The table below illustrates the Approaches to Human Behaviour that are covered throughout the Approaches unit. As part of the specification (AQA) it is a requirement that students are able to offer a comparison of the approaches to human behaviour. This table outlines a comparison in relation to; determinism and free will, reductionism and holism, nature vs. nurture, extrapolation and whether the approach is idiographic or nomothetic.

For more detail on each individual approach, click on the approach link in the ‘main assumptions’ column of the table.

ApproachMain AssumptionsFree Will vs. DeterminismNature vs. NurtureHolism vs. ReductionismIdiographic vs. NomotheticExtrapolation
LearningThat all behaviour is learned through interactions in an individual’s environment. This approach assumes that individual’s are born as a blank slate and that we learn through conditioning; (classical, operant) and Social Learning Theory.This approach is deterministic as it argues that behaviour is due to a stimulus/response reaction. It is even argued that we feel like we have a choice when there is no threat of punishment, but even in those circumstances we are driven to choose whatever gave us pleasure in the past. Social Learning argues for a level of choice in whether we imitate or not, but that can said to be dictated by experience.Key belief is that an individual is born as a ‘blank slate’ and so nature plays no part in human behaviour. All behaviour is a product of nurture – experiences and up bringing (role models).This approach has experimental reductionism due to its focus on stimulus response experimental design. It does not consider the role of biology in human behaviour (we are born as blank slates).(This approach is nomothetic as it seeks to establish laws in behaviour such as the law of effect. It believes that we have a shared process for learning – a theory that is generalised to all.Condition uses lots of animal research (e.g. Pavlov – dogs, Skinner, rats) which cannot be generalised to humans. Social Learning Theory cannot be criticised for extrapolation however.
BiologicalAssumes that human behaviour is a product of genes, hormones, brain functioning and chemical changes in the brain.This approach assumes that our behaviours are driven by our genes, genetic and chemical make up, it doesn’t recognise the role of free will in determining our behaviours.

Assumes that behaviour is a product of nature – we are determined to behave in ways as dictated by our genes. Individuals can argue however that this approach does recognise the role of nurture in our behaviour – phenotypes bring about behaviours that are a product of genes and the environment.
This approach is the most commonly associated with reductionism. Biological reductionism can be brought against this approach as it explains behaviours as being actions of genes or physiological processes.This approach is nomothetic as it is working on the idea that we share a common physiology/biochemistry and that it is the differences within these that explain the variance in behaviour between people.With this approach, animal research is used widely – rats have lesions created in brains to see how this affects human behaviour.
CognitiveAssumes that human behaviour is controlled by internal thought processes and the development of schemas.The way we process information from the environment is determined by our past experiences (schemas) but cognitive psychology argues that it does involve and element of free will (in cognitive therapies individuals are require to change their thought processes.This approach accepts both sides of the nature nurture debate. It recognises on one hand that there are innate thought mechanisms which are important to the development of thought and language. However, this approach also recognises the importance of the environment in shaping thought processes. However, processing is based more on experience and so this approach falls more on the nurture side of the debate.This approach supports experimental reductionism (where experiments are carefully controlled in order to isolate one variable to test). There is also the issues of ‘decoupling’ which is when one cognitive process is isolated for testing, but in the real world, many cognitive functions would be used, so looking in isolation lacks validity.The focus on scientific study of cognitive processing in groups of people together with the comparison to computers means that this approach is nomothetic. It recognises that individuals have vastly differing thoughts but that the processes underlying these can be generalised to all humans.Animals are rarely used in this approach as the focus is on human thought processes. In addition, animals cannot communicate through human language. This approach cannot be criticised for extrapolation).
PsychodynamicAssumes that behaviour is controlled by unconscious process, the ID, Ego and Super Ego and can be explained by the overuse of defence mechanisms and fixation at the Psychosexual stages of development.This approach has a core assumption that are thoughts are dictated by our unconscious mind. As we have no control over our unconscious mind it can be said that this approach is very deterministic.This approach it can be argued falls on to neither side of the debate. It argues for the existence of innate drives (the ID). However, the way parents raise a child affects the formation of the other elements of personality and therefore nurture plays a role too.This approach is not seen to be reductionist as it believe that’s all elements of an individuals behaviour should be taken into consideration. This approach is more holistic rather than reductionist – considers a whole range of factors that can influence behaviour (childhood experiences, unconscious processes, biological drives etc…)This approach has elements of being both idiographic and nomothetic. It focuses on the unique childhood of each individual (idiographic) but does generalise to all by recognising the innate drives that we act upon (nomothetic).This approach cannot be criticised for extrapolation. It does not use animals in research. The unconscious mind is difficult to test in humans and would be impossible to test with animals.
HumanistEmerged from the work of Maslow and Rogers, focused on conscious experience (rather than behaviour), with individuals suggested to have personal responsibility and free will.The only approach to fully advocate the existence of free will and the idea that we choose our path in life.This approaches stance on the debate is difficult to determine. This approach assumes that individuals hold an innate drive to be ‘the best that you can be’ but the environment can aid or help that process (nurture). This approach can be seen to be interactionist.This approach is holistic. It does not believe in reducing behaviour to specific elements and believes that the individual should be regarded as a whole (have a biological drive to be the best that we can be which is supported by environmental factors).This is an idiographic approach as it recognises the uniqueness of the individual. All psychologists representing this approach would see no merit in trying to generalise from one individual to another. It can be argues however that there are some nomothetic assumptions (i.e. the hierarchy of needs that we all aspire to).This approach cannot be criticised for extrapolation. The focus of this approach is on human developments and so there would be no reason to involve animals in research).

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