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Scientific Foundations of Psychology

Have you ever wanted to find out why you told that lie in the 5th grade? Or why you and your mom have never gotten along with each other? Or how to change the bad habit you've struggled with for as long as you can remember? These questions are all related to the subject of psychology.

  • What are the foundations of psychology as a scientific discipline?
  • What is the history of psychology as a scientific discipline?
  • What are the modern scientific foundations of psychology?
  • What are the characteristics of psychology as a science?

Overview of the Scientific Foundations of Psychology

Psychology is a complex and broad scientific field. It has a very long history, and the field is constantly expanding with new theories and findings.

Psychology is the scientific study of human mental processes and behaviors.

How do you develop an understanding of something new? The scientific method provides a framework for psychologists to develop theories. Based on hypotheses and theories, they conduct research studies. Psychologists reach conclusions by thinking about a specific problem or question, making a hypothesis or prediction about it, studying it, collecting data on it, analyzing their findings, and interpreting what the findings mean in real life.

The scientific method is the process of testing ideas and theories through observable phenomena and experiments.

Scientific data is collected in lots of different ways. One way is through the experimental method. This can either be done in a laboratory, where each part of the experiment is strictly controlled, or out in the real world in real settings.

The experimental method is the process of using groups of participants, controlled variables, and precise measurements to test hypotheses. Experiments typically involve two different groups of people: an experimental group and a control group.

People or animals in the experimental group are the ones actually participating in the study. Maybe the researcher wants to know if a specific treatment for depression works well. The participants in the experimental group receive the treatment to determine if it is helpful for them. A control group is a group of participants who don't receive the treatment. They may receive a fake treatment (a placebo) thinking that it's the real thing.

Experimental studies are the ONLY way to determine if something causes something else. This is called causation. Does eating a banana every day cause higher potassium levels in the body? Does reading more books make you smarter? Does playing violent video games make you more aggressive? These are causation questions. Experimental studies can answer WHY questions.

AP study tip: the only kind of study that can determine causation is an experimental one.

If you don't need to know about causation and just want to know how two things are related or connected to each other, you can use the correlational method. These studies answer WHAT questions. What happens when it's much hotter than usual all summer in a small town? What vacation spots do people like best? What kind of people like to vacation at each of the top spots?

The correlational method is about studying the relationship between two variables. Neither variable is controlled or changed in any way. Sending out a survey is one popular method of correlational study. Observing people in a natural setting, such as their home or school, is another way to conduct a correlational study. The most important thing to remember is that just because two things are correlated or connected to each other does not mean they caused each other.

Say it with me: "Correlation does not equal causation. Correlation does not equal causation. Correlation does not equal causation."

Regardless of the research method, maintaining ethics is crucial. In human research, the following guidelines are very important to follow:

  • People participate in the study willingly.

  • Participants know what the study is going to be like and how they will be involved.

  • Names, pictures, or anything else that can connect back to the participant won’t be shared. Their participation in the study is entirely anonymous.

  • There is no major mental or physical risk to the participants during or after the study. If there is some risk, the potential benefits of the study outweigh the risks.

The History of the Foundations of Psychology as a Scientific Discipline

We didn’t always know much about the human brain and human behavior. We had to study and explore and theorize. The scientific basis of psychology began centuries ago, and it has come a long way since then.

The Beginnings of Psychology

The study of psychology began back in Ancient Greece, with both Socrates and Plato theorizing that knowledge was innate and hereditary. However, Aristotle believed that knowledge came from experience. Thus began the nature versus nurture debate.

In the 1600s, René Descartes proposed and supported the idea that the mind and body are separate. This is called mind-body dualism, the idea that mental processes and thoughts are not physical, so the mind and body are two completely separate things. You can't see emotions or thoughts, but they are real.

Around the same time as Descartes, John Locke believed that every human being starts out life with a blank slate that is shaped by individual experiences and learning over time. Locke also embraced the idea of empiricism, which is the idea that all knowledge comes from human experiences, especially observable ones.

Early psychology was based on a combination of biology and philosophy. Empiricism is a good example of these two concepts molded together.

Phenomenology is an approach to psychology that is almost entirely philosophical. It focuses on learning about human behaviors and thoughts through inward reflection. Phenomenology is not as strictly scientific as other approaches in psychology, but it gave us a better understanding of human consciousness.

Phenomenology is the study of natural, unanalyzed perception or consciousness.

The Beginning of the Modern Science of Psychology

All of this leads up to Wilhelm Wundt, who is often called "the father of psychology". He created the first formal psychology laboratory in 1876, where he conducted experiments on memory, perception, emotions, and more. Many use the year that Wundt opened the doors to his lab as the beginning of psychology as a scientific discipline.

Scientific Foundations of Psychology, a photograph of Wundt's first psychology research team, StudySmarterWundt's Research Team, Wikimedia Commons

After Wundt set up his experimental psychology laboratory, the trend caught on, inspiring many more researchers to join the field of psychology. From there, many new theories and schools of thought took shape. William James became one of the earliest psychologists, overseeing Harvard's first doctorate in psychology. He authored The Principles of Psychology, which has been read all over the world and inspired many influential people in the field, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Two Foundational Scientific Schools of Thought

Wilhelm Wundt's approach to psychology was called structuralism. His goal was to study the mind by breaking it down into its basic elements. Instead of collecting numerical data, Wundt recorded thoughts and sensations that people reported. His participants looked inward at their mental processes to gain insight into how they work. This is called introspection, and it's the self-observation of one's consciousness.

Functionalism was developed in opposition to structuralism. James Angel and Harvey Carr were two founders of this school of thought. Instead of breaking the mind down into its basic elements, they viewed behavior and thoughts as connected to a person's environment. Whereas structuralists focused on studying the mind through introspection, functionalists focused on studying behavior as a way of adapting to the environment.

Think of functionalism as the field that studies the functions of behavior. Think of structuralism as the field that studies the structure of the mind.

Modern Foundations of Psychology as a Scientific Discipline

Over the years, many researchers have come up with different ways of studying and thinking about psychology. Sigmund Freud developed the idea of the unconscious mind and wanted to tap into it through special techniques to help treat mental illnesses. He also gave us the first full theory of personality in psychology.

Gestalt psychology is another foundational approach, which focuses on studying human beings as a whole rather than in parts. The main idea in Gestalt psychology is that brains recognize patterns, not just individual items by themselves. Gestalt psychologists explore how and why we recognize patterns and how what we perceive is influenced by our motivations and expectations.

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." - Aristotle

John Watson disagreed with Freud about behaviors being caused by our unconscious mind. He wanted to focus on what we can see: observable actions and the environment. This field of study is called behaviorism, which explores how and why the environment causes us to act in certain ways. B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists of the 1900s, agreed with Watson that psychology is the science of behavior.

All of this focus on behavior didn't sit well with other researchers. They believed that the inner workings of our minds, such as our thoughts or cognitions, are the causes of what we do. These beliefs brought about the field of cognitive psychology. Cognition includes intelligence, memory, decision-making, problem-solving, analytical thinking, and abstract thinking.

Other researchers found both behavioral and cognitive psychology limiting. You can study behaviors and thoughts in a scientific way, but people are more than just what you can fit into a scientific study. What is the basic nature of humanity? How should we treat each other? How do we improve our lives? Questions like these makeup humanistic psychology.

Humanism is a philosophy based on the nature of humanity and what makes humans unique.

Based on the belief that human beings are inherently good, inherently valuable, and inherently positioned toward growth, humanistic psychology focuses on self-actualization, health, creativity, relationships, and other aspects of becoming yourself. It also focuses on how humans should treat each other and what kind of relationships promote human growth: warm, affectionate, empathetic relationships.

Other Foundational Approaches in Psychology

That's a lot of different kinds of psychology, right? There's actually still so much more. Biopsychology focuses on biological aspects of being human, such as chromosomes, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Evolutionary psychology looks at how the evolution of the human species impacts humanity today.

If you want to combine psychology and sociology, you can use the sociocultural approach. Human behavior changes depending on cultural and social factors. Sociocultural psychologists study how culture and social environment impacts our behavior and development. Does more than one of these types of psychology sound interesting to you? You are not alone, as many psychologists take an eclectic approach to psychology.

Eclectic means taking pieces of different approaches and putting them together.

Evolutionary psychology, the development of the nervous system, and how the brain perceives sensory information are all areas that biopsychologists may explore. Conditions and disorders with a physical impact on the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease or Autism, are also included in this field.

Do all of the areas sound interesting? Do you want to combine a little bit of everything? Then check out eclectic psychology. This area combines a wide variety of theories found in the field. Combining psychology and sociology is the sociocultural approach, which keeps an eye on how a person's behavior is impacted by its cultural context. This area examines how culture and social environment impact how someone behaves and develops.

Characteristics of Psychology as a Science

The main approach used today to understand human behaviors and mental processes is a specific type of eclectic approach. It is called the biopsychosocial approach. It combines biology, psychology, and sociology into one perspective. Why put all three of these approaches together into one?

Consider this question: why do people smoke cigarettes? There are a lot of different ways we could answer this. A biopsychologist would note that the person is genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to nicotine. A behaviorist would talk about how the person's environment shaped the decision to begin smoking.

A cognitive psychologist would focus on the person's mental decision-making process each day as they engage in smoking. A sociocultural psychologist would talk about the role of peer influences, parental role models, and cultural influences on smoking.

The biopsychosocial approach to psychology says that ALL of the answers above are correct. Each one identifies an important part of why someone might smoke cigarettes. Considering the question from all of these different perspectives gives us a more thorough, holistic picture of the issue. Human beings are a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.

The Five Domains of Psychology as a Science

There are a lot of ways to study the way people think and behave. With all of these different approaches, there are five specific concerns or areas of practical application that psychologists usually focus on. The five major areas or domains of psychology are:

  • Biological
  • Cognitive
  • Developmental
  • Social and Personality
  • Mental Health.
DomainPsychological Topics & Professions
BiologicalBiopsychology, neuroscience, the five senses, and the brain; sports psychologists, psychiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and neuropsychologists
CognitivePerception, thinking, intelligence, and memory; psychometricians, psychology professors, assessment development, and engineering psychologists
DevelopmentalLearning, change, growth, decay, and earliest experiences; applied behavior analysis therapists, child therapists, geropsychology, school counselors, and educational psychologists
Social and PersonalityRelationships, family, motivations, emotions, and character traits; industrial-organizational psychologists, forensic psychologists, and marriage and family therapists
Mental HealthEvaluating, diagnosing, preventing, and treating mental disorders; psychologists, professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers, and group therapists

Scientific Foundations of Psychology - Key takeaways

  1. Psychology is the scientific study of human mental processes and behaviors.

  2. Experimental studies are the ONLY way to determine if something causes something else. This is called causation.

  3. Wilhelm Wundt, "the father of psychology", created the first formal psychology laboratory in 1876.

  4. The main approach used today to understand human behaviors and mental processes is the biopsychosocial approach.

  5. The five major areas or domains of psychology are:

    • Biological
    • Cognitive
    • Developmental
    • Social and Personality
    • Mental Health.

Frequently Asked Questions about Scientific Foundations of Psychology

The scientific foundations of psychology are empiricism and the scientific method.

The 4 major areas of psychology are clinical, cognitive, biological, and behavioral psychology.

What makes psychology a scientific study is the use of the scientific method to study human behavior and mental processes.

Yes, psychology is a scientific concept because it can be studied using the scientific method.

We find the foundations of psychology as a science in the cultures of ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, China, and India.

Final Scientific Foundations of Psychology Quiz

Question

A psychologist who works with families to help build coping skills is likely a:

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Answer

Counseling Psychologist

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Question

Check the helping professionals.

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Answer

5th-grade teacher

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Question

A psychologist that provides therapy to patients with severe mental health disorders is probably a:


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Clinical Psychologist 

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Question

A Helping professional is someone who offers ______ and _____ services to individuals and the community.


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Answer

Health, education

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Question

A psychologist who works to help groups of people through prevention and intervention methods is likely a:

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Community Psychologist

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Question

What are the five schools of thought in psychology?

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Structuralism, functionalism, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and Gestalt.

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What was the first school of thought in psychology?

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Structuralism

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What are the two types of conditioning in behavioral psychology?

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Classical and operant conditioning.

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Pavlov's dog is an example of which type of conditioning?

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Classical

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Who founded the psychoanalysis school of thought?

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Sigmund Freud

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A mousetrap is an example that helps us understand which school of thought?

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Functionalism

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What is a school of thought?

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A group of people who share similar viewpoints and opinions about a particular subject.

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Structuralism sought to understand the structure of the mind by using this as its tool.

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Introspection

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Why is introspection an unreliable tool in the understanding of the mind?

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It is too subjective. Stimulus is rarely perceived the same way from one person to the next. 

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This school of thought focused on repressed thoughts and emotions.

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Psychoanalysis

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What are the three parts of the mind in Psychoanalysis?

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Id, ego, and superego.

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What is the meaning of the German word "gestalt"?

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Configuration

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Holism is a core belief of which school of thought?

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Gestalt Psychology

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Which type of conditioning reinforces behavior through reward and punishment?

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Operant conditioning

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Are the schools of thought more or less important to the practice of psychology today?

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Less

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Reinforcement that removes an unwanted stimulus or consequence is called

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Negative Reinforcement

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 Who coined the term "operational conditioning"?

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B.F. Skinner

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True or False? The Law of Effect is a principle originated by Edward Thorndike.

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True

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Type of conditioning in which the subject begins to form an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

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Classical Conditioning

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Type of conditioning in which reward and punishment are used to create associations between a behavior and a consequence.

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Operant Conditioning

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True or False? John B. Watson believed that we are already born with innate behaviors. 

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False

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Frank apologizes to his wife and no longer has to sleep on the couch. This is an example of what type of reinforcement?

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Negative Reinforcement

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 What was the conditioned response in Pavlov's Dog experiment?

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The dog's salivation at the sound of the bell.

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This principle states that behavior that is followed by a satisfying or pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated in the same situation and behavior that is followed by a dissatisfying or unpleasant consequence is less likely to occur in the same situation.

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Law of Effect

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Jack receives $15 from his parents for cleaning his room. This is an example of what type of reinforcement?

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Positive Reinforcement

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What experiment used a specially designed box to study operant conditioning and reinforcement in rat and pigeon behavior?

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Skinner box

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True or False? Behaviorism theory states that psychology should include the study of thoughts and emotions.  

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False

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What are the two main types of behaviorism theory? 


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Methodological Behaviorism and Radical Behaviorism. 

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Why was the "Little Albert" Experiment considered so controversial? 


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Watson did not decondition the subject. 

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The results of the "Little Albert" Experiment supported what type of conditioning? 



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Classical Conditioning

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Freud believed this psychoanalysis technique provided the most direct path to the unconscious mind.

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Dream analysis

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Psychoanalysis is both a theory and a therapy. True or False?


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True

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This term is used to describe a moment where a person says or does something they didn’t intend, reflecting some inner conflict of the unconscious mind.


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Freudian slip

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Psychoanalysis is traditionally a short process involving only one session a week.


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 False.

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The idea that boys, due to their fear of losing the love of their mother, feel threatened by, and resentful of their fathers is called:

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Oedipus complex

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What are the five stages of Freud's Psychosexual Theory?

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Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent, Genital

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Psychoanalysis is often criticized for being too scientific and focusing too little on case studies. True or False?

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False

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Carl Jung believed that behavior was not only dictated by past experiences or early childhood but also by a person’s:

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Future aspirations

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The 'Wolf Man' case study was an example of which psychoanalytic technique?

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Dream analysis

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What three parts make up Freud's structure of personality?

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Id, Ego, Superego

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This part of Freud's structure of personality holds our ideals and values and acts as a censor for both the Id and ego functions of our personality.

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Superego

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What are multiple perspectives in psychology?

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The concept of multiple perspectives is that there is not one singular psychological perspective that is right and one that is wrong, but rather multiple perspectives that can overlap.  

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What are the seven perspectives in psychology?

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  1. Humanist
  2. Psychoanalytic
  3. Biopsychology
  4. Evolutionary
  5. Behavioral
  6. Cognitive
  7. Socio-cultural

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 The _____ ________ might explain introversion as cultural. Even different cities within the same region might have different values involving social interactions.  


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Socio-cultural Perspective

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The _____ ______ seeks to explain human thought and behavior by looking at biological processes. 


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biopsychology perspective 

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