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Approaches in Psychology

In this article we will consider the main approaches in psychology, covering them in chronological order. First, we will discuss the 18th-century origins of psychology up to the 1900s, when the psychodynamic approach was first used. Then we will discuss the behaviourist approach, the humanistic approach, and the cognitive approach. Lastly, we will sum up the latest biological approach and describe cognitive neuroscience, which combines elements of the cognitive and biological approaches.

Approaches in Psychology Graphic approaches in Psychology StudySmarter

Graphic with linear approaches in psychology, Bruna Ferreira, StudySmarter Originals

How did the approaches to psychology develop?

Before psychology was considered a discipline in its own right, it was considered an experimental branch of philosophy. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened an institute for experimental psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany; this institute started the development of modern psychology.

Wundt made significant advances in this new field, which led to psychology emerging as a separate discipline; hence, Wilhelm Wundt is considered the father of experimental psychology. He used scientific methods to analyse human consciousness, dividing it into smaller components, such as sensation and perception.

Later, psychologists developed these ideas in lots of different ways. Some continued Wundt’s experimental tradition and tried to make psychology more scientific, whilst others focused on getting people to think more about their own mental processes to improve their happiness and wellbeing as human beings.

The psychodynamic approach

In the late 1900s, Sigmund Freud established the psychodynamic approach. The psychodynamic approach proposed that there are psychological factors that underpin human behaviour, particularly considering the role of the unconscious mind. Freud conducted a series of studies to better understand the relationship between an individual’s emotions and behavioural patterns. He was particularly interested in their childhood experiences.

Psychodynamic means ‘mind in conflict’, therefore, the approach is based on the idea that certain parts of our personality conflict with other parts. Observing these conflicts led Freud to divide the mind into three parts – the id, ego and superego.

Freud developed psychoanalytic therapy which aimed to interpret our mental or emotional experiences, rather than behavioural processes. Through the mid-1940s and 1950s Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and others further developed psychoanalysis.

The behavioural approach

The behavioural approach was established by John B. Watson (1913), through the idea that psychology should not focus on subjective mental processes, like the psychodynamic approach previously suggested, instead, it was noted:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my specified world to bring them up in, and I will guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

(Watson, 1924).¹

The behavioural approach strands from the social learning theory, which claims that learning new behaviours is active and involves observing and imitating others. On the other hand, behaviourism claims that learning is a passive response to its environment.

Behavioural psychologists believe that all behaviours are the result of our experiences, in fact, behaviourists stress the idea that we are all born as a blank slate, and can learn to be anything through the process of conditioning. Early behavioural psychologists explored the relationship between learning and behaviour and developed two explanations of conditioningclassical condition and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov developed the theory of classical conditioning. Based on the learning process in which an existing involuntary reflex is associated with a new stimulus. Pavlov demonstrated that repeated exposure to an event leads to learning and uncontrollable behaviour. The process can be used to detect and explain phobias and personal attachments.

Classical conditioning is a technique applied to behavioural training. Essentially it occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus that occurs naturally. Eventually, the neutral stimulus evokes the same response as the naturally occurring stimulus. Throughout three distinct phases, the unconditioned stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus and the behaviour learned is known as the conditioned response.


Ivan Pavlov developed the theory of classical conditioning. Based on the learning process in which an existing involuntary reflex is associated with a new stimulus. Pavlov demonstrated that repeated exposure to an event leads to learning and uncontrollable behaviour. The process can be used to detect and explain phobias and personal attachments.

Classical conditioning is a technique applied to behavioural training. Essentially it occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that occurs naturally. Eventually, the neutral stimulus evokes the same response as the naturally occurring stimulus. Throughout three distinct phases, the associated stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus and the behaviour learned is known as the conditioned response.

Approaches in Psychology Classical conditioning Pavlov StudySmarter

Classical conditioning (Pavlov), Katarina Gadže, StudySmarter Originals (Canva images)

In the image, Pavlov showed that repetition of an event led to learning and uncontrollable behaviour. These processes can explain how phobias and attachment can be developed.


Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a theory developed by Skinner (1948) “the Skinner box” used to investigate the operant conditioning in rats and pigeons. The animals would be allowed to move freely around the cage, when the lever was pressed they would be rewarded with food. The animal would learn through positive reinforcement. This is a method of learning based on reinforcement and punishment. An association occurs in operant conditioning between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour.

When a desirable result is obtained, it is called positive reinforcement. The behaviour becomes more likely to be repeated.

Negative reinforcement, followed by adverse outcomes, on the other hand, becomes less likely to happen again in the future.

Punishment is when the behaviour is followed by an unpleasant consequence and is less likely to be repeated.

Approaches in Psychology Operant conditioning Skinner StudySmarter

Skinner's operant conditioning, Katarina Gadže, StudySmarter Originals (Canva images)

What is behaviourism’s contribution to psychological therapy?

Behavioural psychology studies the interactions among observable, quantifiable behaviour. It investigates how to change problematic and maladaptive behaviours into positive and healthier ones. It also studies how behaviours can impact cognition.

Behavioural psychology can be separated into four main subdisciplines. Additionally, cognitive-behavioural therapy itself has several variations, such as rational-emotive Behavioral therapy.

  • Applied behaviour analysis.

  • Cognitive therapy.

  • Behavioural therapy.

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Humanistic approach

Humanistic psychology is sometimes called the ‘third force’ in psychology, alongside the earlier psychodynamic and behaviourist approaches.

The humanistic approach is different from the other approaches as it focuses on supporting the individual to fulfil their potential and maximise their well-being. It states that people need to be viewed as a whole (holistically), in contrast to experimental approaches to psychology which believe that each psychological process can be studied separately.

Unlike the psychodynamic and behaviourist approaches, this approach does not focus entirely on the environment. Instead, it is believed that people are innately good and creative. However, just like plants, people need good conditions and nurturing in order to thrive and reach their full potential.

In 1957 and 1958, Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas showed the aim of establishing a professional association that emphasised a humanistic approach to psychology. In 1961, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology was founded after receiving sponsorship from Brandeis University.

Who are the most influential psychologists in the humanistic approach?

The most influential humanistic theorists introduced humanistic psychology in response to what they viewed as the overly pessimistic view of the psychodynamic approach, and the reductionist views of the behaviourist approach.

Carl Rogers believed in people’s free will and psychological growth, and the inherent goodness of people. He created person-centred therapy, a non-directive, non-judgmental process that allows the client to come to insights on their terms. The therapist engages in active listening during therapy sessions.

Abraham Maslow believed that people are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.

The humanistic approach has made significant contributions to psychology. Some of the major concepts and ideas that emerged from the humanistic movement include:

Approaches in Psychology Maslow hierarchy of needs StudySmarter

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Katarina Gadže, StudySmarter Originals (Canva images)

Humanistic approach evaluation

Humanistic psychologists' perspective is that humans have free will, and are able to control their environment and provide change to their circumstances if needed. A good example of the humanistic approach in psychology is the belief that humans create their own ethics. The approach is mostly nurturing since it believes that behaviour can be shaped by the environment. The strength of this approach is it focuses on all aspects of human experience and its interactions.

When we evaluate the humanistic approach in psychology, one weakness stands out: the humanistic approach is unable to provide empirical evidence to support its validity. However, there are some studies supported by clinical data provided by Maslow, Rogers and Roethlisberger. Also, the approach raises concerns about cultural bias since every culture is different and so humanistic psychology may only be applicable to individualistic nations, where the theories were developed.

The cognitive approach in psychology

Ten years after the rise of the humanistic approach, the cognitive approach emerged. It was strongly influenced by the development of computers and suggested that the human mind could also be looked at as a processor of information. Processes like memory, for example, could be viewed in terms of processing and storage systems.

The cognitive approach also built on and reacted to older ideas in the subject. The main approach to experimental psychology prior to this point was behaviourism (from the 1920s to the 1950s). However, many researchers were unhappy with its focus on studying animals, and the way that all psychological processes were reduced to conditioning. This provided a model for later cognitive theories.

Cognition means thoughts and mental processes, and includes a range of different mental activities such as thinking, perceiving the world, and using language. The cognitive approach, therefore, focuses on internal mental processes. Since an internal process cannot be studied directly, evidence and theories in this approach are typically established by observing and experimenting with human behaviour.

Jean Piaget was a psychology researcher who had contributed important insights to developmental psychology even before the inception of the cognitive approach. As the approach developed, his views became more influential. This included the idea that children’s minds develop in a series of stages, and that our knowledge of the world is structured into meaningful concepts, which he termed schemas.

Who are the most influential theorists on cognitive behaviour?

The most influential theorists for the field were Atkinson and Shiffrin, in 1968 when they developed a theoretical model of memory. Another big contribution was done by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974 when developed the working memory model, which is a theoretical model for short-term memory.

The ecological approach in cognitive psychology

The ecological system theory was developed by an American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. He attempted to explain how the social environment affects child development. Children participate in different sets of ecosystems, from the most intimate home system to a larger system such as school. These ecological systems influence and interact with each other in different aspects of children’s life.

The ecological model designed by Bronfenbrenner organises different contexts of development into different levels of external influence, microsystem, mesosystem, ecosystem, macrosystem and chronosystem.

What is the biological approach?

The biological approach assumes that all human behaviour has a biological origin. It highlights the importance of understanding internal biological structures, hormones, genes, the nervous system and neurochemistry.

So they could better comprehend human behaviour. This is seen as a dominant approach in psychology nowadays, partly because of the advances in technology which allow better insights into biological approaches that affect behaviour.

The biological approach emphasises the role of biology in determining human behaviour. This approach focuses on biological systems at various levels:

  • Genetic: the basic inherited instructions for the construction and functions of the human body constitute the genotype, and it is codified in the genes. Their observable manifestation, or phenotype, includes eye colour characteristics and presumably behavioural characteristics like intelligence or psychosis.

  • The genetic approach presumes an evolutionary factor in which natural selection favours the carriers of certain characteristics.

  • Control systems like the nervous system (central, peripheral and autonomous), endocrine and neurochemical.

  • This approach also accounts for environmental factors, which influence evolution by presenting challenges to the organism.

Cognitive neuroscience

Nowadays, many researchers try to study cognitive processes using biological brain scanning techniques. This combines the cognitive and biological approaches and is known as cognitive neuroscience.

Cognitive neuroscience has resulted in the development of techniques for scanning the living brain, brain activity and processing information. The usage of non-invasive brain scanning techniques like PET (positron emission tomography) scans and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) are essential to understanding brain parts when they are active. In contrast, specific internal mental processes are used. Brain imaging techniques have successfully linked specific mental health disorders, such as the association between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and the brain region, parahippocampal gyrus.

Approaches in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • Wundt showed empirical methods that could be applied to mental processes to understand human behaviour. Watson and Skinner criticised the subjective nature of personal observations and emphasised the importance of rigorous scientific processes under carefully controlled laboratory settings.

  • Freud proposed the notion of the unconscious mind and conducted a series of studies to better understand the relationship between someone's emotion and their behaviour. He believed that unconscious motives and early childhood experience determine behaviour.

  • Behaviourists believe that humans are born as a “blank slate”, and behaviour is something that a person develops through different stimuli. The first behaviourists explored the relationship between learning and behaviour, and developed conditioning.

  • The humanistic approach believes that all aspects of humans have free will to construct their reality the way they would like to, independent of any other factor than their own free will.

  • Cognitive psychology believes that behaviour is the product of information, processed and modified by experience.

  • Biological behaviourists claim that internal biological factors control human behaviour (e.g. biological structures, hormones, genes, the nervous system and neurochemistry).


¹John B. Watson, Behaviorism, 1924

Frequently Asked Questions about Approaches in Psychology

The cognitive approach studies internal mental processes - concerning our emotions, perceptions, thinking, memory, attention, language, problem-solving, and learning. Everything related to how we think and how it influences our behaviour, and how our irrational thoughts can be the cause of a mental illness.

Behavioural psychology is based on a theory of learning, that we acquire our behaviours through conditioning. The conditioning happens through the interaction within the environment. Behaviourists claim that the environmental stimulus shapes our actions, which are a response to that. 

There are five major perspectives in psychology. Biological, psychodynamic, behavioural, cognitive and humanistic. 

The biological approach assumes that all human behaviour has a biological origin. It highlights the importance of understanding internal biological structures such as hormones, genes, nervous systems, and neurochemistry.

The psychodynamic approach emphasises the importance of our unconscious mind and between the different structures of our personality. It focuses on our childhood experiences and how it impacts the future, changing how we interact with the world will also change how we develop our emotions, behaviour and feelings in adult life. 

Final Approaches in Psychology Quiz

Question

What are the main subdisciplines of Behavioural psychology?



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Answer

There are four main subdisciplines of behavioural psychology. 

  • Applied behaviour analysis;
  • Cognitive therapy;
  • Behavioural therapy; 
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Show question

Question

When was behaviourism established?



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Answer

Behaviourism was established in 1913 when John B. Watson published his article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”.

Show question

Question

What is behavioural psychology?



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Answer

Behavioural psychology studies the interactions among thoughts, emotions, perceptions and behaviours. It investigates how to change problematic behaviours—Taking action on learning and changing into positive and healthier behaviour. 

Show question

Question

What is Operant Conditioning? 

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Answer

Operant Conditioning is a theory developed by Skinner based on experiments on rats. This is a method of learning based on reinforcements and punishments. An association occurs in operant conditioning between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour.

Show question

Question

What are the fields outside 

psychology that the 

cognitive approach applies to?

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Answer

Cognitive psychology has been integrated into different branches of psychology and other modern disciplines such as cognitive science, linguistics and economics. The domain of cognitive psychology overlaps with cognitive science, an interdisciplinary approach that includes studies of non-human subjects and artificial intelligence.

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Question

The affirmation, (In 1979 Wilhelm Wundt  opened the institute for experimental psychology, even before psychology was considered a discipline in its own right, psychology was considered an experimental branch of philosophy.) Is it True or False?

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Answer

False

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Question

The theories around the psychodynamic 

approach to therapy originated from 

Jung’s psychoanalytic theory.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Is it correct that Carl Rogers believed that people are motivated by a hierarchy of needs?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

The biological approach assumes 

that all human behaviour has a 

biological origin.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Operant conditioning is a technique applied to behavioural training. Essentially it occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that occurs naturally.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Who was Wilhelm Wundt?

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Answer

The first person to be considered a psychologist, who established psychology as a separate, scientific discipline for the first time.


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Question

What is introspection?


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Answer

Observing and examining your own thoughts and feelings.

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Question

What is one practise associated with mental health that uses introspection?


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Answer

Mindfulness

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Question

What type of therapy can benefit from the use of introspection?


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Answer

Psychodynamic

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Question

Why was introspection considered scientific at the time?


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Answer

it uses standardized instructions and controlled conditions


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Question

Why is introspection subject to a lot of bias?


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Answer

It is a very subjective method, and relies on the introspectionist’s own perceptions of their thoughts

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Why is introspection considered to have low internal validity?


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Answer

Introspection itself may influence our natural thought processes, meaning that the method may not measure what it sets out to, which would be considered low internal validity

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Question

 Why is introspection considered to have low external validity?


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Answer

 The approach can only be applied to certain groups of people, meaning that results found from introspection cannot be generalized.

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Question

How can introspection be applied?


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Answer

In psychotherapy or mindfulness practice.

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Question

When was the first psychological laboratory founded?


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Answer

 1879


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Where was the first psychological laboratory founded?


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Answer

Germany

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 Which philosopher first proposed the idea of introspection?


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Answer

Plato

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When was Wilhelm Wundt born?


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1832

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What university did Wundt found psychology at?


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Answer

University of Leipzig


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What did Wundt study before psychology?


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Answer

Medicine


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What field did psychology emerge from?

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Answer

Philosophy

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Question

When did Wilhelm Wundt establish the first psychological laboratory?


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Answer

1879

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Question

Who discovered classical conditioning?


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Answer

 Ivan Pavlov


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Question

What is classical conditioning?


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Answer

Classical conditioning is when an individual becomes conditioned to perform a certain behaviour when presented with stimuli that have been associated with behaviour.

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 What is operant conditioning?


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Answer

Operant conditioning is the process in which an individual is conditioned to maintain or cease performing a behaviour by positive and negative reinforcement.

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How did behaviorism advance the field of psychology as a science?


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Answer

Behaviour is explicit and can be recorded and studied more objectively than thoughts.

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Question

Who created the ‘human circulation balance’ technique of brain imaging?


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Answer

Angelo Mosso

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How have brain scans advanced the field of psychology?


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Answer

Because now psychologists can observe and study the brain more accurately.

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In which model of memory can we still see the influences of philosophy on psychological theory?


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Answer

The multi store model of memory, as it is mostly based on hypothesis and theory rather than explicit data.


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What did structuralist psychologists believe?


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Structuralist psychologists believed that the brain was made up of many parts, similar to the way that chemists break down chemicals into their smaller components.

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Who developed structuralism?


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Ivan Pavlov

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Who developed cerebral angriography?


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Answer

 Angelo Mosso

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What are the modern brain scans that we use today?


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MRI, fMRI and CT scans.

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Question

What was Freud’s aim when developing psychodynamic theory?



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Answer

Sigmund Freud conducted a series of theoretical studies and writings about human nature to understand the relationship between an individual’s emotions and behavioural patterns.

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Question

Could you summarise one of the theories applied to the psychodynamic approach?




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Answer

The psychodynamic approach includes theories that see human behaviour based on the individual’s drives and forces. The idea is that, in every person, different parts of the personality conflict with each other, desiring different things.

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What are the aims of the psychodynamic approach?

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Answer

  • To acknowledge an individual’s emotions.


  • To identify repeating or toxic behavioural patterns.


  • To improve interpersonal relationships.

  • To recognise and address avoided issues.

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What are the assumptions of the psychodynamic approach?


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Answer

  • Human behaviours have a root cause.


  • Human behaviour originates from conflicting desires experienced back in early life.


  • Internal processes and the external environment contribute to adult personality.

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Question

Who, other than Freud, developed 

the psychodynamic approach?




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Answer

The theories around the psychodynamic approach to therapy originated from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. In the mid-1940s and 1950s, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and others further developed psychodynamics by the general application of the psychodynamic approach.

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What does the term 

psychodynamic mean?



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Answer

It means mind energy or mind in conflict.

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What are defence mechanisms?




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Answer

When the mind is triggered by unpleasant events, it finds ways of protecting itself from the effects of these conflicts. Examples include repression, displacement and denial.

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Question

How does the psychodynamic 

approach explain adult behaviour? 



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Answer

 The psychodynamic approach sees human functioning based upon the interactions of drives and forces within the individual, this explains why they behave in a certain way. Some of these may be rooted in childhood.


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Question

What led Freud to divide the 

mind into three different parts?



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Answer

Freud observed the conflicts between different parts of the personality wanting different things. 


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What did Freud name the three different parts of the mind?




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Answer

 Id, ego and superego.

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Question

What are the psychosexual 

stages of development?



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Answer

The psychosexual stages of development are:

Oral stage

Anal stage

Phallic stage

Latency stage

Genital stage

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Question

What are “unconscious conflicts in the psyche”?



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Answer

It refers to unresolved conflicting feelings and behaviours that we might not be aware of.


Show question

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