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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.

  • Marked by Teachers essays 18
  • Peer Reviewed essays 15
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  1. Marked by a teacher

    Compare and Contrast Any Two Theories of Personality

    3 star(s)

    The components id, ego and superego act together during moments of conflict. The id is the part of the brain that is totally unconscious, the ego and superego operate both consciously and unconsciously. The id acts as the pleasure principle, it makes demands that need immediate satisfaction regardless of the external environment; the ego emerges on order to realistically meet the demands of the id in accordance to the outside world. Finally the superego acts as the voice of conscience and enables the ego to sensibly converge the needs and demands of the id in accordance to the outside world.

    • Word count: 911
  2. Marked by a teacher

    Outline and evaluate psychological explanations of anorexia

    3 star(s)

    The increased rates of anorexia in general could be due to the increase of exposure to thin celebrities and slimness being seen as the social norm. However, the behavioural approach cannot explain individual differences. Everyone in the western culture are exposed to the thin celebrities, although a minority develop anorexia. Also many people diet, but only a few develop anorexia. Therefore the behavioural model alone is not sufficient as does not explain the differences between the individuals who develop it and those that don't.

    • Word count: 848
  3. Marked by a teacher

    Discuss the Role of Individual Differences in Stress

    3 star(s)

    It is thought that the hormone oxytocin may also play a part in how women respond to stress, thus producing a more protective response in women. Frankenhauser investigated this by performing a study where he told participants that it was to be a study of pain and offered them the chance to either wait alone or together. Men chose to wait alone in general whilst women sought social comfort to help them cope, which further supports Taylor's findings. However, this one situation only takes into account acute stressful situations, rather than looking at longterm stressors.

    • Word count: 920
  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)

    Mental disorders represented as mental illnesses. These illnesses may be caused by one of four possible factors * Genes * Bio-chemical substances * Neuroanatomy * Micro organisms It also says that it can be genetic, passed from parent to child. Cure is only possible by removing by removing the root cause and returning the body to its 'normal' level of functioning. The "Cognitive" model says that the issue is not the problem itself but the way you think about it. Irrational and faulty thinking prevents the individual behaving adaptively.

    • Word count: 707
  5. Marked by a teacher

    Scientific methods in psychology - behaviourist and humanist approaches.

    For example Freud's study on little Hans showed the basic outline of a Scientific Approach, (Case Study, Questionnaire, etc.) Freud used his own perception of the gathered empirical data and put forward theories based on his insight and some gathered evidence. Judging by how much understanding of mind and behaviour we have gained from said study it could be advantageous to sometimes trim the fat of scientific approaches and use human understanding over tried and tested methods. Though there are some very obvious problems by following this system.

    • Word count: 694
  6. Marked by a teacher

    Describe and evaluate two or more biological explanations of schizophrenia

    A classic study by Rosenham (on being sane in insane places) also showed that psychiatrists were all too willing to diagnose the disorder despite very limited information on patient's symptoms. It has even been suggested that American psychologists were 10 times more likely to diagnose schizophrenia than their British counterparts. This leads to the conclusion that the best way to cure oneself of schizophrenia is to cross the Atlantic! (doesn't answer ?) A major explanation of schizophrenia is that it is caused by excessive activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

    • Word count: 682
  7. Marked by a teacher

    Critique of "Perils of Obedience"

    They started new researches on "ordinary" people and the result was the same. According to Milgram's research we should realize that although society values such ideals as " individualism" and "freedom," it is often difficult for people to live up to their own standards in the face of group pressures. According to the author, "Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to" (276).

    • Word count: 501
  8. Peer reviewed

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

    5 star(s)

    Another strength of self-reports in psychology is that you can collect both quantitative and qualitative data from them. With the use of closed questions whereby predetermined answers are provided (multiple choice questionnaires, e.g.

    • Word count: 440
  9. Peer reviewed

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

    5 star(s)

    Conventional antipsychotics (for example chlorpromazine) are used primarily to combat the positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations. The basic mechanism of conventional antipsychotics is to reduce the effects of dopamine and so reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, hence their alter ego, dopamine antagonists. They bind to dopamine receptors but do not stimulate them, thus blocking their action. By reducing stimulation of the dopamine system in the brain, antipsychotics can eliminate the bad symptoms such as hallucinations. Atypical antipsychotic drugs (such as clozapine) also combat these positive symptoms but there are claims that they also have beneficial effects on negative symptoms as well.

    • Word count: 675
  10. Peer reviewed

    Evaluation of Freud's little Hans study.

    5 star(s)

    There is no way of assessing how typical little Hans was and whether or not his situation can be generalised as the study could have been unique between Freud, Hans's father and little Hans. As well as this, Hans's father and mother were supporters of Freud's ideas thus they may have been raising little Hans in relation to Freud's theories so when it came to giving evidence of little Hans's phobia they did so in relation to Frauds' theories. Freud himself did not regularly meet little Hans as he only met him on one or two occasions, so Freud was only interpreting what Hans's father was interpreting of little Hans so it lacks a lot of objectivity.

    • Word count: 591
  11. Peer reviewed

    "Attempts to define abnormality are always limited by cultural differences" Consider how definitions of abnormality may be influenced by cultural differences

    5 star(s)

    The 'Deviation from Social Norms' definition of abnormality is greatly limited by cultural differences, for example in Japan there is a very strong work ethic. Those who do not wish to conform and work hard are labelled insane and confined in asylums. If such behaviour was displayed in England they would not be considered insane, they are only treated in such a way in Japan because they have deviated from that cultures social norm.

    • Word count: 571
  12. Peer reviewed

    Discuss the reliability issues of the experimental method

    4 star(s)

    If there is no interpretation of any information gathered then there is no space for mistakes. Unlike observations that use qualitative data, the experimental method only deals with quantitative data. Quantitative data is collected therefore only figures are collected and analysed to give a specific result. Quantitative data is easily repeated therefore making the experiment reliable. The researcher control's the variables in order to get their quantitative data. For example Elizabeth Loftus's independent variable was whether the man in the scene was holding a cheque or a gun. This is how she manipulated the variables and she then got the participants to fill out a 20 multiple question, questionnaire and then got them to identify the man holding the cheque or the gun from a line up of head and shoulder pictures.

    • Word count: 576
  13. Peer reviewed

    Compare the observation method to any other method

    4 star(s)

    Another difference between the observational method and the experimental method is that the observational method mostly uses qualitative data for their research and the experimental method mostly uses quantitative data. There are strengths and weaknesses of each way of collecting data. Qualitative data is subjective and is useful as it gives an in depth explanation of what the participant is feeling or why they may act the way they act, so giving more understanding to the research.

    • Word count: 503
  14. Peer reviewed

    With reference to alternative research findings, critically assess Aschs study into conformity

    4 star(s)

    And to support this Abrams et al (1990) argued that 1st year psychology participants would show more conformity if the other group members were perceived as belonging to an in group (other 1st yr psychology students) than if they were perceived as belonging to an out group (history students). Eagli & Carli (1981) criticise Asch study for being gender biased. They claim that in Western societies a masculine bias exists & as a consequence women show higher levels of conformity than men in the Asch study. They also found that in feminist societies, women actually show less conformity than men.

    • Word count: 596
  15. Peer reviewed

    Discuss biological explanations of schizophrenia

    4 star(s)

    Indeed research has found that first degree relatives of people with schizophrenia are 18 times more likely to be affected than the general population. Monozygotic twins would be expected to have the same chance of having schizophrenia as they carry the same genes. Research by Gottesman and Shields has found high concordance rates (where both twins have the disorder)

    • Word count: 421
  16. Peer reviewed

    Rosenhan, Thigpen and Cleckley - Describe what each of the studies tells us about individual difference.

    4 star(s)

    He thought he was measuring native intellectual ability but there were many problems that he had not taken into consideration which were uncovered by Gould. Gould identified many problems with the research; for example, some races of people would not have been used to using a pencil and would not have been in a test environment before. This would have resulted in them getting a very low score and therefore would not have been a clear indication of their level of intelligence.

    • Word count: 806
  17. Peer reviewed

    Is autism an extreme male condition?

    3 star(s)

    (Wing, 1981). A low level of male hormones is produced by the adrenal glands in females, so there is some possibility of male brain structures in females. This could account for some females developing autism. Research has also suggested that autism may be genetic as they have found a strong concordance rate of 60-90% in monozygotic twins, but only 5% in dizygotic twins. The extreme male brain theory of autism was developed by Baron-Cohen in 2005.

    • Word count: 559
  18. Peer reviewed

    Discuss whether psychology should be called a science. (12 marks)

    3 star(s)

    On the other hand, there are some parts of psychology, such as biological and cognitive, laboratory studies are used to investigate theories. These are very controlled, therefore, researchers can't manipulate. However, for approaches, such as psychodynamic, the researchers use case studies which can't be generalised and are based on interpretations from the researchers. They also use methods such as dream analysis, which involve personal interpretations, therefore making them subjective.

    • Word count: 527
  19. Peer reviewed

    Summarise the aims & context of Asch study into conformity

    3 star(s)

    It's yielding to group pressure in terms of our expressed attitudes of behaviour. Its good (desirable) in that it creates social unity & everything flows better, however it can be undesirable if you change morals/values just to fit in. Previous research to Ash study by Sherif (1935) suggested that when in an n ambiguous situation (such as autokinetic effect) a person will look to others for guidance (adopt a group norm). They want to do the right thing but may lack the appropriate information, & observing others can provide this information - informational conformity.

    • Word count: 399
  20. Summarise two different psychological approaches to identity. How has each been used to further our understanding of this concept?

    Each stage comes with its own unique conflict of which, resolution is a vital aspect for progression, but being typical and part of daily life, these 'normative crisis' (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p53) can be seen as a mechanism for balancing the competing needs of individuality and social demands. The adolescent fifth stage, which ideally culminates in secure ego identity formation, was viewed by Erikson as vital for continuing healthy development. Preparation for adulthood necessitates young people making many life decisions, thus the period of adolescence provides a permitted duration of experimentation with social roles allowing delays in definitive choices.

    • Word count: 998
  21. Discuss evolutionary explanations of human reproductive behaviour

    This led Buss and Workman and Reader to come up with two kinds of mate selection. One of them, called the Intrasexual which consists of individuals competing with members of their own sex for access to the opposite sex. This creates competition between the males as they fight each other in order to access the female. The second type of mate selection is known as intersexual, this consists of members of one sex attempting to impress members of the other. This is normally based on females, as they need to be impressed before they consent to mating.

    • Word count: 509
  22. Outline and evaluate the psychodynamic approach to psychopathology

    If the ego fails to balance the id and the superego this can lead to conflict and may result in a psychological disorder. If the id is not balanced by the ego and it becomes dominate this can lead to destructive tendencies and adverse pleasurable behaviour. However, if the superego becomes dominate an individual may be unable to experience any form of pleasurable gratification. Freud believed that because we are born with the id and the ego and superego is something we develop in early childhood, then conflicts are likely to arise whilst the ego and superego are still underdeveloped.

    • Word count: 597
  23. Discuss two or more psychological therapies for schizophrenia

    In CBT, patients are usually prompted to trace the genesis of their symptoms, so as to get a grasp of how they may have occurred and how they might be treated and are then encouraged to evaluate any internal voices they may hear, delusions or hallucinations and so on. As their behaviour is thought to stem from distorted beliefs, they are prompted to find alternative patterns or ways of thinking to their maladaptive one. CBT generally tries to generate less distressing symptoms to arise, rather than completely eradicating the symptoms, as some, in particular negative symptoms, may well prove beneficial.

    • Word count: 718
  24. Psychology therapies of schizophrenia

    Token economies have proved to be effective with institutionalised patients resistant to other forms of therapy. Dickerson et al. concluded that token economies are especially effective when used in combination with other psychology and/or drug therapy. However, beneficial effects are often greatly reduced when good behaviour is no longer followed by the rewards the patients have become used to receiving. Also token economies focus on only a few of the symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Token economies increase certain kinds of behaviour but do not address cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia.

    • Word count: 575
  25. Are transgender operations ethical

    There is, for example, the issue of whether only adults should be treated, since children cannot give consent and parents usually consent for them. On the other hand, reassignment as a child might be more straightforward and biological interventions might be safer then as well. The question is should transgender operations be undertaken at all, and if so, when is it ethical to carry out such interventions and when is it not ethical? Transgender operations involve altering hormones and genitals to represent the desired sex and this can involve extensive interventions.

    • Word count: 649

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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