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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
  1. Marked by a teacher

    Behavioural Study of Obedience - Stanley Milgram

    5 star(s)

    The subjects were chosen from volunteers who had responded to a newspaper article. This means the sample was self-selecting. We must question whether or not Milgram had a representative sample, by using this study. Milgram chose to study only men, but from a variety of backgrounds and different ages. You might say that by using men this produced a sample that was biased, or did not reflect the general population. Men are thought to be more aggressive than women, so it would make sense to begin a series of experiments with them. Many of the war criminals had been men, so Milgram's sample was representative of the target population.

    • Word count: 2859
  2. Marked by a teacher

    Compare and contrast the main approaches - Biological and Behaviourist, biological and cognitive, Psychodynamic and Behaviourist.

    4 star(s)

    This represents that both approaches are similar in terms of usefulness. A further similarity is that both approaches are seen to be deterministic. Freud believed that our behaviour is determined by innate forces, id, ego and superego, and childhood experience. It therefore believes that we have no free will (choice) on who we become and how we behave. The psychodynamic approach sees our personality as shaped (pre-determined) by forces that we cannot change nor have any control over. The cognitive approach has also been criticised for being deterministic.

    • Word count: 4162
  3. Marked by a teacher

    Describe and Evaluate Psychodynamic, Behaviourist and Humanist Theory of Psychology

    4 star(s)

    (Freud, 1915) Freud asserts that early childhood experiences are important to the development of a healthy adult personality. Freud proposed that childhood development took place in five psychosexual stages; Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent and Genital. One of the more important stages of this series is the Phallic stage. This stage contains what Freud referred to as the Oedipus complex. This is where the child wishes to posses the opposite sex parent and eliminate the same sex parent. The child becomes fearful of the same sex parent. This conflict can be resolved when the child identifies with the same sex parent.

    • Word count: 1973
  4. Marked by a teacher

    Compare and contrast two psychological approaches

    4 star(s)

    Behaviourism relies on the Stimulus-Response principle which consists of using an object to create a reaction. Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) initially proposed that humans and animals learn behaviours through the association of stimuli and responses. He stated two laws of learning to explain why behaviour occurs the way that it does: The Law of Effect specifies that any time behaviour is followed by a pleasant outcome that behaviour is likely to recur. The Law of Exercise states that the more a stimulus is connected with a response, the stronger the link between the two.

    • Word count: 1851
  5. Marked by a teacher

    Psychology the factors of Smoking

    4 star(s)

    The psychodynamic explanation for smoking is when a child has been over indulged in the oral stage they tend to be oral fixated in this particular stage which can dominate them as adults later in life in the form of smoking, (wanting to pleasure the mouth with a cigarette). This theory can be supported by evidence to back this up but it still does not explain why some people who are oral fixated do not smoke when they are in adulthood this can be seen as a limitation of the psychodynamic perspective.

    • Word count: 1139
  6. 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
  7. Peer reviewed

    Discuss two or more biological therapies for schizophrenia

    5 star(s)

    Kapur and Remington suggested in 2001 that whilst conventional antipsychotics block dopamine receptors long-term, atypical medication does so temporarily, before dissociating to allow normal transmission of the chemical. The differing ways in which the drugs work is central to the argument over whether either is effective or appropriate. Davis et al. (1980) studied the influence of conventional antipsychotics against a placebo and found significant difference in terms of relapse rates, suggesting therapeutic effectiveness.

    • Word count: 701
  8. Peer reviewed

    Discuss the biological approach to psychopathology

    5 star(s)

    According to this approach genes can also be responsible for mental illnesses. Genes tell the body how to function - they determine, for example, the level of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, referred to as biochemistry. This means that certain genes may lead to abnormal biochemistry and/or abnormal neuroanatomy. For example, genes may dictate the low levels of serotonin that have been found in depressed individuals. Genes also determine the structure of the brain, known as the neuroanatomy. For example, research has shown that schizophrenics have enlarged ventricles in their brains, indicating the shrinkage of the brain tissue around these spaces.

    • Word count: 643
  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

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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