Psychology is a discipline that asks and answers the fundamental question, why do we behave the way we do and think the way we think?. The best way to characterize the different approaches that are taken to answer the question of psychology is to identify them as major perspectives. The major perspectives represent fundamental assumptions that underlie the research questions and methods that are used in order to answer the questions of psychology. Most all perspectives define psychology as the discipline interested in studying human behavior and mental processes, but that covers a lot of ground and the causes of behavior and mental processes are not always clear.
This outline will attempt to catalogue the major perspectives and give the reader a sense of the underlying assumptions, the philosophical foundations, the research methods, and the outcomes or practices that result from the efforts of researchers and practitioners.
Let's just begin with a list of the perspectives and a short description.
1. Psychodynamic Perspective:
Probably the approach that has been most popularly associated with the discipline of psychology for the past century is the psychodynamic, psychoanalytic perspective. Sigmund Freud, who was medically trained in neurology, developed a theory of personality that made the assumption that human motivation was propelled by conflicts between instinctual, mostly unconscious, psychological forces. He called these intrapsychic elements the id, ego and superego. (You know the drill)
This psychodynamic theory caught on like wild fire and due to its explanatory power for human behavior, became very popular over the following century. Freud's therapeutic method, called psychoanalysis, was developed to identify the underlying conflicts between intrapsychic structures and resolve them by bringing them to consciousness. Insight therapy was one term used to describe Freud's treatment approach. Freud also contributed the first developmental theory of human personality. It suggests that human development progresses through psychosexual stages. Each stage is characterized by specific behavioral and psychodynamic developments and challenges.
Although Freud thought of himself as a scientist, and he was indeed very thorough in recording his methods and outcomes, he did not practice scientific methods. Psychoanalytic theory was developed through case study analysis, a qualitative, not scientific, method.
Other psychodynamic theories arose, like those of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, Margaret Mahler, and famous developmentalists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, but all made the same basic assumption: There is a dynamic mind, conscious and unconscious, that influences the behavior of humans. Elements of the unconscious psyche interact to produce motives for behavior and thought processes.
2. Behavioral Perspective:
In an attempt to bring scientific method to bear on the understanding of human behavior, John B. Watson, using ideas he had gleaned from the likes of Ivan Pavlov and others, decided to declare that psychology should only concern itself with observable behavior. A science of behavior was built on only observable behavior. Assumptions about underlying psychological causes of behavior were not admitted. The unconscious was declared fictitious and its study, a waste of time. Serious psychology would focus on observable, controllable, behavior. The behavioral perspective gained great momentum in the 20th century because it was a powerful tool in training, education, and industry. Critics claimed that behaviorism was dehumanizing. John B. Watson and others conducted a thorough explication of Classical Conditioning and B. F. Skinner, responding somewhat to the critics of behaviorisms dehumanization, explained and expertly defended the processes of Operant Conditioning.
3. Biopsychological Perspective:
The biological perspective is a broad scientific perspective that assumes that human behavior and thought processes have a biological basis. Biology includes investigations into biochemistry of behavior associated with neurotransmitters and hormones, genetics and heritability, and the psychophysics of sensation and perception. Physiological psychology, neuroscience, psychoneuroimunology and psychopharmacology are all part of the biological perspective. Because the biological perspective relies on scientific methods, its scope of investigation is limited to variables that can be controlled. Research methods are quantitative and seek to produce findings that can be replicated and that are generalizable across populations.
Practical outcomes of biological psychology include the booming trade in psychopharmaceuticals, an understanding of mental illness that provides viable remedies for certain very serious disorders, and diagnostic brain scanning tools that are at the leading edge of neuroscience.