Debates in Psychology
The debates can be useful in the following two questions in the exam
Q 3a /b) Evaluate two strengths/weaknesses of the _________________ approach 
Q4) Compare and contrast the __________________ and _________________ approach in terms of
similarities and differences. 
In essence, this debate boils down to whether the approach explains behaviour in terms of innate factors
or the environment.
The approaches: The biological approach takes a strong nature argument, as it explains human
behaviour in terms of genes, brain structures, hormones and neurotransmitters, which are all innate
factors. The behaviourist approach on the other hand sees all behaviour has a product of the
environment, and so takes the nurture side of the debate. The psychodynamic and cognitive approaches
are somewhere in the middle, as they take into account both nature and nurture. This is called an
interactionist approach as it sees behaviour as a product of the interactions between innate and
environmental factors. The psychodynamic approach looks at innate drives (nature) and childhood
development (nurture). The cognitive approach examines internal mental processes which are seen as
universal (nature) and how the environment affects our thinking and behaviour (nurture).
Strengths and weaknesses: Any approach which takes a strong stance on either end of the
nature/nurture spectrum is going to be ignoring some explanations. For example, the behaviourist
approach ignores the role of genes, which research suggests play a large part in our behaviour. Likewise,
the biological approach does not appreciate the importance of the environment on behaviour. An
interactionist approach is best, as it takes into account all factors. However, it could be argued that while
the psychodynamic and cognitive approaches are interactionist, they still ignore some explanations. For
example, neither takes into account the role of genes.
This debate is about the moral implications of how the cause of behaviour is explained. Determinism
sees human behaviour as a product of forces beyond the control of an individual, leading to the
conclusion that people have no control over their actions. Freewill states that people have the freedom to
chose how they behave.
The approaches: All of the four approaches are deterministic to an extent. The biological approach
states that behaviour is decided by biological factors; for example, if someone is intelligent, it is because
of their genes. This is called biological determinism. The behaviourist approach is also deterministic, as
it sees people as a product of their environment and of conditioning. This is environmental
determinism. The psychodynamic views behaviour as a result of either events in childhood, or
unconscious thoughts and feelings, neither of which a person has control over. The cognitive approach
allows some degree of freewill, but still assumes that behaviour is controlled by internal mental processes
such as schemas which shape our thinking and view of the world.
Strengths and weaknesses: Deterministic theories raise important ethical questions. Can we really hold
people responsible for their actions if their behaviour is a result of factors beyond their control? This
would have important implications for methods of punishment such as prison. However, a deterministic
approach is scientific as it assumes behaviour is a result of cause and effect. Deterministic theories are
therefore easier to investigate scientifically, which is often not the case with theories that take into
This debate assesses how the approach provides explanations for behaviour. Reductionist explanations
break down complex behaviour into smaller, easier to understand parts. Holistic explanations state that
you can not fully understand behaviour without looking at the whole picture, and that it is the interaction
between the smaller parts which provides meaning.
An analogy would be explaining a car. A reductionist explanation of a car would explain what a car is
by breaking apart the engine, and explaining what each bit does, or by looking at the wheels and the
pedals and describing their form and function. However this explanation would be limited in its ability to
explain the “car-ness” of the car. A holistic explanation on the other hand would describe the car as a
whole, how the engine, the wheels and the pedals interact to create movement. It would explain the form
and function of the entire car, it’s uses etc.
The approaches: Again, all four approaches are reductionist to an extent. The biological approach is
reductionist as it explains complex behaviour by looking at the role of genes, hormones etc which are
small, easy to understand components. The behaviourist approach is also reductionist, as it boils down
all human behaviour to a series of stimulus-response associations. The cognitive approach is reductionist
as it sees humans as little more than complex information processors (the computer analogy) and often
ignores the role of emotions. The psychodynamic approach explains all adult behaviour by events in
childhood, specifically psychosexual development.
Strengths and weaknesses: Similarly to determinism, a reductionist approach is scientific as it produces
explanations that are easy to test. Reductionism underlines all psychological research, as scientists aim to
break down complex phenomena into smaller parts which can be examined. However, reductionist
explanations can over simplify complex behaviour, and be limited in its ability to explain.
This debate refers to the methods of investigation that an approach uses. Nomothetic methods are where
researchers investigate large groups of people with the aim of producing general laws that apply to
everybody. Idiographic explanations on the other hand involve an investigation of one person or a small
group in lots of detail with the aim of explaining the behaviour of that one particular individual and
providing a unique insight into human experience.
The approaches: The biological, cognitive and behaviourist approaches all use nomothetic methods for
the majority of their research. These nomothetic methods include lab studies with humans and animals
and twin studies. The psychodynamic approach on the other hand uses idiographic methods such as
case studies and clinical interviews.
Strengths and weaknesses: A nomothetic approach is scientific as it allows laws to be generated that
apply to all people. Nomothetic methods are scientific, produce testable hypotheses and allow us to
legitimately draw comparisons between different groups of people. However, nomothetic methods ignore
individual differences and the uniqueness of people. The idiographic method on the other hand
emphasises the uniqueness of individuals, and can lead to a greater understanding of behaviour.
Idiographic methods are limited in their usefulness however, as results from one person can often not be
Using a debate as evaluation: When using a debate as part of the evaluation question, you need to
give a brief explanation as how that approach stands on a certain debate, using examples drawn from
the approach, and then explain if this is strength or a weakness.
Using a debate for comparing/contrasting: Here you need to state on which side of a debate the two
approaches are, elaborating this using examples drawn from the approach, and then state whether this
is a similarity or a difference. You don’t need to evaluate the debate.