Another contentious issue is whether our behaviour is largely a consequence of our past (childhood) experience, or whether it is influenced primarily by our present circumstances. Freud and others of the psychoanalytical school emphasise childhood experiences as critical factors in determining our behaviour. These include influences from the past, such as how we were parented or past psychological traumas. They also include the experiences that a child normally passes through during its development, such as learning that a mother’s absence is not permanent each time, she leaves the room, or the hormonal changes experienced by a teenager. All of these are called developmental influences on behaviour, and the main question is: What experiences in the person’s past or at the present stage of development are causing this behaviour?

Other theorists emphasise the influence of a person’s current experience on their behaviour. These theorists focus on interactive explanations of behaviour which consider present trends in the individual’s life, present fears and goals, present environmental conditions, and current relationships. The person finds ways to respond to his or her environment, and the behaviour is a strategy adopted to help the person cope.  The main question here is: What strategies are working for this person and which need to be changed?

Both developmental and interactive explanations of behaviour are valid and necessary. Depending upon the individual’s predicament, one approach may be more appropriate than another. For example, if we are counselling a newly divorced woman, we may explain her behaviour in terms of present influences such as social isolation and a blow to her self-esteem. On the other hand, imagine if a friend suffers from a nervous breakdown “out of the blue”, so to speak. During the last five years that we have known her, her life has been running smoothly, without apparent crises or significant change. It may be appropriate then to investigate her past history, to determine any causes of anxiety or tension. Both situations can lend themselves to either kind of explanation, so again, the psychologist cannot just assume, but must investigate further.

Psychoanalysis favours developmental explanations because of its emphasis on childhood history. Behaviourism favours developmental explanations because of its emphasis on past learning experiences. On the other hand, cognitive and phenomenological psychologists favour interactive explanations, because their theories focus on the individual’s present perception and interpretation of events.  Clearly, we might often need to look for explanations in the person’s past, or their biology and in the person’s current responses to the existing situation, for the past and the present are inextricably connected. Often our present interpretations of recent experiences are closely related to past experiences.

Example: Compliance

Compliance is a behaviour that can usually be explained interactively, though some of the underlying reasons that a person complies in certain situations might be developmental. Compliance includes the following behaviours:

  • agreeing with others because you have been persuaded or decided it’s the most productive path
  • pretending to agree
  • going along with others’ ideas or actions
  • giving in or surrendering
  • obeying
  • conforming to others’ expectations or values.

Some reasons for compliance are:

  • fear, threat or danger
  • respect for, or acceptance of authority or expertise
  • to gain something (a job, a date, recognition, approval, a reward)
  • to avoid losing something (love, approval, friends, acceptance, a promotion)
  • out of apathy (not caring either way, not thinking that your choices matter, feeling helpless to change things, being depressed)
  • out of laziness (avoiding responsibility, not bothering to make decisions, not bothering to learn the facts..)
  • for health reasons (too ill to think about it, drained, not having the energy to resist)]
  • out of doubt, confusion or ignorance (just don’t know if our alternative is better, don’t trust our own judgement, thinking maybe they know better or more than we do).

In each of these situations, it is possible that the person’s behaviour is influenced by past experiences, the person’s current stage of development, or the person’s perceptions of and responses to the current circumstances. For instance, I might comply in order to please others because I value my relationship with them (interactive explanation), yet my belief that I must please others in order to maintain relationships might stem from childhood experiences in which my parents only showed affection and approval when I complied with them, and withdrew affection when I did not.

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