There are many different theories and models within psychology which try to explain our behaviour, emotion and thoughts.  Each theory contributes something different and increases our understanding.

Therefore, basically psychologists start out with a hypothesis or idea, which they then test. This idea is the basis for empirical (experimental and observed) research.

Definitions: Model – 1) A way of representing patterns of relationships in human behaviour.  Or 2) In social psychology, a person whose behaviour is closely observed.   Theory –  A set of assumptions advanced to explain existing phenomena and predict new events.   Paradigm – Representation or model of reality. Hypothesis – Explanation for observed data that still has to be tested. Hypothesis testing – Gathering information and testing alternative explanations of certain phenomena. Empirical – A finding based on experience or observed evidence, the basis for experimental science.
  1. Neurobiological approach

Some psychologists maintain a close link with the discipline of physiology: they perceive the brain and nervous system as the main key to human behaviour and tend to study the relationship between psychological events (what happens in the mind) and biological events (what happens in the body). There is an increasing body of evidence from neurobiologists that thought, and feelings result from the actions of nerves and the nervous system in the body. For instance, they argue that dreams are the result of activated neurological patterns or random firing of nerve cells.

  • 2- Behavioural approach

A fairly conservative approach is that of behaviourist psychologists. The founder of this school of thought, J. B. Watson, was the father of the science of psychology (though not of the study of psychology).  He argued that if psychology was to be scientific, it must focus exclusively on human behaviour. Watson did not think psychologists should speculate on the unobservable workings of our minds, as they could not be studied scientifically. Watson’s approach still has a strong following due to its practical applications, e.g. in reducing phobias and so on.


Stimulus – Sensory input which leads to a response. Response – The behavioural result of stimulation in the form of movement or glandular secretion.

Much of behavioural research is executed with subjects under experimental conditions, using a stimulus-response approach. The psychologist provides a stimulus for an individual, then observes and studies the individual’s response to that stimulus. Behaviourists are sometimes referred to as “black box” theorists because they treat the mind like a clean slate that has attitudes and behavioural patterns inscribed on it due to learning.  The behaviourist approach has been used extensively in studying the process of learning.

3-Cognitive approach

Cognitive comes from the Latin ‘Cognito’, meaning to apprehend or understand.  The cognitive approach developed largely as a reaction to the behavioural approach.  Cognitive psychologists argue that individuals do not passively respond to stimuli, but actively process information in their brain before responding to the information.  They are interested in what happens in the mind between the stimulus and the response.  They look at topics such as perception, memory, thought, language and attention.  They try to explain behaviour in terms of these mental processes.  Cognitive psychology is used in many different ways, such as suggestions on how to improve our memories, improving performance in situations that require concentration, such as air traffic controllers and so on.

Definitions: Cognition – A general term including all mental processes by which people become aware of and understand the world. Perception – The process of becoming aware of objects and events by way of  sensory organs.

4-Psychoanalytical approach

One of the most familiar and influential approaches to human behaviour is psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud. Where the above approaches were formulated on the basis of mainly experimental studies, Freud based his theories upon intensive case studies of a considerable range of patients.

Psychoanalysis focuses on unconscious mental activities. According to Freud, much of the individual’s observable behaviour is influenced by wishes, desires or fears which the individual has learned to suppress because they are not socially acceptable. As a child develops, it learns that some feelings and desires are unacceptable hence, these wishes, desires and fears are buried deep in the mind, leading to the development of the unconscious.  According to Freud, these unconscious impulses still find expression through dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, symptoms of mental illness, as well as in artistic expression, with an individual’s psychological history playing an immense role in particular behaviour patterns.

All of the approaches previously discussed adhere firmly to the scientific principles of objectivity – the human individual is perceived as a passive object of analysis rather than an active agent of his/her own destiny. On the one hand, behaviourists claim that human behaviour is largely shaped by environmental stimuli; and on the other hand psychoanalysts claim that behaviour is shaped by unconscious impulses beyond the individual’s control.

5-Phenomenological approach

Because of the demand that psychology be accepted as a scientific discipline, many theorists tended to forget that the subject of their study is the human being, who (unlike the atom or a virus) has self-awareness, freedom of choice, a personal value system, and most of all, a desire to be understood, to gain self-knowledge, and to grow spiritually. It is these neglected aspects of human behaviour that the phenomenologist chooses to emphasise.

For these reasons, phenomenological psychology is often called humanistic psychology.

The phenomenological approach rejects the view that the individual is a passive result of uncontrollable forces. The phenomenologist focuses on the individual’s active, subjective experience, as this approach emphasises the individual’s personal interpretation of the world as a cause of behaviour. The individual is regarded as a free agent with the ability to choose his or her own values, actions and goals. Because this approach is so person centred, it has perhaps received less attention than experimental research, yet it has had a profound influence on methods of therapy and counselling.

6-Eclectic approach

Although the above approaches have been discussed in isolation, it is important to note that modern psychologists rarely align themselves with one approach exclusively. They are more likely to incorporate aspects of several theories into their approach. This is called the eclectic approach.

Other important terms often used in psychology include – Definitions:

Catalyst – A person/thing that causes an important change. A facilitating factor.

Cumulative – Growing in strength, amount or effect by small steps, subject to accumulation.

Facilitate – Make easier or assist the progress of.

Modify – To change, adapt or vary something.

Potential – Latent capacity or power.

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