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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. 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
  7. Discuss issues associated with the classification and/or diagnosis of schizophrenia

    only found a small positive correlation between the different assesors.This is evidence of low reliability when using the DSM to diagnose schizophrenia ,however the test-retest reliability studies have shown more positive results which means that there is some sort of reliability with the DSM. Another issue surronding the diagnosis and classfication of schizophrenia is the cultral differences in diagnosis e.g A research study by Copeland et al (1971) compared 134 US psychiatrists and 194 British psychiatrists in their diagnosis of a patient, and found that 69% of the US psychiatrists diagnosed schizophrenia compared with only 2% of the British psychiatrists.

    • Word count: 523
  8. Discuss psychological therapies for obsessive compulsive disorder

    Research has supported the effectiveness of ERP in treating patients with OCD. For example, an investigation by Albucher et al (1998) showed that between 60 and 90% of patients who suffered with OCD improved considerably using ERP. Furthermore Foa and Kozak (1996) support Albucher?s claims, as their research demonstrated that ERP alone was as effective as ERP with medication after a two year follow up. Empirical evidence such as this enables the ERP therapy to be generalized as a universally effective treatment for OCD patients. A criticism in the use of psychological therapies for treating OCD is that its reductionist.

    • Word count: 738
  9. Discuss the behavioural approach to explaining psychological abnormality. (12 marks) Updated

    This is a social learning theory explanation. Behaviourists believe the mind is an unnecessary concept and so therefore there is no such thing as mental disorders or mental illnesses, only abnormal behaviours. Also if abnormal behaviours are learned, then they can be unlearned and it is this idea that underpins behavioural treatments. Behaviourism is very good at explaining disorders that do have an environmental component, for instance a lot of phobias are learned through experience.

    • Word count: 475
  10. Case Study for psychology. The boy who couldnt stop washing

    He tried to keep his obsessive compulsive symptoms under control during the time he was at school. However, over months, his resistance weakened and his OCD became so severe that his time ? consuming rituals took over his life. Charles was forced to leave school because he was spending so much of the day washing. His washing ritual always followed the same deliberate pattern. He would hold the soap under the water spray for one minute in his right hand and then out of the water for one minute in his left hand, He would repeat this for at least one hour.

    • Word count: 457
  11. Discuss the influence of culture on romantic relationships

    In societies with reduced mobility (e.g. India) arranged marriages make good sense and seem to work well. Females from professional and non professional backgrounds were found to be happy with both love and arranged marriages as long as their parent?s approved, emphasising the importance of family Batabyal (1992). Divorce rates are low and half of the spouses in arranged marriages fell in love with each other as Epstein found out in 2005. There was no difference in marital satisfaction when compared to individuals in non-arranged marriage in the US with arranged marriages in India. Myers et al studied both love marriages in the US and arranged marriages in India.

    • Word count: 804
  12. Psychological Analysis of Students Skipping School (Truancy)

    Theory B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) was only concerned with observable behaviors, not the mental processes behind them. Skinner used animals to study how the use of rewards and punishment can influence behavior, which became known as operant conditioning. He performed the Skinner box experiment, where a rat in a cage must press a button for food to be released into the cage. After the food has run out, the rat stopped pressing the button after a few futile attempts. This is called extinction. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) studied ?self actualizing? people, which is reaching one's full potential, only after basic needs are met.

    • Word count: 923
  13. Discuss at least one biological explanation of depression

    However, a limitation of the biochemical explanation is that no cause or effect can be established as it cannot be proven if low levels of serotonin cause depression or if depression causes low levels of serotonin this suggests that low levels of serotonin may be an effect of depression rather than a cause. A strength of the biochemical explanation is that the use of SSRIs as a successful treatment supports the explanation because SSRI?s increase the levels of serotonin which limits depression meaning that low levels of serotonin must be the cause in order for the SSRI?s to be successful.

    • Word count: 554
  14. Outline and evaluate attempts to define abnormality

    If abnormality will begin to be defined by deviation from social norms then this is based on previous social morals and attitudes. This gives the opportunity for mental health specialists to classify people as mentally ill, if they go against basic social morals. Failure to function The most common question against this is who actually judges if you are not functioning ?normally?. We first need to conclude if this actually is the cause or the person may not just be suffering a personal distress.

    • Word count: 482
  15. Are gender differences fact or fiction? Discuss with respect to at least two distinct measures or traits.

    The majority of people believe gender differences to be fiction as they may be influenced by social background. There are several gender differences within masculinity and femininity within family and friends. We should note that these differences are increasing with age as children?s intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by gendered cultures within a social community. Parents treat their children the way they would expect a boy or girl to be, so the children adopt and learn this concept. Traditional education creates an image on family?s gender roles. Children would see their parents in ?separated worlds?, for example a mother could be seen as doing the laundry or cooking and taking care of the child, and their farther as working or fixing things.

    • Word count: 534
  16. What is procrastination? Why do we procrastinate? How do we procrastinate? How can we stop procrastinating?

    Who am I kidding? It is quite shocking actually, just how many times I have procrastinated just today. Instead of getting out of bed this morning, I reached under my pillow and told myself I would just read one chapter, then get out of bed.. "there's no rush" I said. What happened?... Yes, I finished the whole book. By the time I dragged myself out of bed it was 11.30am. By that time, it's just a little too late for breakfast, yet a little too early for lunch. So what did I do? I decided that it would be silly to start my work before lunch, now it was so close, so I may as well wait until about 12 to have lunch, then start my work promptly afterwards!

    • Word count: 805
  17. Outline and evaluate attempts to define abnormality

    Even though this definition allows quick diagnosis, it varies according to time in history, context or circumstance and degree of deviation. Therefore identification of abnormal behaviour using this classification is not always accurate and this may lead to wrong treatment. A more extreme but somewhat more realistic and practical explanation is that ?failing to function adequately?, as in not being adaptive or being unable to cope with the state of affairs.

    • Word count: 480
  18. Critically discuss the emergence of psychology as a separate discipline

    However, the area of social psychology does look specifically at society. Wilhelm Wundt, credited as the father of psychology, was a physiologist, elements of physiology still being found within today?s schools of psychological thought. He opened the first psychological laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. He formed the Structuralist school of thought, whose underlying belief was that consciousness can be broken down into components; perception, sensation and affection (Gross, McIlveen, Coolican, Clamp and Russell,2000). The main method he used was introspection, careful observation of one?s own conscious experiences (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011).

    • Word count: 973
  19. Describe and evaluate the Cognitive Approach

    Another difference is that the approach advocates the importance of mental processes such as beliefs, desires and motivation in determining behaviour unlike the behaviourist approach. Cognitive psychologists focus mainly on the internal mental processes like memory. Interest is taken in how individuals can learn to solve problem and the mental processes that exist between stimulus and response. A certain model of this is the information processing approach. The information processing approach can be compared to a computer in terms of the mind the software and the brain being the hardware, this is just like a computer.

    • Word count: 637
  20. Different psychological approaches to explaining criminal behaviour.

    This has been proven by the use of identical twins (or monozygotic twins) and their genes. If one parent has a mental disorder, it is around 45% more likely that both of the twins will have the same mental disorder. However, as this concordance rate is quite low and generalised, it suggests that the environment could play a bit part in his behaviour. Another way could be infection - if an infection is caught from another person, it may have affected Geoff's brain badly, leading to an abnormality and making Geoff act out.

    • Word count: 941
  21. Psychology AS revision - Stress and Workplace theories

    Indeed, smoking was found to be common along those who got sick, so perhaps there is a link between a perceived lack of control and smoking (and then an obvious and proven link between smoking and heart disease) that caused the above correlation. Furthermore, since this survey was conducted on office workers it cannot be reliably generalised to the wider population, as there are many different types of jobs. However, since office work is by no means a rare phenomenon, we can confidently assume that this study is relevant to many people.

    • Word count: 769
  22. Research and Evaluate the Psychodynamic Approach to Psychopathology

    them, and Regression ? reverting back to an earlier stage in development (for example, a child acting like a baby when getting a new younger sibling). Because of these mechanisms, mental disorders can be the result of unresolved childhood conflicts. Freud believed that we repressed the painful memories from our childhood into the unconscious section of our minds. For instance, anorexia might be a result of s****l abuse as a child.

    • Word count: 543

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