Holism and Reductionism

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The whole is equal to the sum of the parts

Reduction to seperate components

  • Complex phenomena can be explained by breaking them down into seperate, simpler components

Reductionism to a lower level

  • Places psychology in a hierarchy of sciences between social sciences and physical sciences
  • The less precise and more general sciences are at the top of the hierarchy and the more narrowly focused and precise physical sciences are at the bottom
  • The debate is to what level psychologists should reduce descriptions in order to provide the best explanation for behaviour. Is greater insight into the underlying nature of a phenomenon achieved by the sum of its components and explanations at a basic level? Or does reductionism lead to an oversimplification of explantions of behaviour?
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Reductionism and levels of explanation

Societal, political, sociological--> The cultural context in which a person lives

Social psychological--> Interactions and relationships between people

Psychological--> Cognitive processes

Physiological systems--> Muscles, organs, nervous system and skeleton

Physiological component--> Neurones and interconnections between neurones

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Biological Reductionism

  • The attempt to explain all behaviour in terms of neuropsychology, biochemistry and genes
  • It is argued that, because we are made up of biological components, (neurones, chemicals, genes ect.) all behaviour can be reduced to a biological level and explained at this level, other levels are unimportant


  • Behaviour can be described in precise and concise terms allowing complex disorders to be understood and explained more easily
  • Has been successfully applied to topics such as schizophrenia--> the dopamine hypothesis states that individuals with schizophrenia have too many D2 receptors resulting in overactive firing at the synapse, individuals have been successfully treated by neuroleptics that apply this hypothesis providing support and highlighting the importance of reductionist methods in improving the well being of patients
  • There are however explanations for schizophrenia at a socio cultural level which have also been shown to be significant, the reductionist approach ignores this--> it is not accepted that biologial processes alone provide an adequate explanation of the disorder
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Behaviourist Reductionism

  • A key assumption of the behaviourist approach is that only overt behaviour should be the data for psychology, the lower levels are dismissed as being the concern of the biological sciences and not psychology and the highekr aspects as dealing with aspects not readily observable
  • Complex behaviour is reduced down to simple stimulus response links
  • Radical behaviourism- the view that there may be mental events but these are not relevant to any explanation of behaviour, Watson termed thinking 'sub-vocal' speech that can be meausred by electrical activity in the larynx. This theory was refuted by Smith who took a drug that paralysed all his muscles including the larynx and yet he could still understand that was going on around him


  • Highly scientific approach due to only the observed being tested
  • Approach based on the study of animals, effecting its validity due to a human's ability to carry out higher order thought processes
  • Ignores internal thought processes that could be effecting behaviour
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Reductionism Evaluation


  • Consistent with the scientific approach, giving psychology scientific status as it links it to respected disciplines such as biology and neuroscience
  • By breaking phenomena down into smaller simple components, theories can easily be falsified
  • Agrees with Morgan's law of parsimony which states that there is no need to explain behaviour in terms of complex psychological processes when it can adequately be explained in terms of much simpler ones (behaviourism is parsimonious, psychoanalysis is not)


  • Misses the complexity of behaviour--> explaining behaviour at the level of neural/muscular activities leaves out the psychological reasons for behaviour, the meaning of the action is often gained from the situation or cultural context not its underlying psysiological description
  • The psychological dimension of an expeperience is crucial to an understanding of behaviour- neurotransmitters cannot explain the feelings associated with depression
  • May distract attention from other levels or explanation e.g. women are more likely to experience feelings of helplessness (Seligman) which is better explained on a social-psychological level
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Gesalt Holism

The whole is more than the sum of the parts

Gesalt Psychology

  • Argued that when studying any aspect of human functioning, it is essential to look at unified wholes, complete structures and totalities
  • An example to illustrate this is that when given a piece of text, providing the first and last letters of the words are correct, it can be read with no hesitation, this is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but intead the word as a whole
  • Insight learning- a cognitive view of learning whereby a new behaviour is acquired simply through the process of insight rather than by trial and error. All the parts are seen in relationship to each other, forming a meaningfuk whole, this is a direct contrast to behaviourists
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Humanist Holism

  • Investigates all aspects of an individual
  • Believe that any attampt to analyse personality in terms of simple responses to stimuli is not only futile but is a 'disrespect for the unique quality of human spirit' Matson
  • Humanistic psychologists believe that a person can only be understood as a whole and cannot be reduced to laws of conditioning or to biochemical processes
  • According to the humanistic theory, the drive for self-actualisation gives purpose and unity to the whole of the person
  • This is reflected in Roger's client-centered therapy, the individual is encouraged to develop a sense of the 'whole person'
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Holism Evaluation


  • Provide a more complete picture of behaviour and experience than reductionist approaches
  • Higher-level explanations do not ignore the complexity of behaviour and can therefore be more meaningful


  • More hypothetical than lower level reductionist explantions and so lack the predictive power of a scientific explanation
  • Often uses case studies as the chosen choice of investigation, these cannot be generalised and often lack an objective point of view- unscientific
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  • Considers several levels of explanation to explain phenomena
  • For example considering biological, psychological and social factors when explaining scizophrenia means a more detailed picture of the disease can be formed and a more personalised treatment can be delivered
  • It is only by taking account of all these factors that psychologists can achieve a better understanding of a problem

Alexander- to investigate the role of social and environmental factors in addiction

  • Method- rats were kept either in cramped, isolated conditions or roomy conditions in the company of other rats, and were given a solution of morphine as the only source of drink, once familarised they were then given the choice between water and morphine
  • Results- rats in cramped, isolated conditions consumed more morphine solution
  • Conclusion- Addiction is influenced by both biological AND environmental factors
  • Evaluation- Gives evidence to the interationist approach, problems of extrapolation to humans
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