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Philosophical Debates in Psychology

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Philosophical Debates in Psychology

Throughout history, psychology has evolved into the branch of science it is today, touching on topics from various fields. However, the actual beginnings of psychology we can trace back to philosophy. Many philosophers and psychologists have tried to explain the roots of our behaviour. They have changed the psychological landscape and given it a new direction, developing theories still considered relevant today.

There are several philosophical debates in psychology. These include things like the nature-nurture debate and free will vs determinism. Exploring and understanding these debates can improve our understanding of psychology and the human condition in the future, with several real-world benefits. Let us briefly review the primary arguments in psychology, along with some examples, evaluations, and approaches in psychology that support them.

Free will and determinism

Psychological approaches exist on a spectrum on most issues, and the free will vs determinism debate is no exception. Some theories believe in ‘hard determinism’ (fatalism), which disregards the idea of free will and attempts to explain concepts such as behaviour purely due to factors outside our control. Some sit on the opposite side of the spectrum, arguing that our actions are our choices.

The debate of free will and determinism attempts to understand and explain whether our behaviour as moral agents results from our own decisions and deliberate actions or our environment, genetics, or cognition alone.

An example of a free-will argument is that no matter the situation, we choose our final actions ourselves, such as using violence towards those who anger or threaten us, regardless of external factors.

An example of a deterministic argument is that some people may be predisposed to commit violence due to their environment (like upbringing) or genetics. Thus, their actions were not truly their choice.

Some nuances exist between these two extremes.

Philosophical Debates in Psychology Free will StudySmarter

Free will, Pixabay

Examples of free will and determinism

An example of a free-will approach would be the humanistic approach. This approach states that while external factors can influence us, ultimately, we have the final say on whether or not we take action. It is a free-will approach because it recognises our choice to act.

An example of a deterministic approach would be Freud’s psychodynamic approach. This approach uses our early life, past experiences, and genetic forces to explain our actions. The idea of the ‘Freudian slip’ in which someone accidentally says a word that belies hidden beliefs is an example of psychodynamic determinism. It suggests that a person’s inner self led them to say something they did not mean to.

Evaluating free will and determinism

  • A strength of free-will argument is that they acknowledge our choice to act as individuals. This aspect is good because it encourages us to explore why people behave differently in similar circumstances.
  • A strength of determinism is that it encourages the exploration of internal processes that we may study to help people. Soft determinism recognises that in daily life, there is a balance between the different choices people make and the underlying factors that can also influence behaviour, such as genetics, upbringing, and so on.
  • A weakness of free-will arguments is that they ignore ideas like mental illness that can completely change how someone feels and acts. The fact that people do not choose to have mental illnesses but change their behaviour does not support the idea of free will.
  • A weakness of deterministic arguments is that they downplay the importance of a person’s choice, which diminishes their apparent responsibility for what they do. If people were not responsible in some way for their actions, the criminal justice system would be fundamentally flawed and would not work.

The hard determinist approach and the free will approach are reductive. It is generally recognised that human behaviour is a mixture of processes that influence decision-making and actions and one’s choice to act.

Reductionism and holism

In psychology, what are reductionism and holism?

Reductionism and holism is the debate between the idea that we should break down concepts like people’s behaviour into smaller segments and the theory that we should analyse the big picture at all times because everything is connected.

Examples of reductionism and holism

An example of a reductionist approach is behaviourism. Behaviourism is reductionist because it analyses tiny parts of human behaviour and generalises its findings to human behaviour in general. For example, it attempts to explain all behaviour with conditioning.

An example of a holistic approach would be social psychology. Social psychology is holistic in that it explains human behaviour in terms of both the individual and the group, recognising that group behaviour in humans is often very different from individual behaviour.

Evaluating reductionism and holism

  • A strength of reductionism is that it allows researchers to focus on small segments of human behaviour for intensive scientific study and analysis. If we study enough of these individual segments, we may be able to better understand human behaviour as a whole, like a puzzle.
  • A strength of holism is that it looks at human processes and behaviours as a whole, rather than isolating them into a series of smaller ideas. It humanises behaviours rather than analysing them from a purely scientific point of view.
  • A weakness of reductionism is that it does not allow us to see the big picture. Instead of answering big questions and solving big problems, it deals with many small queries and issues. It can sometimes reduce complex ideas to smaller ideas and ignore certain aspects altogether.
  • A weakness of holism is that it can be difficult to scientifically study every scenario, variable, and condition that affects human behaviour. Not only would this be very expensive, but it would also take much longer than a reductionist investigation.

Nature-nurture debate

What is the nature versus nurture debate in psychology?

Philosophical Debates in Psychology Nature vs nurture StudySmarterNature vs nurture, Flaticon

The nature versus nurture debate attempts to explain human behaviour in one of two ways. In psychology, the ‘nature’ side of the debate holds that human behaviour is primarily the result of genetics. In contrast, the ‘nurture’ side argues that human behaviour is essentially the result of environmental factors such as nurture.

Examples of the nature-nurture debate

An example of a theory on the nature side would be Chomsky’s (1965) nativist theory of language, which proposes that language development is due to a ‘language acquisition mechanism’ in the brain that acts as an encoder for language. This theory is nativist, which is a label for most ‘nature’ theories, in that it assumes that something as complicated as language is the result of internal processes. It is innately present, a hard-wired mechanism.

An example of such an approach would be behaviourism. Behaviourism is an approach that uses the environment and situational factors to explain human behaviour. A basic assumption of behaviourism is that we are born as a ‘tabula rasa’ (a blank slate). This approach sides with education because it uses the environment and life experiences to explain all behaviour.

Evaluating the nature-nurture debate

  • A strength of the natureside of this debate is that it provides a fundamental explanation for much of human behaviour in the real world. For example, the discovery of Brunner syndrome, in which someone has a defective MAOAgene, explained the increased aggression in Brunner et al. (1993).
  • A strength of the nurture side is that it explains how complex environmental and situational factors can shape and influence our behaviour. For example, behaviourism describes how things like childhood can affect how behaviour changes in the future.
  • A weakness of the nature side of things is that it tries to explain all human behaviour using genetics, which is not the case.
  • A weakness of the nurture side is that it sometimes ignores that genetics plays a role in our behaviour, such as in people with Brunner syndrome.
  • Neither side of this debate is entirely correct, as both take a reductionist view of human behaviour, which in reality, is a complex combination of nature and nurture.

Philosophical Debates in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • The free will and determinism debate seeks to understand and explain whether our behaviour as moral agents results from our own choices and conscious actions or solely our environment, genetics, or cognition.
  • An example of the free-will approach would be the humanistic approach. An example of a deterministic approach would be Freud’s psychodynamic approach.
  • Reductionism and holism is the debate between the idea that we should break down concepts such as people’s behaviour into smaller segments and the idea that we should always analyse the whole picture because everything is connected.
  • An example of a reductionist approach is behaviourism. An example of a holistic approach would be social psychology.
  • The nature versus nurture debate attempts to explain human behaviour in one of two ways. In psychology, the ‘nature’ side of the debate argues that human behaviour is primarily the result of factors such as genetics. In contrast, the ‘nurture’ side argues that human behaviour is essentially the result of environmental factors such as nurture.

Frequently Asked Questions about Philosophical Debates in Psychology

Examples of philosophical debates are free will and determinism, nature vs nurture, and reductionism vs holism.

The main debates in psychology are the nature vs nurture debate, free will vs determinism, and reductionism vs holism.

A philosophical debate is a two-way attempt to make a case for which ideas are the most logical and accurate.

Issues and debates in psychology is a subtopic of psychology that explores ongoing discussions about the nature of psychology.

Final Philosophical Debates in Psychology Quiz

Question

What is the nature-nurture debate in psychology?

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The nature-nurture debate in psychology concerns whether our characteristics, behavior and personality are due to our genetics (nature) or our environment (nurture). It is concerned with which of these two 'factors' influences our behavior more. This may help us understand why humans behave in certain ways.

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Which nativist theory suggests that children are born with the ability to understand different language categories?


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Chomsky's Universal Grammar Theory (1965). It proposes that all humans are innately capable of learning a language. The human mind is 'prewired' for language learning.

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How does empiricism contrast with nativism?


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Empiricism claims that our minds are a 'tabula rasa' (blank slate) at birth and that they are gradually filled with knowledge and experiences. These shape our behavior. On the other hand, nativism claims that our biology is 'written' and that we are born with behavioral tendencies and abilities.

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Which side of the nature-nurture debate did the findings of Bandura's Bobo doll study support?


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Bandura's Bobo doll study supported the nurture side of the debate, as it showed that behavior, in particular aggression, was learned by observation and imitation.

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Which type of study would be appropriate to see whether memory is influenced by genetics or the environment?


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An adoption study or twin study would be appropriate to determine whether memory is influenced by genetics or the environment, as comparisons could be made through different memory abilities.

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During a twin study involving identical twins in the same environment, if one twin is found to be more aggressive than the other, what does this suggest with regard to the nature-nurture debate?


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If one identical twin is more aggressive than the other despite being in the same environment, it is likely that the difference is due to environmental factors (nurture). As identical twins have the same genes, any differences are likely to be non-genetic.

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What is the name of the approach that suggests nature and nurture work together?


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The name of the approach that suggests nature and nurture work together is the interactionist approach.

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Name an interactionist model. Explain which condition it was used to study? 


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The diathesis-stress model. It was used to study schizophrenia.

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What are the three primary philosophical debates in psychology?

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The three main philosophical debates in psychology are the nature vs nurture debate, free will vs determinism, and reductionism vs holism.

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What does the nature vs nurture debate explore?

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The nature vs nurture debate attempts to explain human behaviour as a product of naturally occurring genes or as a product of environmental factors and life experience.

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True or false: Brunner's MAOA study supports nurture.

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False.

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Is behaviourism nature or nurture?

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Nurture.

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Which of these is a strength of nature?

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Nature provides a foundation to our behaviour with genetics.

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Which of these is a weakness of nature?

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Nature does not consider the complex social structures of society or the complicated situations that shape human development.

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What does the free will and determinism debate explore?

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The free will and determinism debate explores whether our actions are our choices or result from conditions, environment, and internal genetic and cognitive processes.

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Which of these are free-will ideas?

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The humanistic approach.

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Summarise the argument of free will in the debate of free will and determinism.

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The argument of free will argues that humans have complete autonomy to make their own decisions. Proponents of free will argue that although external factors affect our behaviour, ultimately, humans decide how to respond to them. 

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Select the correct statement from the perspective of a supporter of free will.

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It is impossible to predict someone's behaviour with accuracy.

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Which approach in psychology supports the concept of free will?

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The humanistic approach.

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Summarise the argument for determinism.

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The argument for determinism argues that human beings do not have free will because our behaviour results from both internal and external forces. Cause and effect dictate behaviour, namely that our actions are the direct results of our past experiences, our environment and genetic makeup. Free will is an illusion.  

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Where does hard determinism stand on a scale with ‘compatible with free will’ and ‘incompatible with free will’?

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‘Incompatible with free will’.

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How is soft determinism compatible with free will?

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Soft determinism states our behaviour is, to an extent, the result of factors beyond our control. However, we still retain some elements of free will. As external factors constrain us, behaviours are predictable but not inevitable, as individuals also have a degree of free will.

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What are three different types of determinism?

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Biological, psychic, and environmental determinism.

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What is biological determinism?

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Biological determinism views our biology as responsible for our behaviour. Biology includes our DNA, brain processes, and hormones. According to this view, our internal biological processes control us and govern our behaviour. Our actions are not a result of free will because our nervous system and hormones trigger them. We are no more than biological machines.

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What is psychic determinism?

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Psychic determinism views our behaviour as a result of unconscious feelings, such as fears, desires, and conflicts. According to this view, we are not actively aware of motivations influencing us. These may have arisen during childhood or traumatic experiences.

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What is environmental determinism?

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Environmental determinism views our behaviour as shaped by external influences, such as conditioning and association taught to us by parents, school and society. Under this view, we act based on what we are taught is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or based on the associations we hold between an action and a consequence.

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Which type of determinism does Bandura's Bobo doll study (1961) support?

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Environmental determinism.

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What kind of method do psychologists prefer when determining which factor(s) influence behaviour?

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Psychologists prefer to establish causal explanations using the scientific method when determining which factor(s) influence behaviour.

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How does using the scientific method support determinism?

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Using the scientific method supports the argument of cause and effect by determinists as it explains behaviour and shows we may be motivated by our biology, past experiences or environment.

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Explain how the argument of free will supports accountability.

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The argument of free will holds individuals responsible for their actions and consequences, which makes accountability and punishment straightforward.

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Explain the issue with accountability and the argument of determinism.

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The argument of determinism diminishes individual responsibility. A person who committed a crime could argue they had no other choice, making accountability and punishment more complex. 

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What is reductionism?

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Reductionism is a theory based on scientific assumptions of parsimony. It simplifies complex psychological processes into small parts and simplifying it.

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What could be considered an issue in reductionism?

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Issues around reductionist approaches are over-simplifying complex behaviour and perhaps ignoring relevant pieces of information. 

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What does the word holism mean?

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Holism comes from the Greek word holos, meaning whole.

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What is holism?

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Holism is the idea that humans should be seen as a whole rather than separated parts. It focuses on the interaction of all aspects of the entire structure co-existing together rather than looking at small parts.  

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What are the approaches in psychology considered reductionists?

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The approaches in psychology considered reductionists are biological approach, behaviourism, cognitive, social explanations, and psychodynamics.

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According to Rose 1976, what is the lowest level explanation for reductionism?

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The lowest level explanation for reductionism is the physiological or biological explanation.

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How would biology psychologists explain schizophrenia?

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Biology psychologists tend to reduce its explanation to a single component, dopamine. 

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How do behaviourists explain behaviour?

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Behaviourism explains behaviour by reducing the mind to behavioural components linking stimulus-response. They tend to explain human behaviour such as stimulus, response, reinforcement and punishment.

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How is cognitive psychology related to reductionism?

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Cognitive psychologists attempt to explain human behaviour by breaking it into isolated variables. Cognitive psychologists apply machine reductionism by presenting people as information processing systems, disregarding emotional influences to behaviour. 


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How is psychodynamics related to reductionism?

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The psychodynamic approach relies on basic structures such as id, ego, superego, and the unconscious mind to simplify super complex behaviours. For this reason, it is also considered reductionist. 

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Outline a psychological approach linked to holism.

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Humanistic psychology is considered to have a holistic approach.

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How is humanistic psychology a holistic approach?

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It is a holistic approach because humanism considers all the facets of human beings, including their social interactions. Humanistic psychologists believe that holism is an excellent perspective to understand the mind and behaviour.


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What was the most relevant basis for humanistic psychology and its holistic approach?

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Humanistic approach surge with Carl Rogers and his concept of self, or our sense of personal identity.

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Is self-actualisation a holistic idea?

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The concept brings awareness about who an individual is and who the individual can be, which brings us to the notion of self-actualisation. It is a holistic point of view. In humanist terms, the foundation of knowledge is the human psyche.


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Is holism considered a scientific concept?

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No, it does not rely on scientific methods and empirical experimentation.

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What are the methods supporting a nomothetic approach?

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The methods supporting research with a nomothetic approach include experiments, correlations, and meta-analysis.

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How does a nomothetic approach deal with behaviour?

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The nomothetic approach establishes general laws concerning behaviour.

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What is the aim of a nomothetic approach?

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The nomothetic approach aims to establish experimental methods by studying large groups of people.

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Can the general law applied to a nomothetic approach be classified into different groups?

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Yes. The laws can be classified into different groups. We establish different principles or dimensions by categorising people into different groups and comparing and classifying their moods.

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