AS and A Level: The Psychology of Individual Differences

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Five big ideas for essays on individual differences

  1. 1 Put the research in your essay in historical context. Each approach developed as a reaction against what had gone before and in response to contemporary events. Referring to publication dates will help you to understand why such a theory developed when it did.
  2. 2 Understand the dominant paradigms. The cognitive approach is dominant in modern mainstream psychology and the cognitive-behavioural approach is dominant in therapy. The biological approach is dominant in medicine and psychiatry. Other approaches are practiced but receive less funding. Anti-psychiatry exists on the fringes but has influenced service user focused models in mental health practice. Modern psychologists tend to take an eclectic approach in working with individuals.
  3. 3 Consider claims to/against science. Assess the extent to which explanations are supported by scientific research or not. Evaluate the techniques used by psychologists to operationalize mental processes in their research. For example, behavioural responses and psychobiological measures don’t tell us about the nature of thoughts and we can never rely fully on self-report measures.
  4. 4 Consider free will/determinism. The more scientific the approach, the more determinist it tends to be, because science is the search for causes. Seeking ultimate causes of behaviour or chains of causal links is incompatible with the idea that humans have free will and complete moral responsibility.
  5. 5 Consider reductionism-holism. Reductionism is the principle that one should always seek to understand at the most basic, most fundamental level: e.g reducing our understanding of depression to an explanation about the balance of chemicals in the brain rather than looking at the whole person in their social context. As a rule, the more scientific the approach, the more reductionist it is. Those that reject scientific principles and practice often do so because of this reductionism – they want to see and help the whole person.

Five psychological perspectives to look out for in individual differences research

  1. 1 Psychodynamic – The psychodynamic approach rests on the assumption that the psyche is formed and influenced by early childhood experiences. The psyche has three dynamic parts: the id, ego and superego. The ego has to balance the demands of the selfish id and the moral superego, so it experiences conflict if either one is too dominant. It protects itself through abnormal behaviours that disguise this unconscious conflict These are called defence mechanisms. Bringing this conflict into conscious awareness can resolve abnormality.
  2. 2 Behaviourist – The behaviourist approach developed as a reaction to the unfalsifiable psychodynamic approach. Behaviourists emphasise the scientific, experimental manipulation and measurement of observable behaviour – to them, any mental process is inside the ‘black box’ of the mind - which cannot be studied scientifically and so is of no interest. Behaviourism rests on the assumption that all behaviour is learned through interaction with the environment – at birth, the child is a ‘blank slate’. Abnormal behaviours are learned and so can be unlearned.
  3. 3 Cognitive – The cognitive approach developed as a reaction to the behaviourist approach’s ignorance of mental processes. It rests on the analogy that the brain is like a computer – it processes information. So personality or psychopathology can be explained in terms of differences or faults in perception and cognition. Adjusting these processes can rectify any problems.
  4. 4 Humanistic – The humanist approach developed out of the philosophical approach of phenomenology. Humanistic psychologists do not try to objectively measure people, they aim to understand their subjective experiences. They do not search for determinist causes of behaviour but emphasise free will: they focus on the whole person and aim to help achieve personal development.
  5. 5 Anti-psychiatry – The anti-psychiatry movement developed in reaction to the increasing medicalization of mental health in the 1960s. Anti-psychiatrists maintain that mental illness is a myth and that abnormal behaviours are sane responses to a repressive society. It aims to empower the individual – rejecting labels such as ‘patient’.

Five biological perspectives to look out for in individual differences research

  1. 1 Genetic – Seeks to establish the extent to which traits are due to inheritance or environment. Researchers study concordance rates (if one person has a trait or disorder, what is the percentage probability that the relative also has it?) using twin, adoption and family studies.
  2. 2 Evolutionary – seeks to establish continuity between human and other species and explain human diversity in terms of ecological adaptation, maximising survival and reproduction. Look out for studies on primate or other mammal behaviour that are used to draw conclusions about causes of human behaviour.
  3. 3 Neuroanatomical – seeks to understand the relationship between brain structure and behaviour. Often uses case studies of people with damage to certain parts of the brain or post-mortems of people with abnormal behaviours.
  4. 4 Psychobiological – related to the previous approach, but with more of a focus on measuring brain activity using a variety of scanning techniques whilst the individual is engaged in a specific task or activity. Often used for comparisons – eg. The brain activity of diagnosed psychopaths compared against the brain activity of ‘normal’ participants.
  5. 5 Biochemical – related to the previous approach, but with more of a focus on assessing the levels and activity of specified neurotransmitters or hormones and drawing correlations with specific mental states or behaviours e.g. stress.

195 AS and A Level The Psychology of Individual Differences essays

  • Marked by Teachers essays 7
  • Peer Reviewed essays 15
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  1. Marked by a teacher

    Psychology the factors of Smoking

    4 star(s)

    A good attempt at making sense of different theoretical approaches to explaining smoking. Some points for development - mainly awareness of synoptic issues and deepening the reflection.…

    • Essay length: 1139 words
    • Submitted: 05/06/2009
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Stepahie Porras 26/03/2013
  2. Marked by a teacher

    Classical and Operant Conditioning

    3 star(s)

    Overall, there is a lot of good material in this essay and it is accurately described. There is a lack of balance though - too much description of the therapies…

    • Essay length: 1179 words
    • Submitted: 23/04/2009
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Jo Wilcox 10/04/2012
  3. Marked by a teacher

    Compare and Contrast Any Two Theories of Personality

    3 star(s)

    This essay is rather more like an early draft of an answer than the final essay as much of the material is describing detail of Freud's theory without much reference…

    • Essay length: 911 words
    • Submitted: 23/03/2009
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Stephanie Porras 26/03/2013
  4. Marked by a teacher

    Compare 2 models of abnormal behaviour in terms of their views on the causes of abnormal behaviour. Evaluate whether any single model is adequate to explain and treat all instances of abnormality.

    3 star(s)

    Overall, this is a reasonable essay with good selection of material and a broadly successful comparative structure, but it fails to develop the comparisons, evaluations, commentary and conclusion effectively. So…

    • Essay length: 707 words
    • Submitted: 29/03/2004
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Jo Wilcox 10/04/2012
  5. Marked by a teacher

    Describe and evaluate two or more biological explanations of schizophrenia

    The writer has made some good points about the condition of schizophrenia. However to improve the essay it would be advisable for the writer to make a plan.…

    • Essay length: 682 words
    • Submitted: 31/03/2009
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Linda Penn 01/04/2013
  6. Marked by a teacher

    Compare and contrast idiographic and nomothetic approaches to the study of Personality.

    The essay is rather disjointed with a lack of structure. Although the writer has covered the different types of therapies there is no clear connection between what is written…

    • Essay length: 1072 words
    • Submitted: 16/03/2007
    • Marked by teacher: (?) Linda Penn 29/03/2013
  7. Peer reviewed

    OCR G544 - Using examples, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the use of self-reports in psychology. (12 marks)

    5 star(s)

    This is a tightly succinct answer worthy of it's top marks. The candidate does not write an introduction or a conclusion though, as I understand from the exam board (OCR)…

    • Essay length: 440 words
    • Submitted: 14/09/2012
    • Reviewed by: (?) sydneyhopcroft 15/09/2012
    • Awarding body: OCR (for A-levels)
  8. Peer reviewed

    Discuss two or more biological therapies for schizophrenia

    5 star(s)

    An absolutely outstanding essay. This will easily obtain full marks due to the profound levels of detail shown by the candidate. After explaining what both drug treatments (conventional and atypical)…

    • Essay length: 701 words
    • Submitted: 11/05/2012
    • Reviewed by: (?) 02/07/2012
  9. Peer reviewed

    Discuss the biological approach to psychopathology

    5 star(s)

    This candidate demonstrates an excellent knowledge of the biological approach and, unlike so many other essays, does not fall foul to forgetting to tie the theory to the question. This…

    • Essay length: 643 words
    • Submitted: 08/05/2012
    • Reviewed by: (?) 02/07/2012
  10. Peer reviewed

    Outline and evaluate two or more therapies used in the treatment of schizophrenia.

    5 star(s)

    This is a very good essay, and primarily so because it breaks free of the typical prescriptive evaluation format most psychology essay questions restrict the candidate's to. Prescriptive psychology essays…

    • Essay length: 675 words
    • Submitted: 19/02/2012
    • Reviewed by: (?) 31/08/2012

Conclusion analysis

Good conclusions usually refer back to the question or title and address it directly - for example by using key words from the title.
How well do you think these conclusions address the title or question? Answering these questions should help you find out.

  1. Do they use key words from the title or question?
  2. Do they answer the question directly?
  3. Can you work out the question or title just by reading the conclusion?

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