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Definition of and Approaches in Psychology

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Definition of Psychology

Psychology is defined as the scientific study of mental processes. The human mind and how it functions to affect human behavior is the focus of the subject matter of Psychology. The term behavior includes all those aspects of human activity which are overt: in effect it represents the outward life of individuals which is public knowledge and can be observed. But also involves covert behavior, which are personal experiences and feelings can be studied only by asking individuals to express their feelings and thoughts.


Branches of Psychology

There are many branches of psychology and these include the following:

1. Clinical psychologists

Clinical psychologists are the psychologists who work with patients, alongside psychiatrists, social workers, and nurses. Many clinical psychologists are in private practice, while others work for hospitals, health maintenance organizations, or agencies. Some clinical psychologists assess the mental health of patients and diagnose specific mental disorders. Some clinical psychologists perform psychotherapy, while others use other techniques of treatment or specialize in diagnosis.

2. Industrial or organizational psychologists

Industrial/Organizational psychologists study the workplace. They may be in private practice, or be employed by large private companies, consulting firms, government agencies, or the military. They focus on selecting, training, and supervising workers on issues of leadership and management.

3. Consumer or market psychologists

Consumer/market psychology studies the marketplace. They help determine which people are the best source of potential customers for a product, which products will sell, and how to advertise.

4. Experimental psychologists

Experimental psychologists work primarily in laboratories, studying topics such as sensation, perception, learning, and memory.

5. Developmental psychologists

Developmental psychologists focus on how people grow over the life cycle: from fetus, to neonate, to infant, to toddler, to child, to adolescent, to adulthood, to old age.

6. Social psychologists

Social psychologists study how people respond to interpersonal stimuli: attitude change, discrimination, group behavior, and conformity to cultural norms.

7. Educational psychologists

Educational psychology study of understanding human learning process.


Approaches to Psychology

There are several different approaches to studying behavior and psychological processes. Each of them looks at behavior from a different perspective, fixing attention on one particular aspect.

1. Behaviorist approach

The behavioral approach is mainly concerned with stimuli and the resulting behavioral response, and it is sometimes called (S-R) psychology for stimulus-response. Behavior, from a behaviorist approach, is viewed as a series of learned response and is limited to observable action. The essence of the behavioural approach is the assumption that all behaviour is learned and that when we are born we are like a blank slate, tabula rasa.

Experience and interactions with the environment make us what we are. We become what we become as a result of forming stimulus–response units of behaviour in reaction to the environment. This perspective has been called environmental determinism because it suggests that our behaviour is determined by the environments in which we exist. Critiques of behaviorism have actually picked on this by arguing that behaviorism views human beings as robots who just dance (responds) to tune of the wind without any deliberate thinking.


The second assumption is that all behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning theory: stimulus and response (S–R) links that build up to produce more complex behaviours. In essence, conditioning refers to changing behaviour in the absence of conscious thought, as in saying “I am conditioned to behave in that way”. An example of conditioning is when people feel hungry by just seeing a restaurant.
The third assumption is related to the second one. In essence, Skinner argued in favour of what is known as equipotentiality—this is the notion that virtually any response can be conditioned to any stimulus. In other words, it doesn’t make any real differences what stimulus–response associations we try to persuade our human or non-human participants to acquire.

The fourth assumption of the basic behaviourist approach is that we need look no further than the behaviours we can observe in order to understand and explain how humans and non-human animals operate. This is why of course it is called “behaviourism”—because the focus is solely on observable behaviour. There is no need to look at what goes on inside the “black box” of the mind (e.g., perception, attention, language, memory, thinking, and so on), it is sufficient to focus only on external and observable behaviour. Note, however, that later behaviourists such as Bandura did recognise the importance of internal processes (e.g., self-efficacy), so what has been said so far applies mostly to the approach taken by early behaviourists such as Watson and Skinner.

The fifth assumption of the behavioural approach is that humans and non-human animals are only quantitatively different, i.e., they differ in terms of having more or less of something rather than differing qualitatively. This means that behaviourists can generalise from non-human animals (such as rats and pigeons) to human behaviour. This explains why much behaviourist research is conducted with non-human animals, although that is less the case now than it used to be. Behaviorists ignore mental activities and conscious experiences in favor of observable responses. They are concerned with stimulus (S) and response (R) connections.

2. Psychodynamic approach

Psychodynamic approach, also called Psychoanalytical approach, was developed by Sigmund Freud who is also considered to be the father of Psychology. The term “psychodynamic” refers to any explanation that emphasizes internal processes of change and development, i.e., the dynamics of behaviour or the forces that drive an individual to behave as he/she does. “Dynamics” are the things driving us or a machine to behave in particular ways. An example of a psychodynamic theory is Freud’s account of psychosexual development.

In terms of explaining behavior, Psychodynamic approach argues that human behavior is as a result of early or childhood experiences. It is our past early childhood experiences that cause our current behaviors. If, for example, Jean Paul was raped by her dad Mr. Paul while she was a child, she will in the present as an adult behave in a way that she does not trust men or other females and even fearing all men. Sigmund reminds us that most of these motivational forces that drive our behavior are influence us largely unconsciously, meaning without us being aware that actually they are the forces behind our behavior. In addition, Sigmund Freud, in his psychodynamic theory, also pointed out that human behavior is largely caused by two human motives of libido and aggression. Libido refers to the sexual energy in people which makes them seek sexual gratification while aggression is for self-defense. Thus, according to Sigmund Freud, girls do make up and buy expensive body-fitting clothes that review their figure just because they want to attract men to have sex with them. In the same context, boys go to the gym to have six pack which they can use to seduce girls to have sex with. Freud’s theory and his method of therapy are both called psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic perspective seeks to explain human behavior in terms of an interaction between innate drives and early experience. The basic assumption of Freud’s approach is that early experience drives us to behave in predictable ways in later life. Childhood is a critical period of development. Infants are born with innate biological drives, e.g., for oral satisfaction. Such drives have a physical (sexual) basis. If these drives are not satisfied this can lead to personality or behavioral problems later in life, because our physical energies (libido) remain attached to these earlier stages and therefore the individual will regress [return] to that stage when experiencing anxiety.

A further key assumption is that unconscious forces motivate much of our behaviour. At any time if drives are thwarted or not satisfied, the ego copes by using ego defence mechanisms such as repression (i.e., forcing traumatic memories into the unconscious) and denial (i.e., denying that anxiety-provoking events happened). An individual may express such feelings in dreams and unconsciously motivated behaviours such as Freudian slips (involuntary but motivated errors in speech or behaviour).

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Structure of the Mind

According to Sigmund Freud, the structure of the human brain is made up of three components, this is one of the most significant contributions of a well-known psychologist Sigmund Freud to the understanding of the human thoughts. Every living person has a certain amount of psychological energy which plays a very important role in there psychoanalytic activities. This psychological energy evolves to form three structures of personality known as the Id, Ego, and the super Ego which are all dependent on each other. Below is an explanation on how these three structures work and attain equilibrium, association levels with consciousness or lack of it for each of these three structures of personality. Furthermore it also explains the two main drivers/motivations for human beings according to Sigmund Freud.

The Id. This is the only component of personality that is present from birth. According to Sigmund Freud. The id is the most basic part of the personality, and wants instant gratification for our wants and needs. If these needs or wants are not met, a person becomes tense or anxious, this component is very unconscious and includes the instinctive and primitive behaviors and it is the origin of other components of the human brain namely the Ego and super ego. The id is driven by impulses like thirst, physical comfort, hunger, sexuality (libido), aggressiveness, self-destruction action and so forth which act like demands and the id tries to meet these demands. The id acts on the pleasure principle, it doesn’t care about what the situation is like but only its satisfactions. It seeks to keep level of tension low by obtaining pressure.

The id is very important during the early stage of life because it ensures that the needs of an infant are met. For example, a baby feeling wanting to breast feed will cry instantly until its breast fed, to the baby it does matter whether its daylight or night or whether the mother is busy or not. At this stage a human being doesn’t understand the effect of their actions to their environment. When the id is indeed of a certain action nothing else is important. The id is governed by what is known as the “pleasures principle” (Neimark 92). As the child grows older his education expands and develops another group of mental processes which are known as the Ego.

The Ego. This component of the human brain is partly conscious, unlike the id which only seeks its satisfactions or desires, the ego operates on reality principle. According to Sigmund Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world. The ego being the part of the brain which is based on reality principle, it represents the organized, rational and planning dimension of personality. It is the balance between the id and the super ego. The Ego helps a person deal with the outside word. With the presence of the ego, a person is capable in postponing gratifications until the appropriate time. For example, when a person is grown up, they are able to wait up until morning, time for breakfast even though they feel hungry during the middle of the night, and one can ask a question as in “why do we stay on the queue in the banking hall instead of fighting to be first to be offered the banking services?”, if it wasn’t for the ego to eventually allow the behavior influence by an impulse only during the appropriate time and place, people would fight over resources just to satisfy the desires of the impulse and people could even snatch object from others in response to their id. The ego is sometimes referred as the Executive Branch of the personality because it makes very important decision.

The super ego. This is the last component of the human brain to develop that operates on the morality principle. This component represents values and ideas that are established by society and learned by individuals. The superego is the aspect of personality that holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from both parent and society. The superego tells us what is wrong or right, in other words it is the people’s sense of right or wrong. It also provides guidelines for making judgments, the superego tries to restrict our impulses. Most of our impulses are wrong, for example, sexual desires. According to Freud Sigmund the superego begins to emerge around at the age of five. The superego imposes feelings of inferiority, guilty, shame self-doubt and anxiety. Another important characteristic of the superego is strive for perfection rather than pleasure or reality thinking. There are two parts of the superego, firstly the ego ideal, it tackles the rules and standards for conducting good behaviors. These behaviors include those which are accepted by parental and other authority figures. Following these rules, makes a person to be proud for themselves, value themselves and also gives one the feeling of accomplishment. Secondly the conscience, this includes a person having information concerning things that are taken as unwelcomed by parents and the society. These conducts are always forbidden and they are accompanied by unpleasant consequences and punishments, sometimes one may have guilty feelings and remorse. One might have assurance to steal supplies from work and without anyone knowing about it. However, they might have the feeling that stealing is wrong, so they might decide not to take anything even though they would probably never get caught

The super ego serves to perfect and civilize the behavior of persons. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to help the ego take action upon idealist standards rather than upon realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. In other words, the superego develops last, and is based on morals and judgments about right and wrong. Even though the superego and the ego may reach the same decision about something, the superego’s reason for that decision is more based on moral values, while the ego’s decision is based more on what others will think or what the consequences of an action could be.

The interaction of the id, ego and the superego. Having a lot of competing forces, it is very simple to see how conflict is likely to arise in between the id, ego and the superego. Sigmund Freud used the term ego strength in reference to the ability of the ego to function despite all the dueling forces. People having good ego strength are able to effectively conquer these pressures, while those with too much or too insufficient ego strength can become too unyielding or too disrupting. According to Sigmund Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the Id, ego and the super ego.

This approach claims that past experiences that have deeply held emotions account for an individual’s present behavior patterns. In this approach psychologists carry out prolonged in depth interviews with people to try to find out the significant past experiences which may subconsciously affect present behavioral patterns. It is thought that emotions and attitudes held by individuals may owe much to such earlier subconscious experience.


Psychosexual Stages of Development

According to Sigmund Freud, personality is mostly established by the age of five. Early experiences play a large role in personality development and continue to influence behavior later in life. Freud's theory of psychosexual development is one of the best known, but also one of the most controversial. Freud believed that personality develops through a series of childhood stages during which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id become focused on certain erogenous areas. This psychosexual energy, or libido, was described as the driving force behind behavior. Some people do not seem to be able to leave one stage and proceed on to the next. One reason for this may be that the needs of the developing individual at any particular stage may not have been adequately met in which case there is frustration. Or possibly the person's needs may have been so well satisfied that he/she is reluctant to leave the psychological benefits of a particular stage in which there is overindulgence.

Both frustration and overindulgence (or any combination of the two) may lead to what psychoanalysts call fixation at a particular psychosexual stage. Fixation refers to the theoretical notion that a portion of the individual's libido has been permanently 'invested' in a particular stage of his development. It is assumed that some libido is permanently invested in each psychosexual stage and thus each person will behave in some ways that are characteristic of infancy, or early childhood. For example, a person who is fixated at the oral stage may be over-dependent on others and may seek oral stimulation through smoking, drinking, or eating.

i.The oral stage (Birth to 18 months)

During the oral stage, the infant's primary source of interaction occurs through the mouth, so the rooting and sucking reflex is especially important. The mouth is vital for eating, and the infant derives pleasure from oral stimulation through gratifying activities such as tasting and sucking. the infant also develops a sense of trust and comfort through this oral stimulation. The primary conflict at this stage is the weaning process- the child must become less dependent upon caretakers. If fixation occurs at this stage, Freud believed the individual would have issues with dependency or aggression. Oral fixation can result in problems with drinking, eating, smoking or nail biting.

ii.Anal stage age range (1.5 years to 3 years)

Focus of the libido was on controlling bladder and bowel movements. The major conflict at this stage is toilet training--the child has to learn to control his or her bodily needs. Developing this control leads to a sense of accomplishment and independence. According to Freud, success at this stage is dependent upon the way in which parents approach toilet training. If parents take an approach that is too lenient, Freud suggested that an anal-expulsive personality could develop in which the individual has a messy, wasteful or destructive personality. If parents are too strict or begin toilet training too early, Freud believed that an anal-retentive personality develops in which the individual is stringent, orderly, rigid and obsessive.

iii.The phallic stage (3 to 6 years)

During the phallic stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals. At this age, children also begin to discover the differences between males and females. Freud also believed that boys begin to view their fathers as a rival for the mother’s affections. The Oedipus complex describes these feelings of wanting to possess the mother and the desire to replace the father. However, the child also fears that he will be punished by the father for these feelings, a fear Freud termed castration anxiety. The term Electra complex has been used to described a similar set of feelings experienced by young girls. Freud, however, believed that girls instead experience penis envy.Eventually, the child begins to identify with the same-sex parent as a means of vicariously possessing the other parent. Psychologists such as Karen Horney disputed this theory, calling it both inaccurate and demeaning to women. Instead, Horney proposed that men experience feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth to children.

iv.The latent period (6 to puberty)

During the latent period, the libido interests are suppressed. The stage begins around the time that children enter into school and become more concerned with peer relationships, hobbies and other interests. This stage is important in the development of social and communication skills and self-confidence. If not successfully passed, this stage may result in adolecsents that have low self-esteem and low self-confidence.

v.The genital stage (puberty to death)

During the final stage of psychosexual development, the individual develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex. This stage begins during puberty but last throughout the rest of a person's life. Where in earlier stages the focus was solely on individual needs, interest in the welfare of others grows during this stage. If the other stages have been completed successfully, the individual should now be well-balanced, warm and caring. The goal of this stage is to establish a balance between the various life areas.


Ego Defense Mechanisms

According to Sigmund Freud, the ego is the part of the psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts to it, coming between the primitive drives of id and the demands of the social environment, represented by the superego. In other words it is the part of mind that senses and adapts to the real world. The ego has some tools it can use in its job as the mediator and these are called ego defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are a type of process or a coping mechanism that results in automatic psychological responses that are exhibited as a means of protecting an individual against anxiety, for example when people experience difficulties they have different ways of handling their pain. In a farming scenario farmers experience difficulties in many aspects which shows how these defense mechanisms work.


3. Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach stresses the importance of what intervenes between stimulus and response. The psychological (mental) processes themselves. The cognitive approach is based on three main assumptions:

  1. Behaviour can largely be explained in terms of how the mind (or brain) operates.
  2. The mind works in a manner that is similar to a computer: inputting, storing, and retrieving data. Cognitive psychologists assume that there is an information processing system in which information presented to it is altered or transformed. This information-processing system works in an integrated way, meaning that its various parts (e.g., attention, perception, memory) co-operate with each other to understand the environment and behaviour appropriately.
  3. Psychology is a pure science, based mainly on well-controlled laboratory experiments.

The cognitive approach may be the opposite to behaviourism in some ways (e.g., focus on internal vs. external factors), but there are also some similarities. Both approaches are quite reductionist and experimental. The cognitive approach is reductionist in its use of computer analogies, and experimental in its attitudes towards research. It is based on the belief that inner functions of humans are also worth studying. The brain, perception, memory, personality and motivation are some of the internal structures and processes which affect human behavior. Therefore, to understand human behavior it is necessary to know how people acquire conception and how these influence subsequent behavior. The cognitive approach was developed in the 1950s in response to the shortcomings which were recognized in the behaviorists’ school of thought. Cognitive psychologists recognized that a great deal goes on in the brain between the reception of a stimulus and an individual’s reaction to it. Cognitive psychologists attempt to understand the mental processes in reacting to a stimulus. Arising from this work a number of important theories of learning have emerged – Broadbent’s Duplex Theory and “Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory”.


4. Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach establishes the uniqueness of each human being. In this approach, the key to understanding a person’s behavior is an appreciation of his/her subjective experience – the individuals own perception and interpretation of stimuli and personal goals. Humanistic, humanism and humanist are terms in psychology relating to an approach which studies the whole person, and the uniqueness of each individual. Essentially, these terms refer the same approach in psychology. Humanism is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. Humanistic psychologists look at human behavior not only through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the person doing the behaving. Sometimes the humanistic approach is called phenomenological. This means that personality is studied from the point of view of the individual’s subjective experience. Therefore, if we want to understand and explain people’s behavior, the best way is to ask the people themselves to explain why they behave the way they do.In his model of human behavior, Carl Rogers emphasizes the essential goodness within people and their continuing struggle to maximize their potential. Abraham Maslow’s developed a concept of self-actualization to describe what Rogers called the highest human motivation – the need to fulfill one’s potential.


5. Biological Approach

This approach is concerned with the links between biology and behavior. it looks at how the nervous system – brain, nerves-, body chemistry and genes are responsible for human behavior. Biology refers to the study of living organisms. Included within the biological approach are the following:

a. Physiological approach

A physiological explanation is one that refers to bodily activity. There are physiological theories about dreaming based solely on brain activities, i.e., the functioning of the central nervous system. It is claimed, using the physiological perspective, that dreams are simply the random electrical activity of the brain during sleep upon which the mind imposes some sense. Other physiological explanations make reference to neurotransmitters and synapses, such as explanations of mental disorders. A further example of a physiological account could be of stress, which would focus on how your heart rate and breathing increase when in the presence of a stressor. Explanations of how the body responds to stress were considered as part of your AS studies. Activity in the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system lead to the production of hormones that govern the stress response.

b. The nativist approach

The nativist approach to understanding behavior is based on the idea that all behavior is inherited. The unit of communication between one generation and the next is the gene. There is some overlap here with evolutionary psychology in that evolutionary psychologists emphasize the importance of genes. However, a key difference is that evolutionary psychologists are mainly interested in extremely long-term evolutionary processes involving natural selection.

c. The medical approach

The biological or somatic approach to the treatment of mental disorder suggests that mental problems are causes of people’s behavior. In addition, the medical approach also suggests that mental problems can be treated in the same way as physical problems. The medical model of mental illness assumes that all mental disorders have a physical cause (micro-organisms, genetics, biochemistry, or neuroanatomy). It also assumes that mental illnesses can be described in terms of clusters of symptoms; and symptoms can be identified, leading to the diagnosis of an illness. Finally, diagnosis leads to appropriate physical treatments (e.g., chemotherapy)

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