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Themes Theoretical Perspectives Psychology Sociology Social Cognitive Psychoanalysis Humanistic Psy



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Psychology, the scientific study of behavior and the physiological and cognitive processes that underlie behavior, is a relatively new science. Only since the 1890's when Sigmund Freud began his work on psychoanalysis has psychology been vigorously studied in the way that it is today. While the entire basis of psychology is founded upon a few basic ideas that are unanimously agreed upon within the scientific community, many psychological theories still are disputed. Therefore, the discipline of psychology is both unified and diverse.

There are five themes within psychology that are universally agreed upon, the first being that psychology is a science. Between the two types of sciences, natural and social sciences, psychology falls into the category of 'social science.' A natural science is a science that is involved in the study of the physical world and its phenomena, while a social science studies society and the relationships of individuals within a society. Science's purpose is to take a question that one may have and to find an answer to that question through the 'scientific method.' The 'scientific method' has seven steps: Ask a question, do background research, construct a hypothesis, test your hypothesis through an experiment, analyze your data, draw a conclusion, and communicate your results (Steps of the Scientific Method.) Psychology is based upon the belief that knowledge should be acquired through observation, so all psychological conclusions are based upon observation (Weiten 21.) Psychologists have to ask many questions and be certain of something before they can come to a conclusion. If one asks the question “Why have levels of people with ADD gone up in recent years?” A psychologist would have to ask many questions about it such as “How many people have been diagnosed with ADD in recent years? How many people were diagnosed with ADD 20 years ago? Do levels of people with ADD seem to be higher or lower for certain races? Is it around the world or just in a certain area?” Psychologists need to be skeptical because data and documentation is imperative where coming to a conclusion is concerned. A psychologist can not simply come to a conclusion because something seems logical and rational, they actually need evidence to support their conclusions (Weiten 21.)

The second theme is that behavior is determined by multiple causes. All decisions that are made by an individual have been influenced by similar decisions that they have made in the past and their outcomes, or by outside influences and observation. The decisions that someone makes are not just decided because of one isolated event (most of the time) but by many events. This is called 'Multifactoral Causation.' People are very quick to blame one specific thing for one's behavior, such as that “People commit violent acts because of violent video games that they've been exposed to at a young age” or that “People drink because they see it on television and think that it's OK.” This is not the case. Yes, maybe these things could have factored into it, but the list of reasons is often left incomplete. A drinker's alcoholism first begun for more than one reason. Personal factors could include low self-esteem, mental illness/disorder, stress, shame, a disability, genetic makeup, or/and anxiety. External factors could include family illness, poverty, a housing foreclosure, loss of a job, inability to find a job, loss of a loved one, and many more.

The third theme is that heredity and experience interact to influence behavior. One of the biggest debates historically is the debate of nature vs. nurture. The debate of nature vs. nurture is really about whether one's personality traits are predetermined by their genetic makeup or whether they are formed by one's experiences and upbringing. While the debate has been “historically... framed as an all or nothing proposition,” (Weiten 24) this is not the case. Psychologists have come to the conclusion that both heredity and experience work together to influence behavior. Just because a person comes from a family with a history of depression doesn't mean that they will certainly have it, though it does mean that they are 1.5-3x more likely to become depressed (Genetic Causes of Depression.) If the person with a family history of depression has a nice upbringing and has generally good life experiences, that person is more than likely not going to be depressed despite the heightened chances. This also goes the other way as well. If someone has no family history of depression, yet they suffer a bad upbringing and have very bad life experiences, they can develop depression.

The fourth theme is that an individual's perception/experience is highly subjective. This means that different people could be seeing the same thing but both of them have different perceptions of what's going on. A good example of this is when two individuals look at the 'Rubin vase' optical illusion where one could either see two faces or a vase. The individual's perception/experience being subjective is significant in terms of our attempts to arrive at conclusions that have general/universal application because it applies to almost every disagreement. When two people get into an automobile accident, they will often try to blame each other. They will both think that it's not their fault at all and no blame should be placed on them and that the other driver is completely and totally at fault. This is because they have subjective and biased views about what had happened.

The final theme that is universally agreed upon within the psychological community is that a person's behavior is shaped by social/cultural heritage. Culture is defined as “the widely shared customs, beliefs, values, norms, institutions, and other products and other products of a community that are transmitted socially across generations” (Weiten, 24.) Cultures exist within societies, which is defined as “group of people who share common area, culture and behavior patterns” (Difference Between Culture and Society.) Society & culture have a huge impact on behavior, as it covers a wide variety of things including religious views, diet, ideas and views of art and politics, how people dress, and many more. Society and culture decide what social customs one may follow, and those customs often stay with people even when they move somewhere where the customs are not followed.

There are six theoretical perspectives that are not universally agreed upon within the field of psychology. The first of these six theoretical perspectives is Psychodynamic, also known as the “Psychoanalytic School.” Psychoanalysis, the psychological school of thought that emphasizes the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior, was first conceived by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician. Freud believed that the human mind contained three elements: the id, the ego, and the superego (Cherry.) The id according to Freud, is the unconscious and unorganized part of the personality that is supposed to satisfy desires, needs, and basic urges. The ego, the mostly unconscious part of personality, is said to “mediate the demands of the id, the superego, and reality.” It prevents us from acting on the drives of the id while at the same time tries to achieve balance between moral and idealistic standards. The superego is the part of personality that is made up of ideals from our parents and from society. The superego also tries to make the ego behave morally as opposed to realistically (Cherry.) The id, the ego, and the superego all work together to create an unconscious balance within the human mind that decide our motives, our subsequent actions, and if/how we act upon them. In psychoanalysis, there is heavy emphasis placed upon early childhood experiences. Psychoanalysis supports the idea that a person is extremely influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, by experiences that one may have had during their early childhood. For example, if a young child had been in a horrible house fire, they may not remember it as an adult a few decades later, however it could have altered their personality. While psychoanalysis is a complicated and seemingly logical perspective, many challenge it, saying that it is “unscientific.” The critics justify their claims by saying that the theories that psychoanalysis is based upon have not been researched enough and that the theories depend too much upon the clinical case study method (Psychoanalysis.) It is also said that the Freud's theories about the unconscious mind could not truly ever be proven false by observation or by any physical experiment, so they it can not really be a science. For this any many other reasons, psychoanalysis is considered by many to be a “pseudoscience” (Psychoanalysis.)

Another theoretical perspective is the Behavioral perspective. Behaviorism is the belief that all behaviors (actions of an organism including thinking, feeling, acting, etc.) are obtained through conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning, both of which occur through interaction with the environment. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist and physician, is credited with first describing classic conditioning. Classical conditioning is a “learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus” (Cherry.) A good example of how this works is when Pavlov measured the saliva produced by his dogs in different settings. Pavlov noticed that his dogs did not just salivate in the presence of meat powder, but in the presence of the lab technician that usually fed them as well (Classical Conditioning.) One could assume from these observations that the dogs made an association between being fed and the lab technician that would feed them. On the other hand, operant conditioning, coined by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, arose from the idea that internal thoughts and motives could not explain behavior (Cherry.) Operant conditioning looks at external behaviors instead of internal behaviors, which are covered by classical conditioning. Operant conditioning deals with observable behaviors that are meant to have a specific consequence for those exhibiting the behavior, and the learning that occurs based on the rewards vs. punishment for the behavior. According to operant conditioning, depending on the outcome of a behavior, people will learn whether to exhibit the behavior again or not (Cherry.) Much like psychoanalysis, behavioralism has been the subject of some argument and controversy. When B.F. Skinner analyzed behaviorism to the point where he arrived at the conclusion that free will is an illusion due to the fact that the environment controls people. The critics of this conclusion misinterpret what Skinner was trying to say and thought that he was against free will and was trying to promote an “undemocratic 'scientific police state'” (Weiten 10.) Even though there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding behaviorism, it prospered during the 1950s and 1960s. While psychoanalysis was still a very important part of psychology, behaviorism overshadowed it. Many theories that contradicted behavioral psychology were dismissed during this time period, as people within the psychological community viewed it the one true perspective. This all ended with the cognitive revolution.

The humanistic perspective was a direct response to the dominant psychoanalytical and behavioral perspectives during the 1950s (Cherry.) Instead of a pessimistic and dehumanizing approach of that a person is completely at the will of their mind and is completely shaped by their environment and past experiences, humanism focuses on “unique aspects of human experience” (Weiten 11.) Humanistic beliefs include that humans and animals are fundamentally different and that humans are free, logical beings that can personally grow. There are three very important central roles at play in humanistic psychology. These are human goodness, the drive towards growth and development, and self-actualization. Humanists believe that all humans are good from the time that they are born and that their own thoughts play a large role in their behavior (Nordqvist.) Another humanistic belief and central role is that people naturally try to grow and develop. This means that people will always try to acquire new knowledge, always try to improve their lives, and will never want to stay put where they are, either figuratively or literally. Another central role in humanism is self-actualization, or the motive to realize one's full potential. According to Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who is considered the founder of humanistic psychology, there are six characteristics of a self-actualized person. These are acceptance and realism, problem-centering, spontaneity, autonomy and solitude, continued freshness of appreciation, and peak experiences (Cherry.) Much like psychoanalysis, many people accuse the humanistic perspective to be unscientific. Critics say that humanistic psychology has no “empirical base,” meaning that it's founded on ideas that have not been founded as a result of observation, experience, or experiment. Even though many say it has no empirical base, the humanistic perspective has great amounts of empirical research done to support its ideas. The empirical research done includes the works of psychologists David Elkins, Amedeo Giorgi, and Abraham Maslow (Humanistic Psychology.)

In the 1950s, when behaviorism and psychoanalysis dominated the field of psychology, an intellectual movement began known as the “cognitive revolution.” The cognitive revolution created a grouping of nine specific cognitive sciences: psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, learning sciences, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and education. From the cognitive revolution came cognitive psychology, the psychological perspective that studies internal mental processes including how people think, learn, perceive things, make decisions, solve problems, and remember things (Cherry.) The cognitive perspective also contains the belief that internal thoughts and feelings such as motivations, beliefs, and desires decide behavior. Many people think of cognitive psychology as the school of thought most easily applicable to everyday activities, as it deals with issues such as how to improve memory, how to make better decisions, and how to intensify learning. Cognitive psychology is much different than behavioral psychology as it deals with internal mental states while behavioral psychology deals exclusively with external behaviors. It is also much different from psychoanalytical psychology as cognitive psychology uses the scientific method in its study as opposed to psychoanalysis' use of highly subjective observations in order to reach conclusions (Cherry.) The first documentation of the mind theoretically working how the cognitive school of thought perceives it to was by René Descartes in the 17th century. Until the 1960's, the cognitive school of thought really didn't amount to much, especially with the behavioral perspective dominating the field. With Donald Broadbent's book Perception and Communication being released in 1958, however, cognitive psychology was brought to attention (Cognitive Psychology.) In the decades to follow, the cognitive school of thought became prominent enough to rival the psychoanalytical and behavioral schools of thoughts.

Biological psychology, also known as physiological psychology, is different from the other branches of psychology as it deals with the actual physical body's effect on behavior, specifically the central nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord, and the outermost sheet of neural tissue to the cerebrum is called the “Cerebral Cortex.” The cerebral cortex is very important to biopsychology because it deals with thought, language, awareness, attention, memory, and consciousness (Cherry.) The cerebral cortex is made up of four lobes: the frontal lobe, also known as the motor cortex,the occipital lobe, also known as the visual cortex, the parietal lobe, also known as the somatosensory cortex, and the temporal lobe, also known as the auditory cortex (Cherry.) The frontal lobe deals with motor skills, language, and cognition, the occipital lobe deals with interpreting visuals, the parietal lobe deals with sensory information like pain, pressure, and touch, and the temporal lobe deals with the interpenetration of sounds and language that we hear. (Cherry.) Another important part of biopsychology is neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a cell. These chemicals, if there is too much or too little, can cause psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or depression. Over the past few decades, this perspective has grown substantially through the advancement of medical science and technology. Biopsychology wasn't really much of a scientific discipline until the 18th and 19th centuries when men began looking into why people and animals behave the ways that they do. People began looking to the brain where many made educated guesses about what was happening do to a lack of knowledge about how the brain works. (Biological Psychology.) As time went on, more and more technology was developed that heavily contribute to the advancement of biopsychology such as numerous scans that can let scientists actually view what's going on inside the active brain and analyze what's happening while it's happening (Cherry.)

One final perspective of psychology is the evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective “focuses on the study of how evolution explains physiological processes” (Cherry.) It is meant to explain traits in psychology such as perception, language and memory, as they apply to evolution through sexual and natural selection (Evolutionary Psychology.) The evolutionary perspective has had a large impact on the way that we think about behavior and to the study of the structure and functioning of the mind. In regards to behavior, certain behaviors have been passed down evolutionarily, just like physically helpful traits. An example of this is a dog's ability to swim. No one has taught a dog how to swim, but once it is placed in the water, it will swim. In regards to the study of the structure and functioning of the mind, the complexity of the brain as well as the positioning and purpose of the different lobes is a direct result of evolution. The evolutionary perspective has altered the field of psychology in many ways, including leading psychologists to question and reform many of the theories that have been largely accepted within the field.

There are many areas of agreement and disagreement within the field of psychology. Through years of analysis, research, and observation, psychologists have come to their own conclusions about which perspectives they agree and disagree with, but all psychologists agree on the five basic themes of psychology. One way or another, psychology seems to have a bright and promising future with lots of new information on the horizon.


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