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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.

  1. Discuss factors influencing attitudes to food and eating behaviour

    Another factor that has been researched into attitudes for eating behaviour is mood. Psychologists have found that individual?s mood can be a strong predictor of their eating behaviour, and in particular ? stress. Psychologists such as Spillman (1990) have found that stress can increase food intake, however Popper et al found that stress decreases food intake. Support for Birch?s theory of Exposure affecting eating behaviour comes from research carried out by Birch and Marlin (1982) who carried out research on adolescents (2 year olds)

    • Word count: 845
  2. Discuss evolutionary explanations of gender

    From these processes, evolutionary psychologists developed the hunting hypothesis. The hunting hypothesis states that the men who were hunters during the evolutionary stages and were successful due to their strength, aggression and spatial skills were able to survive and pass on their genes. The weaker men who were less aggressive and had less spatial skills were unable to survive and reproduce meaning these genes died off thus resulting in men today being more aggressive, strong and having good spatial skills.

    • Word count: 945
  3. Explanations of Independent Behaviour

    Whereas people with external locus of control believe what happens to them is controlled by external factors, such as luck or fate, and they are relatively helpless in difficult or stressful situations; making them easier to conform and obey. Locus of control has many supporting studies. For instance, Avtgis carried out a meta-analysis which looked at locus of control. They found that those who scored higher on external locus of control were more easily persuaded.

    • Word count: 439
  4. Age is a factor that can affect eyewitness testimony.

    A strength of the study is that it was done in a lab which means there is high control over the variables which means the investigator can manipulate the variables. Therefore, we can infer the cause and effect and makes the study more reliable. Research supporting this was done by Yarmey et al. they had young and elderly adults watch a filmed event and were asked questions about the event.

    • Word count: 476
  5. Discuss Cross-Cultural Studies into Perception.

    But, a problem with Turnball?s research is that it was a case study. We cannot then generalise one person?s findings to the wider population. However, further research on a larger sample base was conducted by Hudson who also found that perception was a learnt process. Hudson looked at Bantu, European and Indian children and were shown a drawing of a man with a spear, antelope and an elephant. They found that all children started primary school struggled with depth cues. However, by the end of primary school all European children were able to correctly understand depth cues.

    • Word count: 709
  6. Discuss the influences of childhood on adult relationships

    However this theory can be criticised for being reductionist as it doesn?t factor social or cultural influences in later life that may lead to adapting and improving on any childhood deficits. The theory states that our early experiences set in stone our later ones, but this is not the case as it?s far more complex than this, shaped by more than just attachment styles. As we have free will, this allows us to break away from early experiences through conscious thought, allowing us to address the problem areas in our lives.

    • Word count: 789

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