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Biological Approach

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Biological Approach

Psychology is one of the few true mysteries of the sciences of today. The fundamental question it tries to answer is about the mind and soul (psyche) relation with our physical bodies. Are the body and mind separate? Or are they one and the same? Each psychological approach proposes a different answer to this philosophical question, known as the mind-body problem.

In this article, we’re going to look at how psychology uses knowledge and methods of biology to answer the fundamental questions of what determines individuals’ behaviour and thinking. We will define the biological approach and make an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses.

Biological approach Mind-body connection Studysmarter

The mind-body connection, Pixabay

What is the biological approach to behaviour?

The biological perspective proposes that biological structures and their functions determine our behaviour and thoughts. These functions could be neurones, parts of the brain, neurotransmitters, genes, or any structure we can find in a living being. In contrast to the cognitive approach, in the biological approach, the mind is not seen as separate from the physical makeup of our bodies. There is no 'ghost in the machine'; instead, the physical machine made of cells, atoms and biological structures is the mind.

What are the core assumptions of the biological approach?

Biopsychology is where psychology and biology overlap. The essential ideas taken from biology and applied to psychology are natural selection, localisation of brain functions, and brain chemicals as a basis of behaviour. Let’s have a closer look at how these ideas impact behaviour.


Assumption 1 of the biological approach: natural selection explains the behaviour

One of the key assumptions of the biological approach is that you can inherit something from your parents that will determine your behaviour. It also assumes the traits get passed down from one generation to another to ensure survival in the natural environment. Let's examine those assumptions.

1. Genes determine behaviour

Natural selection is the idea that biological advantages of a species (e.g., sharper beaks, bigger brains, better night vision) get passed down to future generations in an inherited biological trait and was proposed by Darwin in what is commonly known as the theory of evolution.

Good to know: In contrast to everyday language, in science, a theory is an overarching idea that has been overwhelmingly confirmed by evidence. This is as close as science gets to calling something a fact. An idea that you speculate about, however, is called a hypothesis.

Darwin was not the first to propose natural selection, but through him, the idea has become widely accepted. Many different Arabic scholars, including Al-Jahiz, an eighth-century Iraqi scholar, had proposed similar ideas in their writing.


A century after Darwin, advances in biotechnology have allowed us to confirm the existence of inherited physical traits, or genes, in cell DNA. Geneticists are still trying to figure out how genes influence behaviour; however, twin studies and family histories show that a lot of behaviour can be explained using the ideas of genotypes and phenotypes.

We carry a specific combination of our parents’ genetic information (DNA) in our body, called the genotype. However, only the dominant traits are observable. Genes that are outwardly observable are called phenotypes, and they are determined by the environment. Knowing about genotypes and phenotypes has helped us understand why some people show certain behaviours and some don’t.

Some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are thought to have a genetic component as they are often found passed on in family lines.

Evolutionary adaptation means the traits that get passed down over many generations best help the individual survive in the natural environment. Most adaptations that the theory of evolution addresses are physical traits, but psychology is particularly interested in behavioural traits, meaning how people have developed over time to better adapt to their environment. This includes behaviours such as altruism, attachment and communication through facial expressions.

Attention bias

Experiments have shown that even babies tend to pay more attention to spiders and snakes than to cars. In reality, both can be equally deadly. Why could this be a useful trait in nature?

One possible explanation for this is that, over generations, those who paid attention to and consequently learned to fear spiders and snakes survived longer and had a chance to procreate more than those who died of snake- or spider bites. This would mean that the ability to learn to fear snakes and spiders is an adaptation that evolved in humans due to the environment.

Assumption 2 of the biological approach: brain functions are localised

Biopsychology assumes that different parts of the brain have different functions, rather than the whole brain working at all times. There are many methods for studying brain anatomy, including brain imaging like fMRI, PET scans, post mortems, or studying the behaviour of people who have pre-existing brain damage. Research has revealed that different areas of the brain correlate with specific functions.

One of the ways that brain localisation can be proved, is through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which temporarily blocks the electrical activity of specific parts of the brain. Depending on which specific brain areas are targeted, people lose speech or control of their hands for a minute or two (no permanent damage occurs). This demonstrates that specific regions in the brain control the normal use of the brain.

Assumption 3 of the biological approach: neurochemicals are the basis of behaviour

A lot of behaviour can be explained by the presence or absence of specific messenger chemicals in the brain- specifically neurotransmitters, hormones and immune system messengers.

The biological model that would explain why people have schizophrenia is that they have an excess of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brains. Treating this excess of dopamine with medicine alleviates the symptoms of schizophrenia, which speaks for neurochemicals playing a big part in the illness and consequently on behaviour.

Biological approach evaluation

The biological perspective has several advantages over other approaches, but also some disadvantages. Let's break down its evaluation.

What are the strengths of the biological approach?

First, multiple strengths of the biological approach exist, making this approach reliable and objective compared to some other approaches. Let's have a look at some of its pros.

Science-based on measurable data

The biological approach makes use of biological methods that can accurately measure biological structures or statistical data. Some examples of these methods include:

  • Electroencephalograph (EEG) helps analyse sleep and wake states.

  • Twin studies show familial genetic connections.

  • Microscopy makes structures on the neurone visible.

  • Drug therapy helps treat mental illnesses by using specific neurotransmitters.

  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) helps us determine which parts of the brain are used for specific activities.

The range of techniques available to find out new results is constantly increasing. This makes the biological approach more objective, reliable, and valid than other less data-driven approaches which are more open to bias.

Real-world applications

Biological discoveries have many practical applications that improve people's lives. One notable example is drug therapy. The discovery of neurotransmitters has opened up a world of possibilities for treating psychological disorders.

L-Dopa - this is a drug that helps reduce the shaking and muscle spasms in people with Parkinson’s by balancing out their low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

A practical application of advances in biopsychology is transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), a kind of low voltage electrical current applied to the brain, which holds promise in alleviating symptoms of depression.

What are the weaknesses of the biological approach?

Although there are many advantages to the biological approach, it’s not perfect. Let’s take a look at some of the weaknesses of this approach:

Oversimplification

Bodies are so complex; it’s too simple to claim that a lack or excess of one neurotransmitter is the only factor responsible for the behaviour of the entire organism. Also, the many influences in our environment impact behaviour, so reducing the cause of an illness to a molecule might mean not taking other factors into account.

We know that major depression is linked to a deficit of serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters.

The biological model would treat major depression by administering a drug to correct the imbalance. However, it does not consider the emotions and environmental stressors that can play a part in the development and continuation of the illness. Recently, health psychology has started applying an updated version of the biological approach to illnesses, called the biopsychosocial model, which tries to address all the different social, psychological and biological factors.

Determinism

The idea that biological factors fully determine behaviour makes it difficult to hold people accountable for their actions. If a person is genetically programmed to show a specific behaviour, is it even possible for them to control their actions? Can a person be held accountable if they break a law under the influence of a drug or because of brain damage? The implications of determinism would be far-reaching in society. It puts into question the idea that we as humans have free will.

Individual differences ignored

The biological approach tries to generalise findings to as many people as possible. After all, in science, we want to find out the truth as it applies to all people. But humans differ so much amongst each other that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s thinkable that the normal, healthy levels of neurotransmitters in one person can be completely different from those in another person. Or that the way one brain works is different from another.

Lateralisation refers to the side that something is located or something happens in the brain. We know that the area responsible for speech and language called Wernicke’s area is located on different sides of the brain, depending on whether the person is right-handed or left-handed.

Neurodiversity can be found in people on the autistic spectrum. fMRI shows that neurodiverse people’s brains are physically built and structured differently from neurotypical brains, which means they experience and process sensory input differently.

Correlation is not causation

Many of the methods used in biopsychology can’t be used to explain cause and effect. Often, even with advanced technology, all we truly know is that there is a correlation between function and behaviour. To put it in simple terms, often we don’t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg.

We can analyse brain function while singing using an fMRI, which measures the oxygenation of blood flow in parts of the brain while a person is asked to sing. This biological method assumes that areas that are supplied with more fresh blood when the behaviour occurs are the most active. But even if we see the image of the blood flow, what exactly are we looking at? Are we seeing the brain activity that causes the muscle control needed for singing? Or are we seeing the effect of singing and hearing ourselves (and cringing)? Or, are we seeing the person’s emotions reflected in the brain activity?

In science, the only certainty is that when the subject shows specific behaviour, we also see more blood flow to a specific part of the brain. At most, we know there’s a correlative relationship there. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to say whether it’s the exact behaviour that causes the blood flow to that part of the brain or if the blood flowing to the brain causes the behaviour.

Biological Approach - Key takeaways

  • The biological approach tries to explain the behaviour and thinking of individuals through biological structures.
  • The core assumptions of the biological approach are that genes and neurochemicals determine behaviour. Another hypothesis is that brain functions are located in specific parts of the brain.
  • The strengths of the biological approach are that there are many practical applications for biological research into behaviour and that the methods used are scientifically sound.
  • The weaknesses of the biological approach are that other possibly important variables aren’t taken into account and that it’s a correlative approach. It opens up questions in society and law regarding whether people can be held accountable if their biology determines behaviour.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Approach

The methods most commonly used for the biological approach are neural imaging or genetic studies (twin, sibling and family studies).

Biopsychology has contributed to advances in the treatment of mental and neural illness and to the understanding of behavioural genetics.

The biological perspective says that biological structures and functions determine the mind.

The biological approach assumes that natural selection and neurochemicals determine behaviour, and that brain function is localised.

The biological perspective proposes that biological structures and their functions determine our behaviour and thoughts. These functions could be neurones, parts of the brain, neurotransmitters, genes, or any structure we can find in a living being. In contrast to the cognitive approach, in the biological approach, the mind is not seen as separate from the physical makeup of our bodies. There is no 'ghost in the machine'; instead, the physical machine made of cells, atoms and biological structures is the mind.

Strengths:

  • Science-based on measurable data.
  • Real-world applications.

Weaknesses:

  • Oversimplification.
  • Determinism.
  • Individual differences are ignored.
  • Correlation is not causation.

Final Biological Approach Quiz

Question

What is a genotype?

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Genotype refers to the genetic makeup of an organism.

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What is phenotype?

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Phenotype refers to the result of genes interacting with the environment.

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What is the difference between genotype and phenotype?

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Genotype influences phenotype, but the phenotype is not the same as genotype. Phenotype is the result of genes interacting with the environment.

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What is an example of a genotype?

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An example of a genotype is DNA.

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What is an example of phenotype?

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An example of phenotype is a person’s height.

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What is an example of a genotype affecting behaviour?

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MAOA is an example of a genotype affecting behaviour. Specifically, MAOA influences aggression.

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What is an example of environmental factors influencing behaviour?

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An example of environmental factors influencing behaviour is how childhood can affect behaviour.

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True or false: Behaviour is the result of both genetics and the environment.

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True.

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Why are twin studies useful when studying genotype and phenotype?

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Monozygotic twins are genetically identical, so twin studies allow us to see the effects of the environment on their phenotype.

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What did Coccaro (1997) find out about the behaviour of monozygotic twins?

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Coccaro found that concordance rates of criminality were closer in those with greater genetic similarity.

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What does Coccaro’s study suggest about genes and behaviour?

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Coccaro’s study suggests that there is a link between genetics and behaviour.

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True or false: Caspi et al. prove a link between environment and behaviour.

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True.

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How does genotype affect mental health?

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Some families have a history of mental health issues that they may pass down through genetics.

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How does phenotype link to mental health?

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Phenotype is based partly on the environment someone lives in, so the environment may adversely affect mental health.

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Why is it important to distinguish between genotype and phenotype? 

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An example of applying this distinction in psychology would be the treatment of mental health issues.

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What is the biological approach?

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The biological approach assumes that there must be a physical basis for behaviour and cognition.

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In what way do genes influence behaviour?

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Genes are the base of our bodies and minds, then shaped by our environment.

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Is the biological approach compatible with free will, or is it deterministic?

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The biological approach is deterministic, as it ignores free will and emphasises the influence of genes on behaviour.

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How does the origin of species explain genes and behaviour?

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The origin of species explains the concepts of evolution and natural selection.

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What is the theory of natural selection?

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The theory of natural selection states that new characteristics are mutated in animals’ DNA, and those with more adaptive traits survive to pass these genes on to their offspring.

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What is Brunner syndrome?

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Brunner syndrome is when someone is born with a dysfunctional MAOA gene.

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What effect does the MAOA gene have on behaviour?

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The MAOA gene relates to aggressive behaviour. If it is dysfunctional it may lead to increased aggression.

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 What is the current state of the nature-nurture debate?

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Human behaviour is considered a complex mix of both nature and nurture.

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Which study in this article identifies both genetic and environmental effects on human behaviour?

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Caspi et al. (2002) found both genetic and environmental effects on the participants’ behaviour.

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What are twin studies?

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Twin studies compare the results in twins, as they have the closest possible genetic similarity.

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How do twin studies prove the existence of genetic effects on behaviour?

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Twin studies demonstrate a similarity between twins’ behaviour, which suggests genetic effects on behaviour. An example of this is Coccaro’s study (1997).

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What is the difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins?

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Monozygotic twins have 100% genetic similarity, whereas dizygotic are 50% identical.

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How does sociological analysis prove that behaviour genetics is reductive?

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The sociological analysis highlights the important influences of wealth, educational attainment and social standing on behaviour.

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Do we learn or inherit behaviour?

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We both learn and inherit behaviour.

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Can genes determine criminality?

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While criminality cannot determine criminality directly, Coccaro’s (1997) study proved that there might be a genetic influence on criminal behaviour.

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What did Gottesman and Shields (1966) aim to find out?

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If there is a genetic basis for schizophrenia.

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How did Gottesman and Shields compare the twins?

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The twins were compared by:

  • Hospital records.
  • Self-report questionnaires.
  • Interviews with the twins and their parents.
  • A tape recording of 30 minutes of speech to test for speech problems.
  • Test for disordered thinking.
  • A personality test.

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How many categories were the twins allocated to?

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Four.

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What was the concordance rate for severe schizophrenia?

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The concordance rates were 75% for monozygotic twins compared to 22% for dizygotic twins. 

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What do the results indicate about the genetic basis for schizophrenia?

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There is a genetic component to the development of schizophrenia. 

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Are genetics the only factor in developing schizophrenia?

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The environment may also play a role as the concordance rate for monozygotic twins was not 100%.

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What model did Gottesman and Shields think best explained their findings?

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The diathesis-stress model.

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How did the researchers determine if the twins were monozygotic or dizygotic?

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By assessing how similar they looked and conducting blood and fingerprint tests. 

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Why may the results not be generalisable?

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The study investigated only one study, and the original research took place not long after World War 2, at a time of exceptionally high stress and adversity. 

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How many pairs of twins were tested?

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57.

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According to the biopsychological approach, what determines behaviour and thinking?

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Biological structures and their functions determine behaviour and thinking.

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Which one is not an example of biological structures determining behaviour or thinking?

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Ego.

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True or false: In the biopsychological approach, consciousness determines behaviour.

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False. In the biopsychological approach, biological structures and their function determine behaviour and thinking.

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Which one is not a core assumption of the biopsychological approach?

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Brain function involves the entire brain at all times.

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What is the concept Darwin popularised stating that biological advantages get passed on over generations?

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Natural selection.

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What's the name of Darwin's theory?

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Darwin’s theory is called the theory of evolution.

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Which aspect of Darwin's theory has been confirmed by discovering cell DNA?

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As predicted by Darwin, the discovery of cell DNA predicted the existence of genes.

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What are genes?

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Genes are inherited physical traits.

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In science, what is a theory?

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In science, a theory is an overarching idea that has been repeatedly confirmed by proof.

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What is attention bias an example of?

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Attention bias is an example of an evolutionary adaptation of behaviour.

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