Issues and Debates G544

Defintions/overviews of the issues and debates for Unit G544: Approaches and Research Methods in Psychology. Does includes strengths and weaknesses. Does not include a list of key studies.

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  • Created on: 17-06-12 17:54

Free will vs Determinism

Most people feel that they have freewill to make choices that are not determined for them and are the product of their own violation.

However, this position creates difficulties for scientific research, which assume deterministic relationships.

Determinism suggests that individuals cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

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Defintions of Free will & Determinism


Determinism represents the view that all behaviours, all mental acts (e.g, thoughts, judgements and decisions) are determined by factors out of our control.

Free will

Free will represents the view that our behaviours and emntal acts all come about as a result of our own choice and volitation - that is, we can exercise our own free will.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Physiological App

This usually sees behaviour as being caused by biological factors, and if this is the case then behaviour is determined by biology, so the individual has no free will to choose to behave differently.

Example: The study by Brunner et al would suggest that the MAOA deficiency in some males of the family accounted for their inability to regulate aggression and that they had no free will to act non-aggressively.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Cognitive Approac

This explains behaviour as being caused by cognitive factor, for example, thought processes, attention and decision making. Thus this approach does allow free will to choose behaviour.

For example: in cognitive behaviour therapy it is assumed that the person can choose not to think.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Individual Differ

This often looks at the behaviour of one person and whether the resulting case study allows free will may depend on which approach/perspective is used.

For example: Thigpen and Cleckley looked at Eve's behaviour from the psychodynamic approach. As such it would say that there is no free will as her behaviour was caused by innate factors from her childhood.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Developmental App

This may explain behaviour as being caused by maturation, in which case behaviour is determined by biology, so the individual has no free will to choose to behave differently.

For example: Piaget suggest that children's thought processes change at predetermined ages, thus giving a deterministic explanation.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Social Approach

This looks at the behaviour of people in groups. Whether the research allows for free will may depend on which approach/perspective is used.

For example: Milgram maintained that although his participants were influenced by the social situation they were in, they had the free will to choose not to continue giving the electric shocks.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Behaviourist Pers

This usually explains behaviour in terms of stimulus-response learning caused by past experiences, and if this is the case then the individual has no free will to choose to behave differently, because behaviour is determined by past experiences.

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Free will vs Determinism and the Psychodynamic Per

This explains behaviour in terms of unconscious forces that the individual can neither escape nor explain. In addition because the unconscious forces are the result of early childhood experience, behaviour is determined by two factors - by the past and by unconscious motivation - so the individual has no free will to choose his or her behaviour.

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Free will vs Determinism Strengths

The emphasis on cause and effect means that deterministic explanations make the world more understandable and predictable. This suggests that it could be worthwhile in trying to change certain things (e.g, education systems or child-rearing practices) because it could have positive effects.

Determinism is the purpose and goal of science: to explain the causes of things (of behaviour, in the case of psychology). This makes it more acceptable to society, with its explanations, scientific basis and objectivity.

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Free will vs Determinism Weaknesses

It does not allow for free will. A hard determinist would say that free will is an illusion - we think we have a choice, but it is just an illusion.

Determinism can never fully explain behaviour because behaviour may be far too complex. It is often reductionist.

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Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Quantitative Data

Data that is numeric, examples in research include a score recorded for each participant, the time taken to complete a task, or the number of people in each condition who displayed a particular behaviour.

Qualitative Data

Dada that is in the form of words, examples include descriptions of events, quotes from participants, or descriptions of participants responses to a task.

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Quantitative Data Strengths and Limitations

Data allows for statistics to be applied and comparisons to be made easily.

Data is objective and more scientific.

Numbers are often produced in isolation from interpretation (possibly through a snapshot study)

To analyse people as nothing more than numbers is reductionist.

Using quantitative data ignores any subjective element - the reason why a behaviour occurred.

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Qualitative Data Strengths and Limitations

Data can be in-depth, rich in detail and insightful, and therefore not reductionist.
Data can help us understand why people behave in a particular way.

There may be problems with interpretation. Words and descriptions are more subjective than numbers and are more open to bias and misinterpretation.
It may be much more difficult to make statistical comparisons.
The data may be more prone to researcher bias as information that best fits a hypothesis is selected.
Participants may give socially desirable answers. Participants may want to look good for the experimenter.

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Snapshot and Longitudinal Studies

Longitudinal Study

Takes place over a period of time, usually following one or more participants throughout the period (or visiting them at regular intervals) to monitor changes.

Snapshot Study

Takes place at one point in time, and so gives a one-off picture (hence 'snapshot') of the behaviour which is being studied.

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Longitudinal Study Strengths and Limitations

They can show development over time.

They give a fuller, and probably more accurate, picture of the behaviour in general.

They are costly.

It can be difficult to track participants over a long period of time due to participant attrition.

It is harder to control extraneous variables and so validity is reduced.

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Snapshot Study Strengths

They are a quick way to collect data, especially if long-term development is not relevant.

They can be useful in obtaining preliminary evidecen before getting locked into expensive and time-consuming longitudinal work.

They may give an indication of how people are likely to respond or behave.

Data is likely to be quantitative, making statistical analysis possible.

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Snapshot Study Limitations

It is not possible to study how behaviour may change over time; one cannot see the long-term effectiveness or impact of a treatment or of exposure to certain stimuli.

Behaviour recorded is limited to that time, place and culture.

Data is likely to be quantitative and the explanation of why a participant behaved a particular way will not be known.

One cannot see the effect of societal change on people's psychology.

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This is really more an issue than a debate.

In psychology some research is clearly much more useful than other research - some research naturally lends itself to real-life applications (e.g, advice on the best way to educate and raise children, health promotion, diagnosing and treating mental illnesses).

Other research is less clearly useful, though this need not mean that it will never be useful - it may just be that we cannot see the application yet.

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Usefulness Strengths

If research is useful then it can be of benefit to society; it can improve the world in which we live.

If research is useful than it enhances the value of psychology as a subject.

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Any study must be ethical - participants should give informed consent and not be decieved. However, a study may need to be unethical to be really useful.

Any study should be ecologically valid. Studies conducted in a laboratory may not be useful as they are low in ecological validity.

Any study should use a representative sample and be generalisable. Useful research should apply wordwide so there is no ethnocentrism.

A study should not be reductionist; it should not only apply in isolation from other behaviours but in various contexts.

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Individual and Situational Explanations

This is another debate which runs through psychology. An individual (dispositional) explanation for an event will look at the wider context - the social group, the physical environment.

For example: Suppose a small boy is violent towards his classmates. Is this because he has a violent personality (individual explanation)?

Or is it because he is provoked by his classmates, his home life encourages violent behaviour or all the boys are violent and he is just trying to fit in (situational explanations)?

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Individual and Situational Explanations Strengths

If we can discover which behaviours are individually determined and which are situationally determined, such findings may be useful for society.

Discovering that behaviour may involve a complex interaction between individual and situational factors opens up new directions for further study.

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Individual and Situational Explanations Limitation

It can be difficult to seperate the effects of a situation fromt he disposition of a participant.

How can situations be investigated? If investigated in a laboratory there is low ecological validity, if investigated in a natural setting the situation may be difficult to control.

Rather than individual or situational facotrs being exclusive alternatives, there may be a complex interaction between the two.

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Psychology as a Science

There is a long-standing debate about whether or not psychology is genuinely a science.

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For Psychology as a Science

It is a researched-based subject with investigation at its core.

Psychology used the scientific method in its investigations: it is carried out through genuine experimentation (manipulation of IVs), using many controls.

Like other sciences, psychology has theories. Theories generate hypotheses and these are tested empirically, so that the theories are tested and refined.

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Against Psychology as a Science

Psychology's subject matter is humans. They cannot be investigated in the same way as the subject matter of chemistry or physics because people are aware of being investigated an interact with the researchers, this alters their behaviour.

Much of what psychology is interested in - the mind, motivation, emotion etc... - is not open to genuine scientific and empirical research because it is not actually observable. Psychologists only guess or infer what is happening, rather than collecting direct empirical data.

Continued on next card.

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Against Psychology as a Science Continued

There is no single unifying theory or framework (or paradigm) in psychology which is still a relatively young subject, and is still in a state of 'pre-science', but perhaps it will never be a genuine science.

Much material which is called 'psychology' is clearly not science (e.g, humanism, Freudian theories).

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There are two forms of ethnocentrism. The first, more brutal, form of ethnocentrism is an explicit belief that one's own group (e.g, ethnic, social, cultural) is the most important.

The other form of ethnocentrism is a softer version - the idea that, as individuals and groups, we find it hard to think outside our own cultural experience, so we just unquestioningly assume that the way things happen in our own culture is the way things happen in all other cultures.

This means that, in research, psychologists might design research or draw conclusions in a way that makes sense or applies to their own cultural group, but may have little meaning to other cultural groups.

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Ethnocentrism Continued

This could be because the sample in the study only reflects one culture. It may also be that the questions asked, the task given or the interpretation of the results assumes a particular cultural background.


Research that focuses on a single cultural viewpoint.


Research that focuses on a male viewpoint.

The reverse is gynocentric although this is less common in psychology.

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Strengths of Researching Ethnocentrism

Arguably, ethnocentrism is the root cause of prejudice and discrimination. Research on ethnocentrism helps us to understand the mechanisms by which discrimination arises.
By understanding the mechanisms of ethnocentrism, we should be more able to address them in order to improve society, so that it can become more socially cohesive.
Researchers need to be wary of assuming that their culture is superior to the norm, otherwiser there is a danger that their research or tests will be biased. For example, early IQ tests have been shown to be biased towards white, middle-class Americans and against black Americans. The ethnocentrism in these tests had serious consequences for test takers (Gould 1986).

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Limitations of Researching Ethnocentrism

No weakness - greater awareness of our own ethnocenric tendencies (whether overty or implicit) can only be a good thing as an individual in society or as a researcher.

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Nature vs Nurture

This debate centres on whether particular behaviours are mainly, or entirely, innate (inborn or genetically determined (nature)) or whether they are acquired through experiences or the influence of the environment (nurture).

Interestingly, both nature and nurture views of humans are determinist, as neither gives scope for free will. Increasingly, people acknowledge that many behaviour come about through a mixture of inborn predispositions (nature) and environmental experience (nurture).

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Strengths and Limitations of Nature vs Nurture

The distinction can help us identify behaviours that are inherited or learnt, or allow us to consider the relative contributions of inheritance and learning.
It can be valuable to discover that some behaviours are due to nature and not to 'inappropriate' upbringing by parents.

It is simplistic to divide explanations into either nature or nurture, as the two often combine in complex ways to influence behaviour.
Discovering that a particular behaviour or capacity (e.g, intelligence) is inherited may lead some to assume many more behaviours are inherited and fail to consider the effects of environment.

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Reductionism and Holism


The reductionist view of the world looks for explanations which break things down into small constituent parts. This can be powerful, but sometimes provides an explanation that is simplistic, ignoring other important aspects or factors.


A holistic view looks at a person as a whole, or perhaps looks at a complext set of factors which together might explain a particular behaviour.

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Strengths of Reductionism


It helps us to understand the world, as fundamental way of understanding is to analyse, break things down into component parts, test them and then build them back up again. This is important in studying the world and humans in a scientific way.

In theory it is easier to study one component rather than several interacting components. If one component is isolated and other are controlled then the study is more objective and scientifically acceptable.

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Limitations of Reductionism


Because it can isolate factors, it does not always give a proper, valid and full account of behaviour.

Components may be difficult to isole and therefore to manipulate. Any behaviour may not be meaningful if it is studied in soliation from a wider social context.

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