Approaches to psychopathology

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Biological approach


  • All behavior, both abnornal and normal, isassociated with the brain functions
  • Changes may involve levels of brain neurotransmitters, or change in brain structure
  • Significant genetic componet is involved in most behaviours.
  • Heavily on the nature side


  • Schizophrenia - linked to both changes in the brain structre to increased levels of neurotransmitter dopamine.
  • Depression has been associated with low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin
  • Twin and family studies indicate that there is a major genetic component in schizophrenia


  • Biological approach is supported by modern brain-scanning techniques. Identified changes in neurotransmitters and brain structure in conditions (schizophrenia and depression)
  • Evidence shows that no disorder is 100% caused by genetic factors. Some are triggered by environmental factors.
  • Drugs targeting neurotransmitters can be very effective in treating conditions like schizophrenia and depression
  • Heavily reductionist - explanations at the basic level of biology is all we need to explain psychopathology. Ignores social, environmental and cultural factors.
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Psychodynamic Approach


  • Adult behaviour, normal and abnormal, reflects complex and dynamic interactions between conscious and unconscious processes from birth onwards.

The superego - conscience/sense of morality. - Dominance may lead to problems and guilt experiencing pleasure, and the development of adult anxiety and depression.

The ego - our conscious self. Develops through early childhood and tries to balance the instinctual demands of the id for gratification and the moral rules provided by our superego. Operates on the reality principle. - fails to balance the competing demands of the id and superego psychological disorders may result.

The id - unconcious and instinctive pshyic energy. Operates on the pleasure priniciple and constatnly tries to gratify its instincts through sex and aggression. - dominace of the id impulses may lead to conduct disorders in children and aggressie disorders in adults.

Defence mechanisms:

Used by the ego to protect itself against the axiety caused by conflicts between id and superego. Repression into the unconscious is best known. Aim of psychoanalysis to overcome defence mechanisms.

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Evaluation of the Psychodynamic approach

Freud was the first to emphasise the importance of unconscious processes in child and adult behaviour. It is now accepted that repression of a painful childhood expreiences can lead to adult disorders like depression or anxiety.

Freud did not study children directly. He worked with adults with neurotic disorders and then assocaited their problems with their early experiences.

Basic Freudian concepts such as id, ego, and superego are impossible to test using conventional scientific methods. They may not be wrong, but they cannot be validated.

Freud worked in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His views therefore reflect this historical and cultural period.

Freud has influenced every major psychodynamic approach since then and is one of the most influential psychologist of all time.

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The Behavioural Approach


  • All behaviour is produced through learning and experience

Classical Conditioning (Pavlov) - Automatic reaction such as fear becomes associated with particular stimulus or situation - Seligman added the idea of 'evolutionary preparedness' to explain why we are more likely to become phobic biologically significant stimuli and situations. (e.g. being bitten by a dog might lead to the fear response of being scared of all dogs)

Operant Conditioning (Skinner) - Emphasises the role of rewards and punishments in behaviour (e.g. eating disorders may be thought that losing weight is encouraged by praise of looking slim by family or friends)

Social learning theory - Emphasis on the observation and imitation of others. Behaviour in others that is rewarded is more likely to be imitated. - Social learning has been shown to be a powerful model for explaining learning in children and teenagers, who are exposed to a variety of models like parents, peers and media stars. (e.g. eating disorders have been linked with the media)

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Evaluation of the Behavioural approach


  • Can provide convincing explanations of some disorders, like the role of classical conditioning in phobias or of social learning in eating disorders
  • Little evidence for disorders like schizophrenia involve learning processes
  • Treatments based on this approach can be effective (phobias) - support.
  • Reductionist
  • Assumes all behaviour is base don learning and experience. No role for genetic factors.
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Cognitive Approach

Emphasises on cognitive process such as attention, perception and thoughts about the self and the world. Abnormal behaviour develops because of maladaptive and irrational cognitive processes.

Schemata ways of relating ourselves and the world (I am confident.)

Negative schemata: unhappy experiences early in life may lead to this developing. (I am not loved)

Negative schemata lead to cognitive biases in the way people see the world. Depression people interpret the world in a pessimisitic way, ignoring positive events and so reinforcing thier negative views.

Cognitive biases iclude minimising the good things that happen, maximising the bad things that happen, and all or nothing thinking, in which life is black and white.

Beck's model of depression:

  • Negative view of the self - 'i am a failure and do not deserve to be happy'
  • Negative view of the world - 'it is a hostile and unfriendly place'
  • Negative view of the future - 'there will always be problems, i'll never be happy'
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Evaluation of the Cognitive approach


  • Research evidence for cognitive biases and maladaptive thinking in disorders
  • Treatments based on the cognitive approach can be very effective for disorders such as anxiety and depression - support.
  • Ignores the biological and genetic factors in psychopathology. 
  • Not reductionist, takes a complex view of psychological disorders.
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