How Do Contemporary Psychologists Approach the Study of Behavior and Mental Processes?
What are the Contemporary Approaches to Psychology?
Contemporary approaches to Psychology are the lenses in which behavior and mental processes are interpreted and studied. They are born out of the discovery of other factors, aspects and characteristics affecting and inherent to the individual's psyche. Each approach provides its own set of principles for exploring the subject matter of the field, and recommends the most appropriate method of investigation. Not only are they important in fostering academic debates and research controversies to further enrich the field, they also reflect the complexity of the human psyche. There are currently six (6) approaches to the study of behavior and mental processes.
For the behaviorists, human behavior is directly a product of the environment. They believe that human behavior can be modified by altering environmental conditions. B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), co-founder of this approach, believes that rewards and punishments coming from the environment produce behavior, which subsequently forms the foundation of the self and personality. For example, a genius may not be inherently different from normal people, but only so because he developed excellent memory and reasoning skills through rewards from his parents, perhaps in the form of praises, hugs and kisses.
Because of the approach's emphasis on environment, behaviorists employ laboratory experiments to allow for absolute control and modification of the research setting. They deliberately manipulate environmental conditions in the laboratory to investigate the factors that cause certain behaviors to manifest.
Behaviorists not only emphasize the role of the environment in producing behavior; they also reject the existence of mental processes simply because they are unobservable. Today, however, more and more behaviorists acknowledge the role of mental processes in learning a behavior. Albert Bandura, in his Social Cognitive Theory, proposed that environmental conditions are processed and stored first in the memory (cognition) before they manifest as behavior. In an experiment about film aggression (1965), he found that children, without being directly rewarded or punished, learned to act aggressively, yet showed the behavior differently, depending upon whether they saw the aggressor being punished in the film or rewarded for his actions.
Psychologists using the Psychodynamic Approach believe that humans are born with the biological instinct for sex and aggression. The instinct is largely unconscious. We are not aware of it, yet it comprises the original self, and is therefore paramount to understanding motivation and tracing the roots of human thought and action. However, this instinct is not in accordance with the values held by society. The demarcation between human biological instinct and the social demand for order, harmony and love ensues to conflict within the psyche. It is therefore the job of the psychologist to help troubled individuals resolve this conflict.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), founding father of this approach, believes that much of the conflict that adults face can be traced from early childhood experiences. (It is, after all, upon birth that children demonstrate full-blown biological instinct in the face of society.) He developed a series of psychosexual stages and the therapeutic technique called psychoanalysis, in which problems are analyzed and retraced back to the stage they originated.
Although Freud's ideas sparked a lot controversy and were at first neglected and scorned at in Vienna, his ideas proved to be enduring. Today's psychodynamic psychologists still acknowledge his contributions, but they are currently focusing more on the role of culture in influencing behavior, relating different cultural values to various forms of abnormal behaviors and mental processes.
Behavioral Neuroscience Approach
Neuroscientists believe that human thought and action are largely determined biologically. They claim that Psychology is nothing more than the body at work - electrochemically. Hormones and neurotransmitters, they say, are the chemical blueprints of thought and behavior. Structural differences account individual variation. For instance, Albert Einstein is said to be capable of extensive imagination because his Parietal Lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for spatial recognition, is 15% larger than average.
Experiments by neuroscientists heavily rely on Biology. Because most biological experiments are considered unethical if done on live humans, neuroscientists chiefly use animals as substitutes for their research. For example, some neuroscientists conduct research on how certain drugs affect memory or induce pain.
Psychologists espousing the Cognitive Approach refute the neuroscientist belief that Psychology is merely biology. They underscore that the brain hosts a mind, an independent entity capable of directing the body. This mind, they say, is both a decision-maker and a problem-solver. Contrary to the pessimistic and deterministic tone of the Psychodynamic and Behavioral approaches, the Cognitive Approach sees the mind as both conscious and controlling. It is known as "the great executive."
Research done using this approach is primarily about studying how humans encode, process and store information. For example, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) found out that humans do not actually remember the past, but reconstruct it instead to suit the present.
Evolutionary Psychology Approach
This approach is basically an extension of Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human thought and action, not only the body, underwent evolution. David Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, claims that today's human activities can be traced way back from the ancient problems our ancestors faced. He said that how humans behave and think today is largely an offshoot of ancient ways of adapting to the environment. For example, it was found out that the Brain Stem, also known as the "Reptilian Brain," is the most ancient part of the human brain, and is responsible for monitoring alertness and controlling basic survival functions such as breathing, heart beat and blood pressure. Because of the nature of this approach, evolutionary psychologists mainly use animals in their research (just like the neuroscientists).
Sociocultural psychologists believe that behavior and mental processes must be studied in the light of the social and cultural context in which they take place. They claim that social and cultural values play an important part on human thought and action. For example, the notion of beauty changes from one culture to another. What is considered beautiful in a certain culture may not be so beautiful in another. Thus, the goal of the Sociocultural Approach is to distinguish between what aspects of Psychology are culture-specific and what aspects are generically human. For this reason, the approach mainly conducts cross-cultural studies to compare one culture from another.
On Managing Different Psychological Perspectives
Contemporary approaches to Psychology, although divergent and somewhat conflicting in their interpretation of the primary cause of human behavior and mental processes, are all valid ways of looking at the subject matter of Psychology. Differing perspectives provide useful insights to the complexity of the human psyche. At the heart of the subsequent conflicting research results by the six approaches is a chisel that gradually shapes the reality of the human psyche. Consequently, most Psychology students today espouse an eclectic approach and study Psychology in various angles.
Introduction to Psychology
- What Is Psychology and How Did It Develop?
- How Do Contemporary Psychologists Approach the Study of Behavior and Mental Processes?
- What Are the Positive Movements in Psychology?
- What Types of Careers are Available to Psychology Majors?
- What Study Habits and Skills are Useful for Majoring in Psychology?