Individual Differences - Psychopathology (Abnormality) Approaches

All approaches and approach evaluations for Abnormality given in the AQA syllabus

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Biological Approach

Key Features:

  • Assumes mental disorders are caused by physiological factors like genetics and biochemical imbalances.
  • Psychopathology is seen as an illness or disease.
  • 4 causes = Genetics, Biochemistry, Brain damage and Infection


  • psychologists believe most of our behaviour involves a component inherited from our biological parents.
  • genetic research has highlighted the possibility that you can be genetically at risk of developing a mental disorder. strongest evidence = schizophrenia, clinical depression
  • genetic links are investigated using twin, family and adoption studies.
  • twin studies = comparing concordance rates between identical and non-identical twins


  • Neurotransmitters = chemicals that transmit messages from one nerve to the next.
  • If out of balance person develops mental disorder. ie depression = decreased serotonin
  • PET scans have been used to support this theory
  • Hormone imbalances may also cause mental disorder. Increased cortisol = depression



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Biological Approach Continued + Evaluation

Brain Damage:

  • abnormality may occur if structure of the brain is damaged in some way.
  • can be damaged due to genetics or due to drug/alcohol abuse.
  • schizophrenia sufferers can be found to have decreased brain weight and enlarged ventricles


  • infection by virus or bacteria can cause mental disorder.
  • syphillus was proven to cause general paresis if left untreated


  • Deterministic = limitation, sees biological approach as a product of our genes and we have no choice or free will
  • Reductionist = limitation, disregards environmental factors which may be causing abnormality
  • Ethical = strength, implies patient aren't responsible and aren't to blame for their disorder. they are merely ill.
  • Scientific = strength, approach is supported by a lot of scientific evidence ie PET scans, twin studies
  • Successful Treatments = strength, drug treatments have been proven to be very effective in conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.
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Behavioural Approach

Key Features:

  • views psychopathology as being a product of the same learning processes that lead to normal behaviour.
  • avoid the terms abnormal and normal but rather use adaptive and maladaptive behaviours.
  • involves three learning processes = classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning

Classical Conditioning:

  • Learning by association. shown by Pavlov's dog experiment also mentioned in Attachment topic.
  • Pavlov's experiment = found pairing a bell with food made dogs salivate when they heard the bell - because they associated the bell with the food.
  • Process also applies to emotional learning and so can explain phobias.
  • Shown by Watson and Rayner's study on Little Albert who associated a white rat with a loud noise and then therefore became fearful of white rats.
  • Little Albert also became scared of other white fluffy objects. This is called stimulus generalisation.








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Behavioural Approach Continued

Operant Conditioning:

  • learning through reinforcement
  • B.F. Skinner's rat study showed that if a behaviour was reinforced by reward then the behaviour was more likely to be repeated however if the behaviour was reinforced by punishment the behaviour was less likely to be repeated.
  • Example as to how this could lead to abnormality = child being rewarded for aggressive behaviour is likely to repeat aggressive behaviour which could result in conduct disorder.

Social Learning:

  • Bandura created the social learning theory which suggests human behaviours are learned through imitation of others.
  • We observe others behaviours and see the consequences it brings which is seen as vicarious reinforcement.
  • if we see behaviour being rewarded we are likely to repeat that behaviour but if the behaviour is punished we are less likely to repeat that behaviour.
  • in terms of abnormality this can be seen to explain eating disorders as people see models on television being rewarded for being thin.
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Behavioural Approach Evaluation


  • Deterministic = limitation, suggests we are passively controlled by our environment and have no concious choice or free will
  • Reductionist = limitation, does not take into account biological factors that could influence abnormality.
  • Ethical = strength, doesn't label people as abnormal but as maladaptive, assuming maladaptive behaviour can be replaced by adaptive behaviour.
  • Scientific = strength, supported by a lot of scientific experiments which can be observed and measured. experiments conducted on animals though so may not be able to generalise to humans.
  • Successful Treatments = strength, behavioural approach has successfullt treated many phobias through systematic desensitisation and aversion therapy.

Evaluation of Little Albert's Study:

  • single case study so difficult to generalise to other small children.
  • no systematic or objective measure of any signs of fear. instead they relied on general verbal descriptions.
  • study raised serious ethical issues as it caused Albert psychological harm.



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Psychodynamic Approach

Sigmund Freud argued against the biological/medical approach and suggested abnormality is caused by unconcious psychological forces.

Unresolved Conflicts Cause Mental Disorder

  • Personality is made up of three parts, the id, ego and super-ego.
  • Id = present from birth, develops in oral stage, is the irrational primitive part of our personality. = devil on right shoulder
  • Ego = develops in anal stage ie. early childhood, develops as a consequence of experience with reality, based on the reality principle and tries to balance the demands of the id and super-ego. = us listening to devil and angel
  • Super-Ego = develops in phallic stage around age 5, is our personal moral authority or conscience, develops through identification with one or other parent when the child internalises the moral rules and social norms of society. = angel on left shoulder
  • If a fixation occurs at a given stage of personality development then abnormality can occur. E.g. a fixation at the oral stage may lead to an adult that takes pleasure through activities such as smoking, eating and drinking, leading to perhaps eating disorders.
  • If the Ego fails to balance to Id and Super-Ego conflicts may arise and psychological disorders may result, for example if the Super Ego dominates this can lead to a flooding of guilt which can lead to anxiety disorder.
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Psychodynamic Approach Continued

The Unconcious Mind

  • For Freud the unconcious mind was extremely important. He suggested that conflicts between the Id, Ego and Super Ego all occured in the unconcious mind, meaning our lives are largely controlled by internal forces we have no control over.

Ego Defence Mechanisms

  • According to Freud we have ego defence mechanisms in place to stop unconcious processes reaching  consciousness.
  • These mechanisms distort or deny reality and if used too frequently can lead to mental disorder.
  • Mechanisms = Repression, Displacement and Denial
  • Repression = puts threatening or unacceptable desires, motivations, memories or emotions into the unconcious.
  • Displacement = an unacceptable drive such as anger or hatred is diverted from its primary target to a more acceptable one. ie. child who is angry at parents may become a school bully
  • Denial = refuse to believe events have happened or that they are experiencing certain emotions. ie. alcoholic may deny they are alcohol dependent.
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Psychodynamic Approach Evaluation


  • Deterministic = limitation, sees people as having very little involvement in their own development as therefore have no free will.
  • Reductionist = limitation, ignores genetic factors that may be influencing abnormality.
  • Ethical = strength, doesn't blame people for their abnormality.
  • Unscientific = limitation, theory is impossible to test scientifically as there is no way to systematically or objectively measure the unconcious mind as there is no true way to access it.
  • No Successful Treatments = limitation, has been argued that because the treatments involve the need to be able to express yourself it cannot be used to treat all patients as some people with severe mental health problems do not have this ability.
  • Strength = Freud was first to suggest that childhood experiences influence adult behaviour, this led to further research in other fields, for example Mary Ainsworth's research into attachment.




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Cognitive Approach

Focuses on internal mental processes such as perceiving, thinking, remembering and problem solving. Suggests that only by studying mental processes can we understand why people behave as they do.

Negative Schemas and Automatic Thoughts:

  • assumes emotional problems are caused by distortions in our thinking processes.
  • human behaviours are highly influenced by schemas which are developed on the basis of early experience.
  • traumatic or unhappy experiences may lead to the development of negative schemas
  • Negative schemas when activated lead to negative automatic thoughts which are unconcious and rapid responses to certain situations. People with mental disoders tend to have more negative automatic thoughts.

Inaccurate Attributions and Expectations:

  • Attributions = people's attempts to explain their own and other people's behaviour.
  • People with mental disorder may make more inaccurate attributions ie. attirbuting a failed relationship to their own lack of social skill.
  • People suffering from mental disorder may also have inaccurate expectations, for example they might expect their relationship to end in failure resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.








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Cognitive Approach Continued

Irrational Thinking (Ellis 1962)

  • Everyone's thoughts are both rational at times and irrational at other times.
  • Psychological problems only occur if a person engages in so many irrational thoughts that it becomes maladaptive for them and others around them.
  • Examples of irrational thinking = polarised thinking, overgeneralisation, catastrophising and selective abstraction
  • Polarised thinking = seeing everything in black and white, Overgeneralisation = making a sweeping generalisation from a single event, Catastrophising = making a mountain out of a mole hill, Selective Abstraction = a bias towards focusing on only negative aspects of life and ignoring the wider picture.
  • Thinking irrationally can lead to psychological disturbance as we become used to our disturbed thoughts.
  • Ellis observed that irrational thinking is often revealed in the language people use ie. "must", "ought", and "should". E.g. feeling you must succeed at everything you do makes you very sensitive to failure.

ABC Model

  • Activating events (A) have Consequences (C) such as feelings and actions. These consequences are affected by Beliefs (B) about these Activating Events. Irrational Beliefs can lead to unrealistic Consequences and therefore abnormal behaviour.




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Cognitive Approach Continued + Evaluation

Cognitive Triad and Errors in Logic (Beck 1967)

  • Beck believed negative thoughts underlie mental health problems and was particularly interested in depression. he identified two mechanisms he believed to be responsible for depression, Errors in Logic and the Cognitive Triad.
  • Errors in Logic = depressed people tend to draw illogical conclusions when evaluating themselves. i.e. somebody who gets a low mark in a test views themself as stupid when generallt they get As. Negative thoughts like this lead to negative feelings and therefore depression.
  • Cognitive Triad = Beck identified three forms of negative thinking. These three components cause the patient to become obsessed with negative thoughts. The three forms are negative thoughts about oneself, negative thoughts about the future and negative thought about the world.


  • Deterministic = strength, sees people as having free will as they control their own thought processes.
  • Reductionist = limitation, disregards biological factors which may be influencing mental disorder.
  • Ethical = limitation, does blame people for their abnormality
  • Unscientific = limitation, cannot measure people's thought processes objectively
  • Successful Treatments = strength, shown that CBT is effective in treating anxiety and eating disorders.






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