a holistic approach. Humanistic psychology considers all facets of a person. Humanistic psychologists believe that holism is an excellent perspective to understand the mind and behaviour. The proponent of the humanistic approach, Carl Rogers, described the self as:

organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself.

The concept creates awareness of who an individual is and who they can be, leading to self-actualisation. This is a holistic view, and in the humanistic sense, the basis of knowledge is the human psyche.

The Social Approach

This approach explains behaviour using the influence of society and social groups. For example, cultural norms and social influences shape Gender according to the social approach.

The Psychodynamic Approach

As Freud often considered childhood experiences and other forces, the Psychodynamic Approach is relatively holistic, in that it explores interactions between various aspects of the psyche. The id, ego, and superego interact to form the person's traits.

Evaluating Holism and Reductionism

Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. Let us examine this using holism and reductionism as examples.

Psychology: Holism

First, let's examine holism. Here is a table examining the strengths and weaknesses of holism.

StrengthsWeaknesses
Holism considers all factors and components that can influence behaviour.Since holism does not break down behaviour into isolated Variables, it cannot easily establish cause and effect in human behaviour.
Holism has a high ecological validity because it considers all aspects that influence behaviour. Holism is not a concept that psychologists can easily work with given its complexity of it.
Humanistic approaches are useful in therapy because it considers many different aspects of a person's life when addressing potential issues.The holistic view may be overcomplicating the explanations of certain behaviours, when these may indeed be simple.

Psychology: Reductionism

Now, let's explore reductionism. Here is a table examining the strengths and weaknesses of reductionism.

Strengths Weaknesses
Reductionism makes the scientific approach feasible, which allows the generalisation of human behaviour explanations.Biological reductionism overlooks the complexity of human behaviour.
Given the presence of reductionism, chemical treatments for certain mental disorders have been developed.Reductionism can lead to partial explanations.

Reductionism and Holism - Key takeaways

  • Reductionism is a view based on the scientific assumption of parsimony. Reductionism breaks down complex psychological processes into small parts and reduces them to simple explanations.
  • Holism argues that people should be viewed as a whole rather than as individual parts and focuses on the interaction of all parts.
  • Some examples of the holistic approach are Humanistic Psychology and Social Learning Theory. Some examples of the reductionist approach are the Biological Approach, the behavioural approach, the Cognitive approach, the social approach, and the Psychodynamic Approach.
  • Holistic approaches are strong because they consider all factors of human behaviour, and have high ecological validity. However, humanistic approaches can overcomplicate simple explanations.
  • Reductionist approaches allow for scientific study and have aided the development of biological treatments, however, it often overlooks the complexity of human nature.

Frequently Asked Questions about Reductionism and Holism

The reductionism approach explains behaviour by breaking it into small and simple elements. Holism advocates that behaviour consists of multiple aspects and should be considered as a whole.

Holism and reductionism are two approaches in psychology to studying people and behaviour.

An example of reductionism is biological reductionism. For example, excess dopamine in the brain causes schizophrenia. Biological psychologists reduce the explanation of schizophrenia to a single component, dopamine.

Humanistic psychology is an example of holism, as it considers understanding humans and their whole systems, integrating different components of behaviour.

Yes. Reductionism is the opposite of holism and vice versa. 

Final Reductionism and Holism Quiz

Reductionism and Holism Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

How would biology psychologists explain schizophrenia?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

Is holism considered a scientific concept?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

Is it possible to take a holistic approach to experimental research?

Show answer

Answer

It will be difficult for a researcher to simultaneously investigate every aspect of a phenomenon.

Show question

Question

True or False: Humanistic, biological, behavioural, and cognitive are all examples of reductionist approaches.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

According to Rose (1976), which approach has the lowest level of reductionism? 

Show answer

Answer

Biological.

Show question

Question

According to Rose (1976), which approach has mediocre levels of reductionism? 

Show answer

Answer

Psychological (cognitive and behavioural).

Show question

Question

True or False: Humanistic psychology is the only approach considered to be holistic.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Theories that are reductionist are considered to over-          complex human behaviour and functioning.

Show answer

Answer

Simplify.

Show question

Question

How is holism defined?

Show answer

Answer

Holism comes from the Greek word ‘holos’, which means ‘whole’, ‘all’, or ‘complete’. Holism holds that we should consider human behaviour as a whole rather than its parts because many factors contribute to human behaviour. Holism can be summed up in the phrase: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Show question

Question

Which school first identified the holism-reductionism debate?

Show answer

Answer

Gestalt Psychology.

Show question

Question

Models such as the multi-store explanation of memory are examples of a ___ explanation of human behaviour.

Show answer

Answer

Reductionist.

Show question

Question

Carl Rogers described the self as ____.

Show answer

Answer

An organised and consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself. 

Show question

Question

What are the strengths of the holistic view?

Show answer

Answer

  • Holism considers all factors and components that can influence behaviour.
  • Holism has a high ecological validity because it considers all aspects that influence behaviour. 
  • Humanistic approaches are useful in therapy because it considers the holistic nature of the person when providing help.

Show question

Question

What are weaknesses of the holistic view?

Show answer

Answer

  • Since holism does not break down behaviour into isolated variables, it cannot establish cause and effect in human behaviour.
  • Holism is not a concept that psychologists can easily work with given its complexity of it.
  • The holistic view may be overcomplicating the explanations of certain behaviours, when these may indeed be simple.

Show question

Question

What are weaknesses of the reductionist view?

Show answer

Answer

  • Biological reductionism overlooks the complexity of human behaviour.
  • Reductionism can lead to partial explanations.

Show question

Question

What are strengths of the reductionist view?

Show answer

Answer

  • Reductionism makes the scientific approach feasible, which allows the generalisation of human behaviour explanations.
  • Given the presence of reductionism, chemical treatments for certain mental disorders have been developed.

Show question

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or False: Humanistic, biological, behavioural, and cognitive are all examples of reductionist approaches.

According to Rose (1976), which approach has the lowest level of reductionism? 

According to Rose (1976), which approach has mediocre levels of reductionism? 

Next

Flashcards in Reductionism and Holism16

Start learning

How would biology psychologists explain schizophrenia?

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

Is holism considered a scientific concept?

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

Is it possible to take a holistic approach to experimental research?

It will be difficult for a researcher to simultaneously investigate every aspect of a phenomenon.

True or False: Humanistic, biological, behavioural, and cognitive are all examples of reductionist approaches.

False.

According to Rose (1976), which approach has the lowest level of reductionism? 

Biological.

According to Rose (1976), which approach has mediocre levels of reductionism? 

Psychological (cognitive and behavioural).

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