Schools of Thought Part 1: Biological, Humanistic, Cognitive Approach and Gestalt Psychology

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  • Wilhelm Wundt, in Germany, established the foundations of modern psychology in 1879. He wanted to study, experimentally, the conscious experience of individuals. As discussed earlier, the different schools of thought gradually emerged after psychology took this scientific turn.

  • These schools were basically different ways of observation, description, understanding, and prediction of psychological phenomena; in the present context, mental processes and behavior

Earlier Schools of Thought

The earlier schools that paved the way for further developments in modern psychology were

  • STRUCTURALISM: focused on studying the conscious experience by looking into its individual parts or elements.

  • FUNCTIONALISM: focused on what the mind does and how it does.

  • GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY: focused on studying the whole experience of a person rather than breaking it into individual components.

  • PSYCHODYNAMIC SCHOOL: focuses on the unconscious forces that drive/ motivate human behavior.

  • BEHAVIORIST / BEHAVIORAL SCHOOL: focuses on studying the behavior that is observable and overt.

Prevalent Approaches / Models / Perspectives

At present some of the earlier approaches still exist. Psychologists belonging to these sets of theories have contributed a lot to the body of psychological knowledge and practice. Today, we can see at least six approaches or models of dealing with the psychological phenomena.

Biological Approach

  • The psychological model that views behavior from the perspective of biological functioning.

  • The role of brain, genes, neurotransmitters, endocrine glands etc. How the individual nerve cells are joined together, how the inheritance of certain characteristics from parents and other ancestors influences behavior, how the functioning of the body affects hopes and fears, what behaviors are due to instincts, and so on.

  • Psychologists using the biological model view even more complex kinds of behaviors such as emotional responses e.g. anxiety, as having critical biological components.

Psychodynamic Approach

  • The approach that concentrates on the belief that behavior is motivated by the inner forces, over which individuals have little control.

  • Founded by the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud in early 1900s, proponents of psychodynamic perspective give importance to the inner unconscious experiences and the forces that led that behavior.

  • Freud believed that unconscious determinants of behavior had a revolutionary effect on 20th century thinking, not just in psychology but also in related fields a well.

  • Although many of the basic principles of psychodynamic thinking have been highly criticized, the model grown out of Freud’s work has provided a way not only for treating mental disorders but also for understanding everyday phenomena such a prejudice and aggression.

Behaviorist / Behavioral Approach

  • The psychological model that focuses on the overt observable behavior. The model emerged as a reaction to the earlier approaches that emphasized the significance of hidden, underlying, predetermined forces.

  • The behaviorists suggest that observable behavior alone should be the main area of interest to psychology.

Humanistic Approach

  • The psychological model, that suggests that people are in control of their lives. It is considered as one of the most recent approaches to psychology. This approach rejected the view that predetermined, automatic, biological forces, unconscious processes or the environment determines behavior.

  • On the contrary, it proposes that people themselves decide about their lives. A failure in being capable of doing so leads to psychological problems. It also stresses the idea that people, by nature, tend to move towards higher levels of maturity and maximum potential.

Cognitive Approach

The psychological model that focuses on how people know, understands, and thinks about the world. Main emphasis is on how people understand of the world, and their thinking, affects their responses; how it may lead to positive or negative psychological consequences, and even health-related outcomes.

Subject Matter of Psychology

  • According to Wundt, the subject matter of psychology is to be immediate experience, as contrasted to mediate experience. By mediate experience Wundt meant experiences used as a way to find out about something other than the experience itself.

  • This is the way in which we use experience in gaining knowledge about the world. Immediate experience is the experience as such, and the task of psychology is to study this immediate experience. The physicists are, on the other hand, interested in studying only the mediate experience, but the Wundtian psychologists study immediate experience.

Main Presumption

  • All human mental experience could be understood as the combination of simple events or elements. By analyzing the basic elements of sensations and other mental experiences, the underlying structure of the mind could be unveiled

  • Task of psychology is to identify the basic elements of consciousness just like physicists could break down the basic particles of matter At Wundt’s Laboratory

  • Studies and experiments were conducted on the fundamental elements that form the foundation of thinking, consciousness, emotions and other mental states

  • Systematic, organized and objective procedures were used so that replication was possible

  • The procedure used for studying the “structure of mind” was called “Introspection”; a method used to study the structure of the mind, in which subjects were asked to describe in detail what they were experiencing when exposed to a stimulus.

Gestalt Psychology

An approach that focuses on the organization of perception and thinking in a ‘‘whole” sense rather than on the individual elements of perception.

Instead of considering the individual parts that make up thinking, gestalt psychologists concentrated on how people consider individual elements as units or wholes. They made great contributions to the understanding of the perceptual phenomena.

  • This school developed as a reaction to structuralism in the early 1900s

  • In contrast to the structuralist approach of breaking down conscious experience into elements, or focusing upon the structure, the Gestalt school emphasized the significance of studying any phenomenon in its overall form.

  • The word gestalt means “Configuration”

  • The main concept that the Gestaltists posed was that the “WHOLE” is more than the sum of its parts, and it is different from it too.

  • They concentrated on how people consider individual elements together as units or wholes.

  • The concept of Gestalt applies to everything, objects, ideas, thinking processes and human relationships.

  • Any phenomenon in its entirety may be much greater than when it is seen in a disintegrated form.

Three German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler were regarded as the founders of gestalt school as each one of them had done significant work in his respective field.

Max Wertheimer

  • The founder of Gestalt psychology, born in Prague in 1880

  • Studying at the University of Frankfurt he became aware of a form of apparent motion that was called “Phi phenomenon”

  • Phi phenomenon = when two lights are in close proximity to each other, flashing alternately they appear to be one light moving back and forth; therefore the whole was different from the separate parts; movement perceived whereas it never occurred

  • We perceive experiences in a way that calls for the simplest explanation, even though reality may be entirely different; this is Gestalt Law of Minimum Principle. We tend to organize our experience so that it is as simple as possible.

  • Explanation of phi phenomenon led to a separate school of thought i.e., Gestalt school, that had deep rooted impact on learning, ethics, and social psychology

Gestalt Laws of Organization

We organize our experiences according to certain rules, in a simple way:

Proximity: Close or nearer objects are perceived as coherent and related.

  • Similarity: Tendency to perceive objects, patterns or stimuli as groups, which are similar in appearance___parts of the visual field that are similar in color, lightness, texture, shape, or any other quality

  • Good Continuation: Tendency to group the stimuli into smooth and continuous patterns or parts

  • Closure: It is the perceptual tendency to fill in the gaps and completing the contours; enables us to perceive the disconnected parts as the whole object.

  • Figure and Ground: Our perceptual tendency to see objects with the foreground as well as the background___ the object is being recognized with respect to its background. E.g. black board and chalk. (These will be discussed in detail in the section of perception).

Kurt Koffka

  • Wrote the famous “Principles of Gestalt Psychology” (1935)

  • Talked about geographical versus behavioral environment: people’s behavior is determined by how they perceive the environment rather than by the nature of the environment.

Wolfgang Kohler

  • Gave the concept of “insight” and “transposition”, as a result of his observations of a caged chimpanzee and experiments with chickens

  • Insight = spontaneous restructuring of the situation

  • Transposition = generalization of knowledge from one situation to another

  • Kohler also talked about Isomorphism; changes in the brain structure yield changes in experiences

Other Major Contributions

  • Gestalt approach to ethics: Truth is truth when it is complete and corresponds fully to the facts of the situation

  • Zeigarnik’s Effect: Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments; we remember interrupted tasks better. The tension caused by unfinished tasks helps us in remembering.

  • Group Dynamics: Instead of focusing on people’s individual attributes we should see them as whole persons.

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