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Historical and Modern Psychological Perspectives

Modern Perspectives


Behavioral psychologists argued that psychology should focus on observable behavior rather than on thoughts and feelings. Their research focused on ways in which learning shapes behavior.

Behaviorism is a school of psychology that emphasizes the measurement and analysis of observable behavior. It emerged as a reaction to the untestable ideas put forth by Freud. Behaviorists argued that focusing on observable, measurable behaviors would be a scientifically superior approach.

The first behaviorist was John B. Watson (1878–1958), an American researcher. He was influenced by the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936). While conducting research on digestion, Pavlov discovered that dogs salivated when they heard sounds linked to the delivery of food. They had learned an association between events in their environment.

Watson began to explore how learning influenced human behavior. He tested the connection between events people experienced (stimuli) and resulting behavior (responses). In the famous "Little Albert" experiment, Watson conditioned an infant to avoid a harmless white rat. First, Watson allowed the infant to play with the rat. Initially, the child showed no fear of the animal. Next, Watson and his colleague Rosalie Rayner made a frightening sound whenever Albert touched the rat. Albert learned an association between the rat and the sound. Eventually, when he saw the rat, he cried and moved away from it. This research approach would never be used today, as it is unethical by current standards.

Watson established that conditioning could lead to complex behaviors. As a result, Watson felt that environmental conditions could teach a child to be highly successful or lead them to develop criminal tendencies.

American psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904–90) expanded on Watson's work, focusing on ways rewards and consequences shape behavior. Much of his research involved training animals to engage in complex behavior through careful control of their environments. For example, Skinner taught pigeons to play table tennis by gradually teaching them the required behaviors one step at a time.

Critics of behaviorism argued that thoughts, feelings, and desires are an important aspect of human experience. Both humanistic psychologists and cognitive psychologists found the behavioral approach too limiting.

Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychologists found Freudian and behavioral approaches limiting. Rather than focusing on how past events shaped people, they emphasized the potential for growth and change.

Many psychologists felt that both psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches took a limited and negative perspective toward human development. They disliked the notion that human behavior was driven mostly by unconscious drives or past learning. They believed humans had free will and the ability to actively guide their own development and self-improvement.

Humanistic psychology emphasizes the human capacity for growth and suggests that human nature is mostly positive. However, like earlier schools of thought, humanistic psychology recognized the potential for a harsh environment to cause emotional or behavioral problems. Optimal growth requires safety, love, and acceptance.

Carl Rogers (1902–87) is considered the father of humanistic psychology. He developed scientific methods for studying psychotherapy processes and outcomes. He believed that trust, warmth, empathy, and a genuine relationship were essential in the client-therapist relationship. Unlike in psychodynamic therapy, Rogers felt the client should set the direction for therapy.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-70) was another early humanist. Maslow focused on the conditions that support optimal development. He is best known for his hierarchy of needs, which ranked needs in order of importance. Basic physical needs and safety are low-level needs. The highest need is self-actualization, the ability to become the best version of oneself.

Cognitive Perspectives

Cognitive psychologists focus on mental processes and use scientific methods to examine how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact to influence one another.

Beginning around the 1960s, many psychologists raised concerns that the behavioral focus on observable actions overlooked the importance of thoughts and feelings. Although they agreed that the environment shaped behavior, they argued that thoughts and feelings also played an important role.

Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes. It began to emerge as an independent discipline in the 1960s. One of the earliest cognitive psychologists was Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who explored differences in child and adult understanding of the world. His laboratory studies tracked the development of cognitive processes from infancy through the teen years.

Some cognitive psychologists focus on basic mental processes, such as memory, attention, language use, visual perception, or problem-solving. Their work is aided by technological advances that allow them to conduct elaborate experiments. For example, researchers can present a stimulus for just a few milliseconds, track eye movements, or digitally alter a sound or image. Cognitive neuroscience is a field of study exploring how brain structure and function influences thoughts, feelings, perceptions, decision-making, and reasoning.

Other cognitive psychologists focus on clinical applications. American psychiatrist Aaron Beck (born 1921) was one of the first cognitive therapists. He developed a treatment approach that targeted depression by helping people to replace unrealistic negative thoughts with more realistic thoughts. Most therapists now combine cognitive and behavioral therapeutic techniques. This approach, called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), has more research support than any other therapeutic approach. CBT is used to treat various conditions, including depression and anxiety. This method blends cognitive components (e.g., challenging maladaptive beliefs by identifying opposing evidence) with behavior change to promote more productive coping skills.

Social-Cultural Perspectives

Social-cultural psychologists study how people behave based upon the social groups to which they belong.

The social-cultural perspective stemmed from the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). Vygotsky posited that individuals develop in part based on how they interact with the world around them. He suggested that personal development is influenced not only by one's personal beliefs but also by their culture. For example, people who are raised in Western cultures may differ in distinct ways from those raised in Eastern cultures—from their eating habits to their personality traits to their style of emotional expression.

In addition to culture, smaller social groups can also influence personal development and behavior. American psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–1989) devised social comparison theory, which argues that individuals evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. This comparison process can help to clarify one's own abilities. Downward social comparison occurs when people compare themselves to others who they perceive to be "below" them in some way (e.g., skill level or attractiveness). Upward social comparison is the opposite: people compare themselves to those they believe are better than them. Downward social comparison can improve self-esteem, whereas upward social comparison can inspire people to improve. For instance, in upward social comparison, a member of the basketball team may feel less skilled than the team captain. They may begin practicing more in hopes of eventually playing with the same level of skill.

Social-cultural psychologists believe that individuals' social groups shape their behavior throughout their lifespan. People join and depart from various groups as their life circumstances change. These changes can include transitioning through different levels of schooling, joining the workforce, or settling into a long-term relationship and becoming parents. As people become a part of new social groups and leave others, their behavior, beliefs, and values can shift accordingly.

Biological Perspectives

Discoveries in genetics, biology, neuroscience, and neuroimaging have spurred research into how biology, genes, brain structure, and brain function shape behavior.

In the early days of psychology, it was difficult to establish connections between the brain and behavior. Most research focused on studying people with brain injuries to understand the impact of brain damage. Although psychologists recognized the importance of the brain and biology, they were limited in their ability to study the topic.

Technological advances have created new ties between biology and psychology. New equipment and medical tests allow researchers to ask new questions. For example, brain-scanning technology makes it possible to observe the brain in action. Researchers can study which parts of the brain are involved in specific emotions or types of thinking. They can observe how brain activity after treatment differs from brain activity before treatment.

Low-cost genetic tests make it easy to directly study the relationship between genes and behavior. The field of behavior genetics explores how genetic differences shape behavioral differences. Researchers also explore how the environment shapes whether or not specific genes are active. For example, researchers have been able to determine that early childhood abuse and neglect influence which specific genes are expressed. The setting of those genes influences when and how the body releases stress hormones. This has helped researchers understand why early childhood experiences predict future anxiety, depression, and aggression.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows psychologists to observe brain activity. For example, fMRI scans may reveal differences in patterns of brain activity before and after treatment for depression. Reduced activity in some brain areas after treatment is linked to lower levels of depression.