Explanations of Dysfunctional Behaviour

This Section is divided into three main sections

- Behavioural Explanation 

- Biological Explanation 

- Cognitive Explanation 

  • Created by: dami
  • Created on: 02-02-13 13:49

Explanations of Dysfunctional Behaviour

This section looks into the origin of mental illness  [what causes mental illness]  which ranges from biological, cognitive and behavioural. The Biological Explanation argues that abnormality of mental functioning is a disease, because mental disorders are thought to be related to physical malfunctioning in the brain which may occur due to genetic defects or life stress. In comparison, Cognitive Explanation that mental disorders are caused by faulty thinking processes such as negative thoughts, irrational beliefs or illogical errors. Finally, the Behavioural Explanation assumes that abnormal behaviour is learnt in the was as other behaviour is learnt such as criminal behaviour through classical and operant conditioning or social learning theory. 

- The important thing to note is that all of these explanations have significant impact on how we view the origins of mental disorders.

1. Biological Explanation 

2. Behavioural Explanation 

3. Cognitive Explanation

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Biological Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour


Biological and genetic models assert that mental disorders are diseases, and symptoms of mental disorders are caused by factors such as brain defects [abnormalities in the structures of the brain], biochemical imbalances [complex dysregulation processes involving neurotransmitters] and genetic predispositions [risk for pathology can be carried via genetic material]. 

This section focuses on the genetic model of mental disorder which suggests that psychopathology is inherited from parents, which would involve familial transmission of disorders. 

- Research have been focused on monozygotic twins that share 100% genetic material and hence there should be 100% concordance rate for disorders. 

- Nature/ Nuture debate; research has led to the conclusion that rather than being deterministic, genetics contribute about 50% for the risk of developing a mental illness. 

- Adoption/ Twin studies involving monoszygotic twins, dizygotic twins 

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Biological Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Research- Gottesman and Shield [Twin and Adoption studies of schizophrenia]

- review research on genetic transmission of schizophrenia [Review of adoption studies between 1967-1976] 

- 3 adoption studies [711 participants] and 5 twin studies [210 monozygotic pairs and 319 dizygotic pairs] 

-  Adoption studies found the incidence of

    1. schizophrenia of biological siblings and biological parents and incidence of schizophrenia of adopted siblings and adopted parents 

- Twin studies compared concordance rates of monozygotic and dizygotic twins

- All three adoption studies found

   1. an increased incidence of schizophrenia in adopted children with a schizophrenic biological parent

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Biological Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour

 2. Normal children fostered to schizophrenia parents showed little evidence of schizophrenia

 3. All twin studies found a higher concordance rate for schizophrenia in monozygotic            twins than dizygotic twins. 58% for Monozygotic Twins and 12% for dizygotic twins 

 4. Hence developing schizophrenia cannot be entirely due to genetics since there was not       a 100% concordance rate for monozygotic twins


Evidence from research suggests that genes are important and therefore it supports the nature side of the nature-nurture debate. However it cannot be denied that genes are not the only contributive factor which has led to the diathesis- stress model. This genetic model states that people inherit the tendency or vulnerability for a mental disorders such as schizophrenia or depression. The model states that people are born with a predisposition towards a certain illness [diathesis] however enviromental triggers [stress] bring it to the surface.  

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Biological Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour


- Nature/ Nuture debate 

- Reductionism/ Holism 

- Determinism/ Free Will 

- Reliability 

- Establishing Cause and Effect 

- Usefulness

- Ethics 

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Behavioural Explanation


The behavioural approach has the assumption that the human is tabula rasa [blank slate] and therefore all behaviour is learnt. Classical conditioning assumes that all behaviour is learnt through association [Phobias] while Operant conditioning believes it is learnt through reinforcement [Eating disorders] , and Social learning believes it is through observation and imitation [Criminal behaviour/ OCD]. Hence it argues that dysfunctional behaviour are not explained as a result of genes, the unconscious' faulty thinking but through learning. 

This section of the explanation is focused on explanating the dysfunctionla behaviour of Phobias. 

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Behavioural Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Research- Watson and Rayner 'Classical Conditioning' [Little Albert]

- Investigate the possibility of creating a fear [Phobia] through classical conditioning.

- Can this fear be generalised after the development.

- Case study under controlled conditions in a lab.

- Little Albert [11 months], stolid and unemotional. Baseline tests showed he had no fearful     reactions to a rat, rabbit, dog, monkey, mask with hair or cotton wool.

- However he had a fearful reaction to the noise of a hammer striking a metal bar.

- 4 Sessions. In the first, he was presented with a rat in the laboratory and the steel bar was   struck as he reached for the rat. This process was repeated. After this session, it was found that when the steel bar was struck when he touched the rat, he jumped and fell forward. By the second time, he began to whimper

- He was a given a week off. 

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Behavioural Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour

- Session 2 [In total Albert had seven presentations with the rat and the noise, 5 in session 2], when the rat was presented alone, he reacted by crying and crawling away

- In Session 3 [ 5 days later]  to see if the fear could be transferred/ generalised, Albert was presented with the rat, rabbit, dog, fur coat, cotton wool and a Santa Claus mask. His toys were also present. All stimuli except his toys produced crying and moving away

- In Session 4 a month later, Albert was presented with the same stimuli and he continued to show fear reactions


1. It is possible to condition a fear response 

2. This fear could be generalised to other similar objects and it could last over a time 

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Behavioural Explanation of Dysfunctional Behaviour


- Usefulness 

- Ethics

- Sample/ Generalisability 

- Nature/ Nurture debate 

- Cause and Effect relationship [Classical conditioning, controls, standardisation, psychology as a science] 

- Strengths and Weakness of the Behaviourist Perspective [Systematic desensitisation/ Reductionism]

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Cognitive Explanation

The Cognitive approach/ model focuses on the way people think and their thought patterns about themselves, others and the world. Therefore dysfunctional behaviour results from faulty or illogical thinking that deviates from normal functioning thought processes. Examples include 

- Catasrophisation 

- Mind reading 

- Personalisation 

This approach had led to the development of CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] whereby dysfunctional behaviour such as phobias, stress and depression is treated by getting people to change the way they think which in turn, changes their behaviour. 

This section focuses on how the cognitive model is used to explain depression

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Cognitive Explanation Of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Research- Beck [Cognitive distortions in depression patients] 

- Understand cognitive distortions in patients with depression [Undergoing therapy for depression] 

- Clinical Interviews, 50 diagnosed patients with depression, 16 men, 34 women, aged 18-48, middle/ upper class, average intelligence 

- Matched pairs design, patients matched according to age, sex, and social position with 31 non- depressed patients undergoing therapy. 

- Face to face interviews, retrospective reports of patient's thoughts, spontaneous reports during sessions, some patients kept diaries and brought it to the session

- Records kept of the verbalisations of non-depressed patients to compare it with depressed patients 

- Depressed patients felt inferior, unlovable and alone even when others showed them friendship.

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Cognitive Explanation Of Dysfunctional Behaviour

- Themes such as low self esteem, self -blame, overwhelming responsibility, desire to escape, anxiety caused by thoughts of personal danger, paranoia were found in depressed patients but not in non-depressed patients. 

- Self blame was present even when it was illogical 

- These distortons were automatic, involuntary, plausible and persistent 


Even in mild depression, patients have cognitive distortions that deviate from realistic and logical thinking. 

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Cognitive Explanation


- Establishing cause and effect [limited]

- Individual differences [Sample bias/ Generalisability]

-Usefulness [Treatment/ people with good problem solving skills/ short term fix]

- Model has validity has it explains anxiety disorders and depression 

- Reductionist 

- Not determinist- emphasises free will 

- Ethical implications 

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