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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.

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  1. Outline and Evaluate One Biological and One Psychological Explanation of Schizophrenia

    One of the first post-mortem studies was carried out by Owen et al. (1978) who found that schizophrenic brains had a higher density of dopamine receptors than expected. This was support by Inversen's (1979) findings of higher levels of dopamine than normal. It could be debated that perhaps as these findings were from deceased patients that the results do not represent what is occurring in living brains. It could be argued that death itself may cause the increase of dopamine that had been observed.

    • Word count: 1765
  2. Discuss the use of animals in psychological research

    This causes a number of problems: social psychological research (like Asch's conformity studies or Milgram on obedience) relies on deception to increase ecological validity and lower the effects of demand characteristics - in fact, most of these kinds of experiments would be impossible without some deception. Milgram (1972) argued that to enhance the realism of his situation total deception was therefore 'psychologically and scientifically an integral part of the experiment'. On the other hand, deception may cause undue distress and loss of self-esteem on the part of the participants and may also lead to problems regarding another guideline - CONSENT.

    • Word count: 962
  3. Discuss Psychological Explanations of Schizophrenia

    However, these theories were based on methodologically flawed studies. One major problem was that families were studied retrospectively, long after the persons mental disorders may have affected the family. Also, these studies did not include control groups and used poorly operationalized definitions of schizophrenia. Also, ethical implications are possible using such explanations of schizophrenia. Psychological harm may be caused, as suggesting the parents "caused" the disorder is unhelpful and possibly highly destructive. A second psychological theory comes from expressed emotion. Expression emotion is a family communication style that involves high levels of criticism, hostility and emotional over-involvement.

    • Word count: 848
  4. case study of psychopath

    A storage space was found within were it was discovered that Debardeleben was a sadistic murderer. Amongst his things in the storage compartment was a police uniform, a list of women's numbers and addresses, counterfeiting material and a bag. The bag contained handcuffs, a dildo, shoelaces, a chain, bloody panties, and lubricant. There were hundreds of sexually explicit photos of females, and several audiotapes. The tapes recorded extreme torture were the female victims begged to stop or to be murdered. Early victims who survived the torture say they did not come forward because DeBardeleben threaten to show explicit pictures of them and some simply did not come forward due to shame.

    • Word count: 1636
  5. invesigating stroop effect

    Automatic processing is fast, does not require a lot of attention, and happens involuntarily. Controlled processing, however, is slow, requires a lot of attention and in voluntary. Schneider and Shiffrin also showed that some automatic processes develop with practice. However, they do not fully explain how this happens. They further concluded that while automatic processes are faster than controlled, and can operate in parallel, they are also more inflexible, making it difficult to modify them in response to challenges in the environment. The Stroop Effect illustrates this theory made by Schneider and Shiffrin, as reading is an automatic activity to accomplished readers.

    • Word count: 1922
  6. Discuss psychological research in terms of its contribution to the "nature-nurture" debate (30 marks)

    Physiological psychology assume that stress is a response governed by biology e.g. genes, immune system, nerves, etc. Both perspectives are over simplistic. They ignore the evidence that nurture can in fact override nature such as the 'Brenda Brian study' by Dr Money. Furthermore there is little evidence to support evolutionary claims. They are post-hoc explanations. Empiricists, or rather 'radical behaviourists' hold the view that all behaviour is a consequence of experience alone. For instance, Skinner (1957) proposed that a child's language is acquired through operant conditioning i.e. reinforcement via rewards and punishment, if they say something and is punished for it then obviously they will stop doing it, however, if they are rewarded for their utterances, then they will continue in saying it.

    • Word count: 914
  7. Cross-Cultural Variations

    Different factors have an effect on cross-cultural variations in attachment such as the role of the mother and whether the culture is individualist or collectivist. The mother-infant relationship is an important concept of how an attachment is formed and affects all humans, including all cultural boundaries and/or ethnic child rearing practices. In some cultures, the child-care duties are taken on mainly by the mother leading to a strong attachment between mother and infant. However, in some cultures the mother works away from home and may have to let the infant be looked after by another person (other relative or childcare)

    • Word count: 1008
  8. Discuss what psychologists have discovered about cross cultural differences in pro-social behaviour (24 marks)

    However, individualistic cultures will perceive such a response as being dependent on the nature of relationships and the magnitude of need. Child raising strategies differ from culture to culture. Whiting and Whiting (1975) found that child raising strategies that involve children in family responsibilities, such as raising siblings and participating in daily chores produce more helpful children. The above happens in collectivist cultures. However, in individualistic cultures, children would expect to be paid for such contributions. However, it is too simplistic to generalize all Westernised cultures as many studies such as Liebrand et al (1985)

    • Word count: 1104
  9. Outline and evaluate the assumptions made by two models of abnormality

    There is also evidence to suggest that the role of neurotransmitters can affect abnormality, for example serotonin levels have been linked to depression, and dopamine with schizophrenia. What the biological model fails to acknowledge however is precisely why these levels might change. Whilst the cause of physical illness is often possible to trace, it is not the case with psychological disorders, even though the biological model might try to justify medically. The biological model also promotes the idea of cause and effect.

    • Word count: 962
  10. explanations and evaluation of abnormalities and its treatment

    These feelings may develop into the main reinforcement for the disorder. Behaviourist research such as Gilbert does suggest that psychological factors play an important role in the maintenance of eating disorders such as anorexia, but this particular psychological approach is weaker when attempting to explain the origins of the disorder. It doesn't explain why, for instance the fact that not every dieter becomes anorexic in the pursuit of positive reinforcement. Behavioural models also tend to ignore the role of cognition's.

    • Word count: 1383
  11. Outline and evaluate behavioural therapies to treat mental disorders.

    Both therapies expose the client to the feared experience but in slightly different ways. Implosion does this with the therapist getting the client to imagine their worst fears (for example, imagining they are in a room full of spiders), the anxiety created by this is as a result gradually reduced as the patient learns that no harm is coming to them and so the phobia will eventually disappear. Flooding is similar, however with flooding the client is exposed to the real fearful situation (so they may have to actually hold a spider rather than just imagine one).

    • Word count: 820
  12. Outline and evaluate therapies from the Psychodynamic approach used to treat mental disorders.

    During free association four stages may occur, firstly there may be 'resistance' from the analysand in which they attempt to delay progress, for example by being late or changing the subject. Another stage that may occur is 'transference', in which the analysand treats the analyst as though they were someone from their past. The next stage then is 'interpretation' in which the analyst interprets the hidden meaning of what the analysand has said. Finally the last stage is 'insight' in which the analysand gains self knowledge and understanding, this can take a long time to develop however.

    • Word count: 1167
  13. Free essay

    abnormal psychology/depression

    In other words, it is called average. High intelligence is as abnormal as low intelligence." J Cullberg (2006:09) Not all abnormal behaviours are undesirable, for example if a person is abnormally intelligent this is seen as desirable. Failure to function adequately could be classed as abnormal behaviour. Normal behaviour such as brushing teeth and getting dressed are judged as what a 'healthy' person is capable of doing. Abnormal behaviour in this case is when a person is unable to function properly.

    • Word count: 2221
  14. Intelligence Essay

    The tests were furthered even more in the 70's and 80's, and continue to be adapted, and now the I.Q. test can be used to test the so called intelligence of individuals who range from 2years old to 23 years and 11months old, which coincidentally is my age at the time of writing this. Because of the involvement of Stanford University in the development of these tests, the test is now commonly known as the Stanford-Binet test.

    • Word count: 1909
  15. Could or should psychology be called a science?

    People inevitably change over time; this fact challenges the principal of 'Invariance' from the scientific point of view. However there is a difference in changes found on behaviour and those found in 'laws'. For example trends of music have changed with time and culture, but the underlying psychological cognitions behind those changes haven't been altered; group pressure still remains. Science asserts that one set of rules can apply for everyone; determinism. However a psychologist would state that its very founding principals of the 'psyche' means that people follow many different sets of rules and cannot be forced into one category due to differing levels of cognitions.

    • Word count: 860
  16. Psychology - Nature/Nurture Debate

    Each cell in the body contains a nucleus, which contains a substance called DNA. The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information. DNA is organised into long strands called chromosomes, and each chromosome is made up of thousands of genes. Genes are the basic unit of hereditary transmission and direct the way that growth and development happen within a plant or animal. Just after an animal is conceived, it is made up of a tiny group of cells. As these grow and divide, each gene acts as a code or set of instructions for making a particular protein.

    • Word count: 2495
  17. Do pre information affect impression formation

    This means that Asch's studies cannot be used to explain occurrences revolving around impression formation in real life. This is due to the fact there is a large amount of artificiality and therefore results may have been susceptible by demand characteristics exhibited by participants. This is because the words cold and warm may be associated with something within a different dimension and not central traits such as warm meaning happy and vice versa. Harold Kelley improved upon Asch's research and created the co-variation theory, whereby Kelley argued we gain our information and make judgements of people from information gained from two sources of data.

    • Word count: 2021
  18. Do pre information affect impression formation

    He varied the 'central trait' however, in the same manner as Asch did in his experiment, that is, by swapping a single trait within the set with another trait - 'cold' became 'warm'. Kelley then asked the students to evaluate the lecturer, and received different impressions according to which central trait was given to the students present at a particular lecture. Another theory was the 'halo effect', best demonstrated in studies by Dion and Walster (1972) suggests that a person can be labelled as 'good' by the presence of one particular trait for e.g.

    • Word count: 2275
  19. Schizophrenia is a very serious condition. It is the most common psychosis.

    Putting the fact that the prevalence for the normal population is 1% it can be concluded that the cause of schizophrenia looks to be genetic. However it cannot be a full cause as it's not 100% concordance rate for MZ twins or 50% for others. Also this is a family study, it does not take social accounts, and schizophrenia could be a learnt behaviour. The evidence that has been reported clearly indicates that schizophrenia runs in families, and the concordance rate is much higher between relatives with a higher genetic similarity.

    • Word count: 1036

    These inform us about things such as the average age to get a PHD, how many people read the new paper each morning, the average IQ of a 16 year old. These statistics can be used to define the norm for a group of people. A norm is something that is usual or regular or typical. If something is not common then it is abnormal. For example, it is not the norm for women to have their first kids below the age of 20 years and above the age of 40 years.

    • Word count: 1054
  21. Investigation to find out which gender is better at recognising faces

    The results are shown below in a bar chart; from the result you can see there is 1 odd result from participant 20. The experiment shows the experimental hypothesis was stated wrong however if the researcher removes one result (participant 20) it would bring down the female average and prove the experimental hypothesis correct. The mean average for males and females including participant 20 is males 28.6 and females 34.7, however without participant 20 the female average goes down to 25.2r.

    • Word count: 4576
  22. Outline the behavioural model of abnormality and consider its strengths and limitations

    They then repeated this three times and did the same the next week. After this, when Little Albert was showed the rat he started to cry. The stimulus had created a fear response in Little Albert. Operant conditioning focuses on reinforcement and punishment. If behaviour is reinforced, it increases the likelihood of it being repeated. Punishment reduces the likelihood of behaviour being repeated. In terms of abnormal behaviour, it can be explained by operant conditioning as a psychological disorder is produced when maladaptive behaviour is reinforced.

    • Word count: 928
  23. Eating Disorders

    In addition to this, the Mothers' relationship problems mean that the Mother desires to retain this dependence and encourage the immaturity in her child. However, in criticism of this model, it is as difficult to falsify as it is to prove. Bruch's basis for her explanation was based on case studies and worked on the interpretations of the psychologist. The psychological explanation in terms of the behavioural approach suggests that the principles of classical and operant conditioning apply. Step 1 would be the learning through association, this association would be between thinness and admiration.

    • Word count: 1706
  24. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are becoming a major problem throughout the world'. Discuss to what extend psychological theories can explain the trend.

    Limitations of this definition of abnormalities is that although an individual may be defined as being abnormal, this does not necessarily mean that they are suffering from an eating disorder. They could be abnormal in a positive way. One could also question this definition and ask why is someone classed as being abnormal when they are 2 standard deviation from the norm, why not 1 standard deviation? Who decided this and why? The statistical infrequency definition of abnormality does not take cultural relativism into account.

    • Word count: 871

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