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Debates and Issues in Psychology


Mind Body Debate

One of the central questions in psychology (and philosophy) concerns the mind/body problem.

Is the mind part of the body, or the body part of the mind? If they are distinct, then how do they interact? And which of the two is in charge?

Nature vs. Nurture

This debate within psychology is concerned with the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.e. learned) characteristics.

Nature is that which is inherited / genetic. Nurture which refers to all environmental influences after conception, i.e. experience.

Reductionism vs. Holism

Reductionism is the belief that human behavior can be explained by breaking it down into smaller component parts.

Reductionists say that the best way to understand why we behave as we do is to look closely at the very simplest parts that make up our systems, and use the simplest explanations to understand how they work.

In psychology, the term is most appropriately applied to biological explanations (e.g. genetics, neurotransmitters, hormones) of complex human behaviours such as schizophrenia, gender and aggression.

Holism refers to any approach that emphasizes the whole rather than their constituent parts. In other words ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

The term “nomothetic” comes from the Greek word “nomos” meaning “law”. Psychologists who adopt this approach are mainly concerned with studying what we share with others. That is to say in establishing laws or generalizations.

The term “idiographic” comes from the Greek word “idios” meaning “own” or “private”. Psychologists interested in this aspect of experience want to discover what makes each of us unique.

Psychology as a Science

Science is a particular approach to studying the world that emphasises objectivity i.e. the experimenter is clearly separated from what they are studying.

Key features of science include: objectivity (all sources of bias are minimized); collection of empirical data to support or refute a hypothesis; and predictability.

Free-will vs. Determinism

The free will/determinism debate revolves around the extent to which our behaviour is the result of forces over which we have no control or whether people are able to decide for themselves whether to act or behave in a certain way.

The determinist approach proposes that all behavior is determined and thus predictable.

Free will assumes that we are free to choose our behavior, in other words we are self determined e.g.. people can make a free choice as to whether to commit a crime or not (unless they are a child or they are insane).

Animal Research

This raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals. Main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs.

But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals. If chimpanzees are subjected to research with drugs and possibly surgery, and the result is a cure for schizophrenia, then many would say that the means (experimenting with chimpanzees) are justified, or made acceptable by the ends (the cure to a horrible, life-shortening disease).

Animal research also raise the issue of extrapolation. Can we generalise from studies on animals to humans as their anatomy & physiology is different from humans? Animals cannot think about their experiences and invoke reason, patience, memory or self-comfort.

Gender Issues

If research is biased towards men or women, it does not provide a clear view of the behaviour that has been studied. A dominantly male perspective is known as an androcentric bias, and this can have two forms.

  • An alpha-bias is an androcentric bias in which the differences between males and females are recognised and exaggerated and so stereotypically male and female characteristics may be emphasised. For example, Freud's psychosexual development theory saw women as less moral than men.
  • A beta-bias is seen when the differences between males and females go are minimised or ignored so that only the male view is considered and applied to both genders. This means life experiences which are unique to female experience are ignored. Some theories igno

Alpha Bias = Are differences

Beta Bias = Bull****** = there are no differences

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Debates and issues in psychology. Retrieved from

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