Major Perspectives in Psychology

Psychology is a discipline that asks and answers the fundamental question, why do we behave the way we do and think the way we think?. The best way to characterize the different approaches that are taken to answer the question of psychology is to identify them as major perspectives. The major perspectives represent fundamental assumptions that underlie the research questions and methods that are used in order to answer the questions of psychology. Most all perspectives define psychology as the discipline interested in studying human behavior and mental processes, but that covers a lot of ground and the causes of behavior and mental processes are not always clear. 

This outline will attempt to catalogue the major perspectives and give the reader a sense of the underlying assumptions, the philosophical foundations, the research methods, and the outcomes or practices that result from the efforts of researchers and practitioners.

            Let's just begin with a list of the perspectives and a short description.

1.       Psychodynamic Perspective:

Probably the approach that has been most popularly associated with the discipline of psychology for the past century is the psychodynamic, psychoanalytic perspective. Sigmund Freud, who was medically trained in neurology, developed a theory of personality that made the assumption that human motivation was propelled by conflicts between instinctual, mostly unconscious, psychological forces. He called these intrapsychic elements the id, ego and superego. (You know the drill)

This psychodynamic theory caught on like wild fire and due to its explanatory power for human behavior, became very popular over the following century. Freud's therapeutic method, called psychoanalysis, was developed to identify the underlying conflicts between intrapsychic structures and resolve them by bringing them to consciousness. Insight therapy was one term used to describe Freud's treatment approach. Freud also contributed the first developmental theory of human personality. It suggests that human development progresses through psychosexual stages. Each stage is characterized by specific behavioral and psychodynamic developments and challenges.

Although Freud thought of himself as a scientist, and he was indeed very thorough in recording his methods and outcomes, he did not practice scientific methods. Psychoanalytic theory was developed through case study analysis, a qualitative, not scientific, method.      

Other psychodynamic theories arose, like those of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, Margaret Mahler, and famous developmentalists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, but all made the same basic assumption: There is a dynamic mind, conscious and unconscious, that influences the behavior of humans. Elements of the unconscious psyche interact to produce motives for behavior and thought processes.

2.      Behavioral Perspective:

In an attempt to bring scientific method to bear on the understanding of human behavior, John B. Watson, using ideas he had gleaned from the likes of Ivan Pavlov and others, decided to declare that psychology should only concern itself with observable behavior. A science of behavior was built on only observable behavior. Assumptions about underlying psychological causes of behavior were not admitted. The unconscious was declared fictitious and its study, a waste of time. Serious psychology would focus on observable, controllable, behavior. The behavioral perspective gained great momentum in the 20th century because it was a powerful tool in training, education, and industry. Critics claimed that behaviorism was dehumanizing. John B. Watson and others conducted a thorough explication of Classical Conditioning and B. F. Skinner, responding somewhat to the critics of behaviorisms dehumanization, explained and expertly defended the processes of Operant Conditioning.

3.       Biopsychological Perspective:

The biological perspective is a broad scientific perspective that assumes that human behavior and thought processes have a biological basis. Biology includes investigations into biochemistry of behavior associated with neurotransmitters and hormones, genetics and heritability, and the psychophysics of sensation and perception. Physiological psychology, neuroscience, psychoneuroimunology and psychopharmacology are all part of the biological perspective. Because the biological perspective relies on scientific methods, its scope of investigation is limited to variables that can be controlled. Research methods are quantitative and seek to produce findings that can be replicated and that are generalizable across populations.

Practical outcomes of biological psychology include the booming trade in psychopharmaceuticals, an understanding of mental illness that provides viable remedies for certain very serious disorders, and diagnostic brain scanning tools that are at the leading edge of neuroscience. 

4.       Cognitive Perspective:

In response to the empty organism theory of behaviorism, the cognitive perspective developed explanations for human behavior that suggest that human behavior is at times thoughtful and can be controlled by thought processes. Indeed, the cognitive perspective suggests that much of human behavior is mediated by thought processes like memory and attention, belief systems, attitudes and language. Cognitivists believe that humans bring significant conscious processes into the mix and that much of human behavior is mediated by conscious processes. Belief systems, value systems, thought processes, reason and intelligence have a significant impact on why we do the things we do and act the way we act. The cognitive perspective suggests that much of human behavior is significantly influenced by cognitive processes and is thus amenable to our thoughtful control. 

5.       Sociocultural Perspective:

The social/cultural perspective in psychology suggests that human behavior is influenced by social context, environmental cues, social pressures and cultural influences. Anyone who has attended a football game will recognize that human behavior is susceptible to influence of the crowd mentality. We are all shaped by the context of our environment and influenced by the perception of authority in our social order. Social psychologists suggest that these forces are very powerful and explain a great deal about the causes of human behavior and thought processes.

6.       Evolutionary Perspective:

The evolutionary perspective explains human behavior and thought process as resulting from evolutionary processes. The underlying assumption of biological evolution is survival of the species. Human behavior is understood in the light of the question: how does this behavior result from processes that support the survival of the species?

7.       Humanistic/Existential Perspective:

The humanistic perspective arose in reaction to the deterministic and pessimistic psychoanalytic view and the mechanistic behavioral perspective, to support more optimistic views that humans are motivated by their potential to be creative and productive in response to their social and environmental conditions. The existential part of the humanist view recognizes the reality of being in a world and the opportunity that we have to choose a path for ourselves. Humanism is hopeful, focuses on subjective, conscious experience, tries to solve human problems and emphasizes the human potential to grow in a positive manner. The humanist philosophy respects diversity and confronts reality as it is, both the painful and pleasurable, the good and the bad. Humanism assumes that people have choices about their behavior and possess free will to act and also must assume responsibility for choices and consequences. The humanist perspective differs from the biological perspective in that the assumptions about causes for behavior lie in human self-efficacy, choice and free will as opposed to the determinism of biological causes. Humanist and existential philosophies are combined because they both emphasize free will and responsibility as central to the nature of being.

8.     Feminist-poststructural Perspective:

The feminist poststructural perspective arose in response to the observation by postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, that the creators/owners of a theory enjoy certain advantages that come from organizing knowledge along explanatory lines. Science has traditionally been dominated by men and thus the methods and outcomes of science have benefited men for the most part. But, the feminist perspective goes beyond a critique of androcentric practices and suggests that all organized knowledge has a political agenda that should be examined in the light of all persons' rights and benefits. The poststructural view helps us understand that knowledge is power and that the holders of the languages that construct knowledge are the ones who will have the choices about how resources are distributed. This political theory of psychology and knowledge construction tries to level the playing field and admit the views and voices of all. The underlying assumption in this view is that diversity is essential for human survival. Incumbent upon adherents to this perspective is a commitment to take a stand on issues they deem important, identify their own epistemological position and biases in relation to their views and then engage in a process of self-interrogation of their position.

The 8 perspectives listed and briefly described above represent at times divergent underlying assumptions about why we behave and think the way we do. Some of these approaches rely on quantitative research methods entirely and others rely on qualitative methods almost exclusively. Many perspectives rely upon data resulting from both qualitative and quantitative research. Each perspective asks and answers the questions of psychology in a different way. The unique methods of research and practice that arise from the different perspectives create a landscape that represents the complexity of human behavior and thinking. This diversity of views allows the discipline of psychology to more adequately explain human behavior and mental processes.