Specification: OxfordAQA International AS and A-level Psychology (9685). 


learning approach

focuses on mechanisms of learning including conditioning and social learning.

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behaviourism: classical conditioning

association between a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus to produce a response.


  • presenting food to a dog = salivation.
    • reflex response (no learning).
    • unconditioned stimulus leading to an unconditioned response.
  • presented a neutral stimulus (sound of bell) before food was given.
    • neutral = produced no response.
    • food + bell = contingency.
  • presented bell and food several times.
  • sound of bell = salivation.
    • dog learned that bell would be followed by food.
    • neutral stimulus = conditioned stimulus = produces conditioned response.
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behaviourism: operant conditioning

learning through consequences such as reward and punishment.


  • skinner box: a controlled environment where a hungry animal is placed.
    • rat - lever can be pressed to deliver a food pellet from a hopper outside.
  • a hungry rat explores the environment and accidentally presses the lever, receiving food.
  • as it learned the connection between the action and reward, the frequency of lever pressing increased.
    • positive reinforcement: when behaviour leads to the provision of a reward. this increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.
  • unpleasant environmental stimuli could be stopped by pressing the lever.
    • negative reinforcement: when behaviour removes an unpleasant stimulus. this increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.
  • an electric shock was delivered when the lever was pressed - decreased frequency of lever pressing.
    • punishment: when behaviour leads to an unpleasant stimulus. this reduces the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.
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behaviourism: evaluation

+ scientific: focuses on measuring observable behaviours in highly controlled environments. it emphasises the importance of objectivity and replication. it has helped give psychology better credibility and status.

+ real-life applications: can explain anxiety disorders like phobias. it also provides a very useful therapeutic approach: systematic desensitisation, which uses the principles of counter-conditioning. the phobic stimulus is paired with a relaxation response. flooding is a faster treatment, but it is stressful and possibly unethical. this can help people lead better lives.

- mechanistic view of behaviour: animals and humans are seen as passive and machine-like responders to their environment, with no conscious insight into their behaviour. other approaches like the cognitive approach emphasise the importance of mental events during learning and suggest that people play a more active role in their own learning. this theory may apply less to human behaviour, and more to animal behaviour.

- environmental determinism: sees all behaviour as determined by past experiences that have been conditioned. this ignores the possible influence that free will may have on behaviour. this shows that there are other determinants on behaviour that this approach ignores. it can only offer an incomplete explanation.

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social learning theory (slt)

imitation: copying the behaviour of a role model.

modelling: learning through observation, extracting information, and deciding whether or not to perform an action.

identification: a connection between a child and a role model, often based on perceived similarity (eg sex).

vicarious reinforcement: when learning takes place through observing the consequences of a model's actions in terms of reward and punishment.

the role of mediational processes in imitation of behaviours

  • pay attention to the behaviour displayed by the role model.
  • retain their actions in memory.
  • be physically able to reproduce the action.
  • be motivated/have reason to carry out the action.
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slt: bandura's research

first study

  • group 1 - adults attacked a doll.
  • group 2 - adult assembled construction toys.
  • group 3 - control; no adult.
  • the children were taken to a room with attractive toys. when they started playing with them, they were told that the toys were for other children.
  • they were taken to another room with normal toys and a bobo doll.
  • children who witnessed aggressive models showed higher levels of aggressive behaviour.

second study

  • condition 1 - live aggressive adult
  • condition 2 - filmed model
  • condition 3 - fantasy model
  • children showed higher levels of aggression than the control.
  • boys showed more aggression than girls.
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slt: evaluation

+ importance of cognitive factors: humans store information about behaviours and use this to make judgements about when it is appropriate to perform certain actions. slt recognises the role of mediational processes. this makes it a more comprehensive explanation of behaviour than behaviourism.

+ explains cultural differences in behaviour: accounts for how children learn from other individuals around them, and through the media. this can explain how cultural norms are transmitted through particular societies. this matters because it has helped psychologists understand behaviours such as the development of gender roles.

- incomplete explanation: no reference to the impact of biological factors on social learning. one consistent finding in the bobo doll experiments is that boys were more aggressive than girls. this could be explained by hormonal factors such as differences in levels of testosterone, a hormone present in greater quantities in boys and which is linked to increased aggression. this shows that slt is reductionist.

- relies on evidence from lab studies: theory was developed through observation of children's behaviour in lab settings. because the main purpose of the bobo doll is to strike it, the children may have simply been behaving in a way they thought was expected (demand characteristics). this research tells us little about how children actually learn aggression in everyday life.

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cognitive approach

this approach studies internal mental processes like language, memory and problem-solving. these processes cannot be observed, so cognitive psychologists study them indirectly by making inferences about what is going on inside people's minds on the basis of their behaviour.

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cognitive approach: theoretical models

information processing models

key features:

  • computer terms (input, output).
  • information is processed through a series of stages.
  • attention and rehearsal.
  • storage systems.
  • flow diagrams with arrows.

multi-store model (msm): sensory information from the environment is the input. this enters a sensory registration store where it is held for a very short time. if attention is paid to the input, it is transferred to the short-term memory store. rehearsal keeps the information in stm and transfers it to long-term memory for permanent storage. when the memory is retrieved again it becomes the output.

these models generate predictions, which are then tested using tightly-controlled experiments.

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cognitive approach: computer models

the mind is compared to a computer by suggesting there are similarities in the way information is processed. these models use the concepts of a central processing unit (brain), coding (turning information into a useable format) and stores (to stores information).

up-down processing: incorporation and use of existing knowledge.

interactive-activation model

  • focuses on reading.
  • levels of feature detection
    • feature: matching elements of a stimulus against a set of stored features.
    • letter: the overall letter is identified based on its distinctive pattern of features.
    • word: after every letter has been identified, the overall word is recognised.
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cognitive approach: schema

schema: a mental structure which contains knowledge about an object based on experience.

they enable us to process lots of information quickly. this is useful as a mental shortcut that prevents us from being overwhelmed by environmental stimuli. they also help us predict what might happen based on past experience.

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cognitive approach: cognitive neuroscience

cognitive neuroscience: the use of scanning techniques and the study of neurotypicals to locate the physical basis of cognitive processes in the brain.

brain injuries are mapped using technologies such as PET and fMRI scans. patients undergo cognitive tests while scanning is taking place, so the brain can be seen in action.

double dissociation: when two patients show a mirror image of impairment. (A can do 1 but not 2; B can do 2 but not 1).

  • kf: bad stm, good ltm.
    • parietal lobe was damaged.
  • hm: bad ltm, good stm.
    • hippocampus was removed.
  • can conclude that ltm and stm are stored in different parts of the brain.
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cognitive approach: evaluation

+ scientific: employs highly controlled and rigorous methods of study in order to enable researchers to infer cognitive processes at work. this has involved the use of lab experiments to produce reliable, objective data. this matters because it allows cause-and-effect relationships to be established.

+ therapies: led to the development of cbt, which is used to treat anxiety problems and affective disorders like depression. it is known for providing very quick and effective treatment for many people. this approach has important real-life applications.

- artificial stimuli: experimental studies of mental processes are often carried out using artificial stimuli (tests of memory involving word lists) that may not represent everyday memory experiences. it might be better to carry out tests of memory involving things like phone numbers or addresses. research on cognitive processes may lack external validity.

- machine reductionism: ignores the influence of human emotion and motivation on the cognitive system, and how this may affect our ability to process information. research has shown that emotions like anxiety can affect memory, as seen in eyewitnesses. this approach only offers a partial explanation.

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biological approach

this approach suggests that everything psychological is first biological, so to fully understand human behaviour, we must look to biological structures and processes within the body.

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biological approach: the influence of genes

twin studies are used to determine the likelihood that certain traits have a genetic basis by comparing the concordance rates between pairs of twins. since monozygotic twins share 100% of their genes, they should have a higher concordance rate than dizygotic twins, who share 50% of their genes. however, rates are not exactly 100% and 50% respectively, suggesting that environmental factors play an important role.

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biological approach: biological structures

phineas gage

  • metal bar passed through his brain and skull.
  • he survived and showed little intellectual impairment.
  • however, his personality changed; he became short-tempered and foul-mouthed. 
  • frontal lobes were damaged.
    • implies these control behaviour.

modern scanning methods provide further insights into localisation of function.

case studies (hm, london taxi drivers) - hippocampus involved in transferring memories from stm to ltm.

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biological approach: neurochemistry

neurotransmitters are essential for the transmission of nerve impulses across the synapse and are therefore involved in all aspects of behaviours.

psychoactive drugs affect neurotransmitters. cocaine blocks the reuptake of dopamine into the presynaptic neuron. this temporarily makes more dopamine available in the synaptic gap. this leads to the 'high' of euphoria. the presynaptic neuron cannot synthesise enough dopamine to replace that which has not been reabsorbed. dopamine becomes depleted, leading to the 'low' felt as the effects of the drug wear off.

depression: imbalances in serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. treatments include prozac, which prevents the reuptake of serotonin, making more of it available.

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biological approach: genotype and phenotype

genotype: the collection of all the genes in an individual.

phenotype: the behaviour and physical structure of an individual arising from an interaction between their genotype and environment.

the expression of a genotype is influenced by environmental factors. identical twins usually look slightly different because one has dyed their hair. so, despite having the same genes, their phenotypes are different. this illustrates that much of human behaviour depends upon an interaction between inherited factors and the environment.

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biological approach: evolution

evolution: gradual change within a  species in response to environmental pressures.

natural selection: any genetically determined behaviour that enhances an individual's survival and reproduction will be passed on to the next generation.

sexual selection: characteristics that are attractive to the opposite sex will lead to increased access to mates. this increases reproductive success and is thus passed on to offspring.

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biological approach: evaluation

+ scientific: precise and highly scientific methods like scanning techniques (fMRIs), family and twin studies, and drug trials. with advances in technology, it is possible to accurately measure biological and neural processes in ways that are not open to bias. this approach is based on reliable data.

+ real-life application: understanding the biochemical processes in the brain has led to the development of psychoactive drugs that treat serious mental illnesses such as depression. this means sufferers are able to manage their condition and live relatively normal lives.

- causal conclusion: evidence for the action of neurotransmitters in the brain comes from studies that show that a particular drug reduces symptoms of a mental disorder and thus it is assumed that the neurochemical in the drug causes the disorder. this matters because the approach claims to have discovered causes where only an association exists.

- determinist: sees human behaviour as governed by internal, biological causes over which we have no control. in law, offenders are seen as legally responsible for their actions. the discovery of a criminal gene could complicate this principle. could have serious consequences in court.

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