Approaches in Psychology

Origins of Psychology

Wundt and introspection: Wilhelm Wundt opened the world’s first psychology laboratory in 1879. He and his assistants used ‘introspection’ to try to investigate the nature of awareness and consciousness. This involved recording conscious thoughts by noting them down, then attempting to break these thoughts down into structures. Although quite basis by modern psychological standards, Wundt did us the scientific methods in his work- he gave participants the same procedure, same instructions, and tried to minimise the impact of extraneous variables. This helped move psychology away from philosophy (for example the works of Descartes and Locke) and towards the scientific method.

Emergence of psychology as a science: Early behaviourists such as John B. Watson began to criticise the method of introspection for being subjective, and varying too much from person to person. He suggested that it was impossible to test people’s inward, private thoughts, and that psychology should focus on studying observable behaviour. Other behaviourists such as Skinner therefore used scientific, highly controlled techniques such as lab experiments, which was the dominant paradigm (accepted way of thinking) in psychology of much of the middle of the 20th century. Psychologists today still use aspect of the scientific method, and will use lab experiments for studying some aspects of behaviour. The cognitive approach became popular in the 1960s, and emphasised the legitimacy of attempting to uncover though processes, which can be indirectly tested in experiments. The biological approach emerged in the 1980s, which can be studied through methods such as brain-scanning techniques and looking at the effect of drugs on behaviour. Some key dates in the development of psychology as a science are:

  • 17th-19th centuries: psychology is seen as part of philosophy
  • 1879: Wundt opens the first lab dedicated to psychological enquiry
  • Early 1900s: Sigmund Freud proposes psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory, emphasising the role of the unconscious mind
  • Early 1900s: Watson and Skinner establish the behaviourist approach, emphasising the role of learning
  • 1950s: Rogers and Maslow devise the humanistic approach, emphasising the ‘whole person; and their subjective experience, including the role of free will
  • 1960s: the cognitive approach emerges, emphasising the role of thought processes
  • 1960s: Bandura proposes social learning theory, emphasising the role of observation and imitation
  • 1980s: the biological approach becomes popular, emphasising the role of the brain and physical processes
  • End of the 20th century: cognitive neuroscience emerges, combining elements of the cognitive and biological approaches, emphasising the role of biological structures in determining thought processes

Approaches in Psychology, figure 1


The assumption of the behaviourist approach is that only observable behaviour can, and therefore should, be investigated, as it cannot be known what is happening in ‘the mind’. As humans and non-human animals are governed by the same basic processes, animal behaviour can be studied and applied to human behaviour.

Classical conditioning: Studied by Ivan Pavlov, this is the idea that learning takes place through association. Pavlov demonstrated this through experimenting on dogs. When he presented an unconditioned stimulus (food) alongside a neutral stimulus (ringing a bell), the dogs salivated (unconditioned response) at being presented with the food. Once the unconditioned and neutral stimulus were paired a few times, the dog salivated just at the sound of the bell being rung. The bell had become a conditioned stimulus, producing the conditioned response of salivation.

Operant conditioning: Studied by BF Skinner, this is the idea that learning takes place through rewards and punishments. Positive reinforcement is when a reward is given in response to a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to be repeated. Negative reinforcement is when something unpleasant is avoided in response to a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to be repeated. Punishment (an unpleasant consequence) makes a behaviour less likely to be repeated. Skinner tested these concept using rats and pigeons. In the ‘Skinner Box’, rats were placed in a box with a lever, light, and electrified floor. If the rat pressed the leaver when the light was off, it would receive a shock, and if it pressed the leaver when the light was on, it received a food pellet. The rats quickly learned to push the switch only when the light was on.


  • Behaviourism uses the scientific method, enhancing the replicability and validity of the conclusions drawn.
  • Behaviourist principles have useful real-world applications, for example in developing treatments for phobias (systematic desensitisation) and token economy systems, where rewards are given for desirable behaviours in patients with mental illnesses. This increases the usefulness of behaviourism.
  • The approach has been criticised for being too mechanistic, and discounting the role of thought processes in behaviour, instead seeing humans as passive responders to the environment. This is an over-simplistic explanation.

Approaches in Psychology, figure 1

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theorists share many of the assumptions of behaviourists; that behaviour is conditioned through operant and classical conditioning (direct learning). They also suggest learning takes place through observation and imitation (indirect learning).

Vicarious reinforcement: Refers to learning through watching someone else being rewarded or punished for a behaviour. The person then learns indirectly that such behaviours are worth (or not worth) repeating. They may then imitate the behaviour witnessed.

Mediational processes: SLT considers the role of cognition, unlike behaviourism. Bandura suggested four mediational processes: attention (noticing a behaviour); retention (being able to remember it); motor reproduction (the ability to imitate the action); and motivation (the desire to imitate the action, linked to the perceived likelihood of reward or punishment). This was demonstrated in Bandura’s Bobo doll study, in which children were shown a film of an adult attacking a Bobo doll, then copied the aggressive actions when placed in a room with the same doll. Children who did not witness aggression did not show any aggression. In a variation, children who watched an adult being punished for acting aggressively were much less likely to copy the aggression than those who watched an adult being rewarded for aggressive acts.

Identification: Children are more likely to imitate others’ behaviour. They identify with ‘role models’, who are likely to be similar to them and have attractive qualities, such as success and status. These role models can be real (a parent) or seen in the media (a celebrity or sportsperson).


Outline social learning theory.
Your answer should include: Observation / Imitation / Vicarious / Reinforcement / Mediational / Processes
Explanation: 6 marks means you should write 2-3 paragraphs.