Individual Differences Psychology

Some of us are more outgoing; some of us are more shy. Some people are naturally optimistic, others are pessimistic. There are those of us who excel in academics, while others achieve in creative settings. Let’s dive into how these individual differences are understood in psychology.

Individual Differences Psychology Individual Differences Psychology

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Table of contents
    • How does psychology define individual differences?
    • What methods do we use in the measurement of individual differences in psychology?
    • What are individual differences in educational psychology?
    • What are individual differences vs universal principles in psychology?
    • Finally, let's look at the individual differences in psychology's strengths and weaknesses?

    Individual Differences: Psychology Definition

    We all recognize the differences we observe between ourselves and others. We might notice different nuances of personality in our friends or family members. We also notice different behaviors and ways of thinking in other ethnic groups or cultures. Some differences are a product of our gender. Have you ever wondered how the field of psychology defines individual differences?

    Individual differences are the unique characteristics and traits, which distinguish us from others.

    Individual differences are especially important to the field of differential psychology.

    Differential psychology assesses and studies the magnitude, nature, consequences, and causes of psychological differences between groups and individuals.

    From an evolutionary perspective, individual differences are important. Evolutionary psychologists are interested in the differences that have arisen in our psychology and behavior that have helped our species adapt and survive. These differences have given us a helpful advantage by aiding our longevity.

    Social psychologists see our differences as products of the different groups we belong to. We are socialized by our family, friends, culture, and social groups. This means that these groups influence the way we think and behave.

    Measurement of Individual Differences in Psychology

    Psychologists use a variety of methods to measure, assess, and study individual differences. Certain measurement methods might be more advantageous depending on the trait or behavior that is being studied. Three important ways of measuring individual differences are through observations, controlled lab experiments, and surveys or questionnaires.

    Observations

    Observations can be advantageous because they examine someone’s spontaneous behavior in a situation or environment.

    Observation involves the careful examination of a person, thing, or process in order to collect data or draw conclusions.

    A social psychologist might set up an observation in order to examine individual differences in the way children interact with strangers. They might have a stranger enter a room where 10 children are playing. The psychologist observes which children engage with the stranger, which ones are standoffish, and which children start to cry.

    Individual Differences, scientist working in a lab, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Scientist working in a lab

    Controlled Lab Experiments

    Experiments can take many forms in the science of psychology.

    In a controlled lab experiment, certain variables are intentionally held constant (or controlled) so that they don’t affect the variables that are being observed or measured, which are called dependent and independent variables. The independent variable is what researchers believe to be causing a behavior. The dependent variable is the effect of this behavior.

    As the name suggests, these types of experiments are done in a lab. This allows researchers to have maximum control of the variables they hope to measure and assess. These types of experiments are used by most psychological researchers.

    Researchers are testing a drug (independent variable) that is supposed to make people more alert and focused. The researchers observe which participants reported feeling the effects of the drug (dependent variable). Some of those who received the sugar pill (placebo) felt no change, but some of them reported feeling much more awake and focused. The controlled variables could be the age, sex, and nationality of the subject participants. They note the individual differences in their psychological reactions after receiving what they thought was the drug.

    Surveys and questionnaires

    Surveys and questionnaires are some of the most widely used forms of measurement. Perhaps you’ve even filled one out before. Maybe at school to give feedback about your courses, or even on the street or at the mall. It’s common for people to hand out surveys when it gets close to election time or the beginning of a new school term.

    Surveys are easy to administer. You simply have to mail or hand them out. However, they rely on the willingness of participants to fill them out or return them.

    Surveys or questionnaires are usually in the form of interviews or self-report short-answer or multiple-choice questions.

    Because surveys are usually conducted anonymously, subjects may be more likely to give honest responses and opinions.

    A clinical psychologist wants to measure the individual differences in depression in college students from affluent and impoverished backgrounds. The researcher creates a comprehensive survey with questions about the frequency of depression and economic background. The surveys are distributed to all first-year students at the local university.

    Individual Differences in Educational Psychology

    Educational psychology is one field that can benefit greatly by understanding individual differences.

    Education psychology is a subfield of psychology that applies psychological theories and principles to educational settings, learning, teaching, and training. It also studies the psychological effects of learning and the learning environment.

    Highlighting individual differences in educational psychology can apply to intelligence, learning style, and motivation.

    Intelligence

    Early researchers theorized that intelligence was a single, generalizable quality called the g-factor. They thought people were either intelligent or they were not. Thankfully, intelligence research has progressed, and we now have a more dynamic and comprehensive understanding of what intelligence is, which also accounts for the individual differences in intelligence that we observe.

    Psychologist Howard Gardner gave us the Theory of Multiple Intelligence in 1983. His theory proposed a set of eight basic intelligences, including logical-mathematical, linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, special, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and naturalistic. He proposed that individual differences in intelligence can be explained by the different types of intelligence that we relate to and excel in. You might notice that you are great with words and writing, but have no concept of distance, direction, or how to use space.

    Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be more or less intelligent? How do we explain the individual differences in intelligence? It turns out that there are a few factors, like genetics and environmental factors, that make us all different in terms of intelligence.

    Genetics

    Countless studies have shown that there is an undeniable heritability to intelligence.

    Heritability refers to the degree to which certain traits can be attributed to genes and passed down through families.

    Heritability can account for many of the individual differences we see in intelligence.

    Environmental Factors

    There is also evidence that environmental effects can be just as strong an influence - if not more! - on individual differences in intelligence.

    Your friend Elise is a lawyer. So are her mother and her grandfather. In fact, Elise comes from a long line of lawyers. Is it because they are all related and pass down their intellectual strength through their genes? Or are there other factors at play here?

    Environmental factors can include culture, setting (urban, suburban, rural, conflict area), economic and domestic status, education, prejudice, home environment, and parent’s education -- all of these influence individual differences in intelligence.

    Tucker-Drob & Bates (2016) found that environmental factors are a better predictor of intelligence scores than genetics or heritability.

    Individual Differences classroom with teacher and students StudySmarterFig. 2 - Classroom with teacher and students

    Learning Style

    Gardner’s theory played a part in the way our understanding of learning has evolved over time. Because we all have individual differences in intelligence, we understand things better or worse depending on how these things are presented to us.

    Someone with a high spatial to visual intelligence might exhibit poor comprehension of a passage of text. However, if that same person looked at a graphical representation of the story they just read, they would likely understand it completely.

    There has been a revolution in teaching style over the last few decades, to harness the strengths of each student’s particular learning style. Schools and teachers are encouraging a curriculum that encompasses a variety of approaches, so that all learners will be included, stimulated, and enriched.

    Motivation

    Motivation plays an important role in education. If you are not motivated to learn, chances are you won't. What drives you to succeed or even to pursue specific things over others?

    Motivation is a desire or needs that helps direct our choices and behavior.

    There are several different types of motivation, and we are all different in what specifically drives and motivates us. You might study hard in order to fit in with an intellectual friend group. Or perhaps to make your parents proud. Personal motivation comes from individual internal desires. You might notice that the things that motivate your friends are not the same as those that inspire you.

    Individual Differences vs Universal Principles in Psychology

    Individual differences vs universal principles in psychology is an ongoing issue similar to the nature vs nurture debate. Do psychologists focus on what makes us different or what makes us the same?

    Universal principles are behaviors and traits that are true for all humans or all members of a culture or society.

    Neuroscientists may focus on what makes us the same, such as specific hormones that prime us for sexual behavior. On the other hand, humanistic psychologists may take a special interest in individual differences, believing that all behavior is a reflection of a person's unique qualities.

    Individual Differences in Psychology: Strengths and Weaknesses

    So what are the strengths and weaknesses of considering individual differences in psychology rather than universal principles? Let's take a look:

    Strengths

    Weaknesses

    • Looking at individual differences requires psychologists to consider the whole person when treating mental illnesses, rather than the general characteristics of the disorder. (This is often called a holistic approach)

    • Understanding individual differences in psychology give us a clearer picture of concepts like intelligence, personality, gender, and memory.

    • Can help educators learn how to support students who may have fallen through the cracks and need special attention to achieve education goals.

    • Understanding individual differences can help us pinpoint certain developmental issues or psychological disorders.

    • Focusing too much on differences can create divisions between groups.

    • Overemphasis on differences when discussing mental health can make some people feel ostracized or left out.

    • Can help educators learn how to support students who may have fallen through the cracks and need special attention to achieve education goals.

    • Risks too much focus on internal factors, giving less credit to external factors.

    Individual Differences Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Individual differences are comprised of our unique characteristics and traits, which distinguish us from others.
    • Three important ways of measuring individual differences are through observations, controlled lab experiments, and surveys or questionnaires.
    • Highlighting individual differences in educational psychology can apply to intelligence, learning style, and motivation.
    • Universal principles are behaviors and traits that are true for all humans or all members of a culture or society.
    • Individual differences help us pinpoint developmental issues and give us a clearer picture of concepts like intelligence, personality, gender, and memory. On the other hand, overemphasis on differences when discussing mental health can make some people feel ostracized or left out.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
    2. Fig. 2 - Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
    Frequently Asked Questions about Individual Differences Psychology

    How do psychological principles affect the study of individual differences?

    Psychological principles affect the study of individual differences because, in differential psychology, psychological principles are used to assess and study the magnitude, nature, consequences, and causes of psychological differences between groups and individuals.

    What is individual differences in psychology

    Individual differences in psychology are comprised of our unique characteristics and traits, which distinguish us from others.

    What are the three types of individual differences?

    Three types of individual differences that are widely researched are personality, intelligence, and creativity. 

    How does social psychology explain individual difference?

    Social psychology explains individual differences by the socialization we receive from family, culture, and social groups. These interactions help shape our individual differences. 

    What is the importance of individual differences?

    Individual differences are important because they help us pinpoint developmental issues and give us a clearer picture of concepts like intelligence, personality, gender, and memory.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    _______________ is the process of appropriately labeling the source of our arousal.

    In Schachter & Singer (1962) researchers injected the participants with epinephrine which triggers ___________. 

    When we label our emotions, we _______________ interpret our emotions based on the situation, others' reactions, and our past experiences.

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