Discuss the Holism and Reductionism Debate

essay on the holism vs reductionism debate for PSYB4

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Discuss the holism and reductionism debate. Refer to at least one topic area you
have studied in psychology to illustrate your answer (12 marks)
Holism is the approach or belief that things can only be explained by
considering the whole rather than the constituent parts. This includes examining the
whole behaviour, whole experience, whole person or whole system. In relation to
human beings this means that analysing component parts, such as, for example, the
brain, specific personality traits such as aggressiveness doesn't properly capture nor
do justice to the whole person. This is what Gestalt psychologists mean when they
say `the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'. Take an every day physical
example such as a watch. A watch is made up of many component parts. However
how all these parts come together to tell the time, the purpose of the watch is
missed unless you see the whole put together.
The humanistic approach emerged as a reaction against those dehumanising
psychological perspectives that attempted to reduce behaviour to a set of simple
elements. Humanistic psychologists feel the holism is the only valid approach to the
complete understanding of mind and behaviour.
Gestalt psychologists argued that when studying any aspect of human
functioning, it is essential to look at unified wholes, complete structures and
totalities. The nature of an experience or behaviour is not revealed simply by
analysing the several parts that make up the whole. Gestaltists applied their beliefs to
perception. Insight is a Gestalt view of learning which is opposed to the reductionist
S-R approach. Kohler demonstrated insight learning in chimpanzees. A banana was
placed outside the cage, out of the reach of the hungry chimp. A long stick was also
placed outside the cage, but within reach. The chimp reached for the stick and raked
in the banana. All the parts are seen in relation to each other, forming a meaningful
The holistic approaches provide a more complete picture of behaviour and
experience than reductionist approaches. For example, they can explain behaviour like
insight and perception of closure which cannot be explained with a more reductionist
approach. Also, higher level explanations do not ignore the complexity of behaviour
and can be more meaningful, as holism seeks to integrate the different components
­ for example memory and consciousness ­ in order to understand the person as a
However, there is difficulty in integrating and investigating explanations from
different levels as holistic explanations lack the predictive power of a scientific
explanation. The holistic approach tends to neglect the importance of biological
explanations, especially the role of genes in human behaviour and mental disorders
such as schizophrenia. The holistic approach has tended to shun the findings of
scientific psychology. As a consequence holism is seen as different from a scientific
approach. It is wrong to dismiss all research carried out in the laboratory; some of it
has proven to be very successful. For example, Baddely and Hitch carried out
laboratory experiments to support the working memory model but findings have
been applied to children with reading problems who seem to have a phonological
loop deficit and so this model has helped to improve the quality of a child's life.
Reductionism is the opposite view of holism. It involves breaking down
complex phenomenon into simpler components. It implies that this process is
desirable because complex phenomena are best understood in terms of a simpler
level explanation. Rose identified three kinds of reductionism: reductionism as a

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It underlies the experimental approach in
which behaviours are reduced to operationalised variables that can be manipulated to
determine causal relationships. Another is reductionism as an explanation; the best
explanations or theories are those with the fewest sets of laws or principles. The
cannon of parsimony or Occam's razor states that `of two competing theories or
explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one should be preferred'. The
third is reductionism as a philosophy; psychology should dovetail seamlessly with the
other sciences.…read more

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A detailed biochemical and physiological examination will not be very
informative. Voting behaviour is determined by social attitudes, group pressures
rather than directly by underlying biochemical processes. Adopting a reductionist
explanation of behaviour often distracts attention away from other levels of
explanation. To dismiss human aggression as an inevitable aspect of human nature
means we are less likely to explore socially constructive ways of reducing it. Many
psychologists believe that the quest for a single causal explanation for human
behaviour is futile.…read more


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