Issues & Debates


Gender bias

Gender bias - the differential treatment of representation of men and women based on stereotypes rather than real differences.


  • Centred or focused on men, often to the neglect of exclusion of women.
  • Male behaviour is taken as the norm.
  • Female behaviour that is different from this norm may be construed as unimportant or even deviant.


+ Awareness of differences - awareness of gender differences has resulted in society questioning characteristic behaviours based on the male norm.

- More male lecturers and researchers - although female psychology students outnumber males, at a senior level within univerities, there are more male psychology lecturers and researchers. This could lead to only research topics affetcing men.

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Gender bias

Alpha bias:

  • A tendency to exaggerate differences between men and women. The consequence is that theories devalue one gender in comparison to the other.
  • A misrepresentation of differences between genders.
  • Some theories have been used to devalue women.


+ Feminist psychology - the emergence of feminist psychology to redress the balance has heightened the value of females.

- Reinforcement of stereotypes - psychological research sometimes reinforces gender stereotyping and discrimination.

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Gender bias

Beta bias:

  • A tendency to ignore or minimise differences between men and women.
  • A misrepresentation that minimises gender differences.
  • Studies that use only men or women and then suggest that the findings should be applied to everyone are beta biased.


+ Equality - recognising beta bias has had an influence on equality in education.

- Experimental methodologies - most experimental methodologies are based around standardised treatment of participants. This asumes that men and women respond in the same ways to the experimental situation, which could result in artificial differences being found.

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Cultural bias

Cultural bias - the tendency to judge all people in terms of your own cultural assumptions. This distorts or biases your judgement.

Culture - the rules, customs, morals and ways of interacting that bind together members of a society or some other collection of people.

Cultural relativism - the view that behaviour cannot be judged properly unless it is viewed in the context to the culture in which it originates.

Cultural relativism + alpha bias - the assumption of real differences leads psychologists to overlook universals.

Cultural relativism + beta bias - behaviours that are statistically infrequent in one culture may be statistically more frequent in another.

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Cultural bias

Ethnocentrism - seeing things from the point of view of ourselves and our social group. Evaluating other groups of people using the standards and customs of one's own culture.

Ethnocentrism + alpha bias - one's own culture is considered to be different and better, and the consequence of this is that other cultures and their practices are devalued.

Ethnocentrism + beta bias - if psychologists believe their world view is the only view.

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Evaluation of cultural bias

+ Research conducted within - to reduce cultural bias, greater use should be made of research conducted from within each culture by members of that culture. Otherwise, it is difficult to be completely objective. More cross-cultural or trans-cultural research studies are now being carried out.

- Sampling bias - sampling bias can reduce population validity. Participants from a specific culture may not be representative of all cultures.

- Reinforce stereotypes - psychological research may reinforce cultural stereotyping and discrimination.

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Free will

Free will - each individual has the power to make choices about their behaviour.

Most of us consider that our behaviour and thoughts are of our own volition and that we are free to choose the decisions we make and have control over our actions.

The humanistic approach supports the idea of free will as it studies human beings as a whole; their behaviour and actions.

The basis of moral responsibility is that an individual is in charge of their own actions.

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Determinism - behaviour is controlled by external or internal factors acting upon the individual.

Hard determinism - the view that all behaviour can be predicted and there is no free will. The two are incompatible.

Psychic determinism - believes behaviour is controlled by unconscious fears and desires from traumatic past events and experiences.

Biological determinism - suggests human behaviour is determined by our biology, in particular our genes and chemicals in our brain.

Environmental determinism - says all behaviour is controlled by external influences.

Soft determinism - a version of determinism that allows for some element of free will.

Scientific emphasis on causal explanations: generate a theory and hypothesis whereby cause and effect can be established; use empirical methods to test the hypothesis; apply statistical analysis to see if their prediction is statistically significant or not.

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Evaluation of free will & determinism debate

+ Emphasis on individual - free will emphasises the individual as responsible for behaviour.

+ Predicting behaviour - the deterministic approach tries to predict behaviour under scientific conditions.

- Measuring behaviour - free will means that behaviour cannot be predicted or objectively measured.

- Responsibility - determinism leaves us with no responsibility for our own actions.

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Nature-nurture debate

Nature-nurture debate - the argument as to whether a person's development is mainly due to their genes or to environmental influences.


  • Behaviour is seen to be a product of innate factors.
  • Our character and predisposition are innate.
  • Humans have no control over behaviour; it is mapped out by our biological heredity.
  • Nature is linked to biologcal determinism.


  • Behaviour is a product of environmental influences.
  • We are a product of all of our experiences and our environment.
  • Therefore, humans have little control over their behaviour.
  • Nurture is linked to environmental determinism.
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Nature-nurture debate

Approach focus:

1. The biological approach supports the nature side of the argument - all behaviour is pre-determined by our genes and biochemistry. Twin studies are used to research heredity.

  • If an identical twin develops a condition, and the other twin also develops the condition, this would show support for the nature debate, as identical twins share 100% of their genes.

2. The behavioural approach supports the nurture side of the debate - all behaviour is shaped by what people are exposed to. The use of twins in research can also be used to research environment.

  • When studying twins, a 100% concordance rate is never found with MZ twins for any condition. This could suggest that other factors, such as the environment, also influence behaviour.
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Evaluation of nature-nurture debate

+ No blame - if we identify a genetic basis for a conition, then we do not blame the person for their behaviour.

+ Behaviour can be unlearnt - behaviour that is identified as being learnt can then be unlearnt. This would be useful for criminal behaviour and some forms of mental disorder. Behaviour would appear to be under the control of the individual.

- Separating effects - it is difficult to separate the effects of heredity and environment. When studying the influence of genetics on schizophrenia, most participants also had a shared environment.

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Holism & reductionism debate

Levels of explanation:

Levels of explanation is the idea that behaviour can be explained in degrees of reduction, in a hierarchy or continuum.

  • At the bottom level of the hierarchy is the idea that behaviour is explained by a single component.
  • At the top of this hierarchy is the holistic level, where there is no attempt to reduce the explanation of behaviour.
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Holism & reductionism debate

Holism - look at the person as a whole.

  • It looks at the social context of behaviour as being important, such as the family and culture, as well as biological factors.
  • It could be seen as taking an interactionist viewpoint that suggests all factors have equal importance in explaining behaviour.

Reductionism - explains behaviour and experience by reference to only one factor.

  • Biological reductionism - explains behaviour purely from a biological approach, such as genetics, biochemistry or the structure of the brain.
  • Environmental reductionism - simplifies behaaviour into a response to a stimulus.
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Evaluation of holism & reductionism debate

+ Greater understanding - by breaking down a phenomenon to its constituent parts, it may be possible to understand the whole.

+ Human behaviour - a holistic approach may be more appropriate for psychology as it is looking at human behaviour, which has lots of aspects, such as conscious thouhghts and the context within which behaviour occurs.

- Too simplistic - the reductionist approach is too simplistic because it ignores the complexities of human behaviour and experience.

- Not isolating factors  - the holistic approach doesn't isolate individual factors which may make it difficult to discover causes of certain conditions or illnesses.

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Idiographic & nomothetic debate

Idiographic approach - focuses on individuals and emphasises uniqueness; favours qualitative methods in research.

  • Involves studying a particular individual.
  • Data generated isdetailed and extive.
  • The sample will not be representative because of the uniqueness of the traits the individual possesses.
  • It uses methods such as the case study to investgate the individual.
  • Analysis of data uses qualitative methods, such as thematic analysis.
  • This approach is useful is generating new areas of research.

Example: the psychodynamic perspective can take an idiographic approach to conducting research through the use of case studies, such as Freud's study of Little Hans. However, the psychosexual stages and the psyche take more of a nomothetic approach, but the ways in which these aspects of development become apparent in the individual are unique.

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Idiographic & nomothetic debate

Nomothetic approach - seeks to formuate general laws of behaviour based on the study of groups and the use of statistical techniques. It attempts to summarise the differences between people through generalisations.

  • Involves testing a large sample.
  • This would generate a large amount of data.
  • The sample should be representative of the larger population, such as through random sampling.
  • It tends to use the experimental method or correctional procedures.
  • Analysis of the data uses quantitative methods, such as statistical tests.
  • From this approach, general laws can be generated that are applicable to all.

Example: the biological approach takes a nomothetic stance to conducting research through the use of laboratory experiments. These help to establish cause and effect for behaviour. It is a useful approach when looking at developing treatments for mental illness.

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Evaluation of idiographic & nomothetic approach

+ Prompts ideas - detail from an idiographic approach is rich and often prompts ideas for further research.

+ Generalisable findings - the detail gathered from a nomothetic approach is vast and enables researchers to generalise findings to the population.

- Lack population validity - the research findings that are carried out on a single person lack population validity because of their uniqueness, and cannot be generalised to all.

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Ethical implications of research

Ethics: guidelines by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and university ethics committees are in place to try to avoid any research causing difficulties for any of the people involved directly or indirectly. The guidelines have become more stringent to reduce potential problems for both the researcher and the participants.

The research process:

1. The research question.

2. Conduct of research and treatment of participants.

3. The institutional context.

4. Interpretation and application of findings.

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Ethical implications of research

Socially sensitive research - any research that might have direct social consequences for the participants in the research for the group that they represent.

Ethical issues in socially sensitive research:

  • Privacy.
  • Confidentiality.
  • Valid methodology.
  • Deception.
  • Informed consent.
  • Equitable treatment.
  • Scientific freedom.
  • Ownership of data.
  • Values.
  • Risk/benefit ratio.
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Evaluation of ethical implications of research

+ Scarr - suggested that, regardless of the outcomes, there was a duty for psychologists to carry out SSR as it could be important in raising awareness of topics, such as race, sex and gender inequalities.

- Anticipating effects - it is not always possible to anticipate the effects of research on an individual, group or society. This makes it difficult to judge whether or not the research should be carried out.

- Not objectively decided - the guidelines are not always objectively decided as, ultimately, decision makers interpret them in respect of each piece of research presented for consideration. Therefore, subjective interpretation may be present.

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