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Approaches in Psychology

In your daily life, you may opt for a given fashion style depending on who you are meeting, what you will be doing or where you will be going. Based on certain parameters, you may decide to wear a more casual, more bohemian or more chic outfit. Similarly, psychology presents different styles. These styles are called approaches. The different approaches in psychology emerged throughout history and tend to focus on different psychological topics.

  • This explanation will offer you an introduction to the psychological approaches.
  • Then you will be introduced to the five approaches in psychology: Psychodynamic, behavioural, humanistic, cognitive and biological approach.
  • In this explanation, you will learn about the limitations of each approach.

The Psychodynamic Approach

In the late 1900s, Sigmund Freud established the psychodynamic approach, which was a personality theory that emphasised unconsciousness.

Psychodynamic means ‘mind in conflict’, therefore, the approach is based on the idea that certain parts of our personality conflict with other parts.

Freud argued that human behaviour emerged as a consequence of the interaction of the components of the mind. These were: the id, the ego and the superego.

  • The id is the most primitive aspect of personality and reflects individuals' urges and impulses. The id is meant to seek pleasure and avoid pain, therefore being impulsive and taking place in unconsciousness.
  • The ego aims to satisfy the id's urges in a rational way. Therefore the ego seeks to avoid breaking social rules and norms. The ego takes place in consciousness.
  • The superego considers moral values and works on the basis of reward and punishment. The superego tries to control the impulses of the id that are not moral.

Further, Freud argued that psychological disorders were a consequence of the conflict of the three components of the mind as well as early childhood experiences. Freud explained that to deal with the conflict between the id, the ego and the superego, individuals use defence mechanisms. Among defence mechanisms, one finds repression, denial and displacement.

  • Repression is the defense mechanism by which refers one can choose to hide ideas that make create pain and upset individuals.
  • Denial is the defense mechanism by which one refuses to accept ideas, not to cope with the emotional impact these may have. These ideas can either be positive or negative.
  • Displacement is the defense mechanism by which an individual directs an impulse to a person which emerged from another source. An example of displacement would be getting mad with a friend because you have been under a lot of stress at work. The friend would not be the one causing the impulse - the impulse comes from the stress at work - but is the one receiving it.

Evaluation of the Psychoanalytic Approach

Although Freud's ideas were very influential at the time, they have been criticised for a number of reasons:

  • These theories are difficult, if not impossible to test scientifically, which questions how valid they are. Concepts such as the libido or the defense mechanisms are hard to measure and cannot be tested.
  • The predictive nature of the theory has also been questioned. It is hard to test or explain how childhood experiences influence adult behaviour.
  • Freud only used observational methods to establish his theory, without testing his ideas with other methods.

The Behavioural Approach

Psychology underwent a dramatic change in the early 19s. Moving away from Freud's ideas of the conscious mind, psychology was dominated by the scientific view and focused on observable and measurable behaviour. This is how behaviourism was born.

Behaviourism is the learning theory that suggests that all behaviour is acquired through the conditioning that takes place in the interaction with the environment.

Behavioural psychologists believe that all behaviours are the result of our experiences, in fact, behaviourists stress the idea that we are all born as a blank slate, and can learn to be anything through the process of conditioning. The behaviourist approach includes different theories, among which we find: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and the social learning theory.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov developed the theory of classical conditioning. Pavlov carried out an experiment with dogs and argued that learning takes place when an involuntary reflex is associated with a new stimulus. This learning style can be used to detect and explain phobias and personal attachments.

Classical conditioning occurs when a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (food) that occurs naturally. Eventually, the neutral stimulus evokes the same response (salivation) as the naturally occurring stimulus. Pavlov explained that this process would take place in three steps:

  1. Before conditioning, the dog presents two different behaviour. The first is an absence of response to the neutral stimulus which is a bell, and the second is a response to an unconditioned stimulus. In this case, the response is the salivation of the stimulus, which is food.
  2. During conditioning, the dog is presented with the neutral stimulus, and then with the unconditioned stimulus. When this has taken place multiple times conditioning would have taken place.
  3. After conditioning, the dog would then show the behavioural response (salivation) in the presence of the neutral stimulus, even when no unconditioned stimulus is presented.
The main idea of this theory is that learning can take place through association.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a theory developed by Skinner (1948), who demonstrated that learning occurred after associating behaviour with a consequence; such a consequence could either be a punishment or a reinforcement.

Skinner used the "Skinner box" with rats and pigeons. The animal would be placed in the box, where the animal was allowed to move freely. In the box there was a level, which one pressed, would reward the animal with food. The animal, thus, would learn the association between the behaviour (pressing the lever) and the reinforcement (food).

Skinner suggested that punishments decrease the likelihood of the behaviour happening, while reinforcements increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. He distinguished between positive and negative consequences. Positive consequences essentially add something and negative consequences essentially remove something. In the following table you find some real-life examples:

PositiveNegative
PunishmentA child told off for hitting a sibling.A child not being allowed TV time for getting bad grades.
ReinforcementA child praised by his/her parents for eating all the vegetables.Stopping to pet your dog when it jumps over you.

Evaluation of the Behaviourist Approach

The behaviourist approach has also been criticised for presenting weaknesses:

  • This approach is too deterministic and understands behaviour as the sum of previous conditioning. This leaves little if any room for the idea that individuals have free will of choice.
  • Since most of the research is done in laboratory settings, the approach is criticised for having low ecological validity.
  • In its origins, the approach established its main findings from animal studies. However, one cannot resemble human behaviour in animals, and therefore the approach is criticised for its low humanism.

The Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach supports the individual to fulfil their potential and maximise their well-being. It states that people need to be viewed as a whole. According to this approach, we have the innate capacity for self-actualisation, which is the desire to be the best version of ourselves. Another assumption of the approach is that humans have free will.

Free will is the capacity that humans possess to make decisions.

Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist who came up with the hierarchy of needs theory. This theory suggests that there are five categories individuals need to fulfil for self-actualisation to occur. The five categories are:

  1. Psychological needs refer to the basic needs of a human to function such as water, food, sleep and a home.
  2. Safety refers to the protection from violence and the presence of well-being and emotional stability.
  3. Love and belonging refer to social interactions with friends and family.
  4. Self-confidence refers to having the belief that one is valuable and has potential for personal worth.
  5. Self-actualisation refers to the fulfilment of a person and his/her potential.

Approaches in Psychology, Maslow's hierarchy of needs' representation, StudySmarterFig 1: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The humanistic approach is the basis of counselling psychology which promotes growth and well-being.

Evaluation of the Humanistic Approach

The behaviourist approach has also been criticised for presenting weaknesses:

  • Similar to the psychodynamic approach, the humanistic approach is unable to provide empirical evidence to support its validity
  • Further, the approach raises concerns about cultural bias since every culture is different and so humanistic psychology may only be applicable to individualistic nations, where the theories were developed.
  • Last, the humanistic approach has been criticised for being unrealistic and romantic,

The Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach believes that in order to understand human thinking, one needs to explain the processes used in individuals' minds. Therefore, the cognitive approach studies cognition, which refers to the processes of remembering, reasoning, imagining and problem-solving, among others.

Jean Piaget was a psychology researcher who contributed important insights to developmental psychology even before the inception of the cognitive approach. As the approach developed, his views became more influential. This included the idea that children’s minds develop in a series of stages, and that our knowledge of the world is structured into meaningful concepts, which he termed schemas.

Evaluation of the Cognitive Approach

The main criticisms that the cognitive approach received over time are the following:

  • The cognitive approach deals with ideas that are not directly observable.
  • Further, it does not account for factors that may be influencing behaviour such as the environment.
  • Most of the research in the cognitive approach is done in laboratory settings, which makes the approach lack external validity.

The Biological Approach

The biological approach assumes that all human behaviour has a biological origin and highlights the importance of understanding internal biological structures, hormones, genes, the nervous system and neurochemistry.

The biological approach emphasises the role of biology in determining human behaviour. This approach focuses on biological systems at various levels:

  • Genetic: the basic inherited instructions for the construction and functions of the human body constitute the genotype, and it is codified in the genes. Their observable manifestation, or phenotype, includes eye colour characteristics and presumably behavioural characteristics like intelligence or psychosis.
  • The genetic approach presumes an evolutionary factor in which natural selection favours the carriers of certain characteristics.
  • Control systems like the nervous system (central, peripheral and autonomous), endocrine and neurochemical.
  • This approach also accounts for environmental factors, which influence evolution by presenting challenges to the organism.

Approaches in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • Freud proposed the notion of the unconscious mind and conducted a series of studies to better understand the relationship between someone's emotion and behaviour. He believed that unconscious motives and early childhood experiences determine behaviour.

  • Behaviourists believe that humans are born as a “blank slate”, and behaviour is something that a person develops through different stimuli. The first behaviourists explored the relationship between learning and behaviour, and developed conditioning.

  • The humanistic approach believes that all aspects of humans have free will to construct their reality the way they would like to, independent of any other factor than their own free will.

  • Cognitive psychology believes that behaviour is the product of information, processed and modified by experience.

  • Biological behaviourists claim that internal biological factors control human behaviour (e.g. biological structures, hormones, genes, the nervous system and neurochemistry).


¹John B. Watson, Behaviorism, 1924

Frequently Asked Questions about Approaches in Psychology

The cognitive approach studies internal mental processes - concerning our emotions, perceptions, thinking, memory, attention, language, problem-solving, and learning. Everything related to how we think and how it influences our behaviour, and how our irrational thoughts can be the cause of a mental illness.

Behavioural psychology is based on a theory of learning, that we acquire our behaviours through conditioning. The conditioning happens through the interaction within the environment. Behaviourists claim that the environmental stimulus shapes our actions, which are a response to that. 

There are five major perspectives in psychology. Biological, psychodynamic, behavioural, cognitive and humanistic. 

The biological approach assumes that all human behaviour has a biological origin. It highlights the importance of understanding internal biological structures such as hormones, genes, nervous systems, and neurochemistry.

The psychodynamic approach emphasises the importance of our unconscious mind and between the different structures of our personality. It focuses on our childhood experiences and how it impacts the future, changing how we interact with the world will also change how we develop our emotions, behaviour and feelings in adult life. 

Final Approaches in Psychology Quiz

Question

What are the main subdisciplines of Behavioural psychology?



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Answer

There are four main subdisciplines of behavioural psychology. 

  • Applied behaviour analysis;
  • Cognitive therapy;
  • Behavioural therapy; 
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy.

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Question

When was behaviourism established?



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Answer

Behaviourism was established in 1913 when John B. Watson published his article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”.

Show question

Question

What is behaviourism?



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Answer

Behaviourism is the learning theory that suggests that all behaviour is acquired through the conditioning that takes place in the interaction with the environment. 

Show question

Question

What is Operant Conditioning? 

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Answer

Operant Conditioning is a theory developed by Skinner which suggests that learning occurres after associating a behaviour with a consequence. Such consequence could either be a punishment or a reinforcement

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Question

What are the fields outside 

psychology that the 

cognitive approach applies to?

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Answer

Cognitive psychology has been integrated into different branches of psychology and other modern disciplines such as cognitive science, linguistics and economics. The domain of cognitive psychology overlaps with cognitive science, an interdisciplinary approach that includes studies of non-human subjects and artificial intelligence.

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Question

Is the following affirmation true or false?: In 1979 Wilhelm Wundt  opened the institute for experimental psychology, even before psychology was considered a discipline in its own right, psychology was considered an experimental branch of philosophy.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

The theories around the psychodynamic 

approach to therapy originated from 

Jung’s psychoanalytic theory.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Is it correct that Carl Rogers believed that people are motivated by a hierarchy of needs?

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Answer

False.

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Question

The biological approach assumes 

that all human behaviour has a 

biological origin.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Operant conditioning is a technique applied to behavioural training. Essentially it occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that occurs naturally.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Who was Wilhelm Wundt?

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Answer

The founding father of psychology who established psychology as a separate, scientific discipline for the first time from philosophy and the natural sciences.

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Question

What is introspection?


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Answer

Observing and examining your own thoughts and feelings.

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Question

What is one practice associated with mental health that uses introspection?


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Answer

Mindfulness.

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Question

What type of therapy can benefit from the use of introspection?


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Answer

Psychodynamic

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Question

Why was introspection considered scientific at the time?


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Answer

it uses standardized instructions and controlled conditions


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Why is introspection subject to bias?


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Answer

It is a very subjective method and relies on the introspectionist’s own perception of their thoughts.

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Question

Why is introspection considered to have low internal validity?


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Answer

Introspection itself may influence our natural thought processes, meaning that the method may not measure what it sets out to; thus, it has low internal validity.

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Question

 Why is introspection considered to have low external validity?


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Answer

The approach can only be applied to specific groups of people, meaning that results found from introspection cannot be generalised.

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Question

How can introspection be applied?


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Answer

In psychotherapy or mindfulness practice.

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Question

When was the first psychological laboratory founded?


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Answer

 1879


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Where was the first psychological laboratory founded?


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Answer

Germany.

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 Which philosopher first proposed the idea of introspection?


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Answer

Plato

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When was Wilhelm Wundt born?


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1832

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In which university did Wundt establish the first psychology lab?

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Answer

University of Leipzig.


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What did Wundt study before psychology?


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Answer

Medicine.


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What field did psychology emerge from?

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Answer

Philosophy

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Question

When did Wilhelm Wundt establish the first psychological laboratory?


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Answer

1879

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Question

Who discovered classical conditioning?


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Answer

 Ivan Pavlov


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Question

What is classical conditioning?


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Answer

Classical conditioning is when an individual becomes conditioned to perform a certain behaviour when presented with stimuli that have been associated with behaviour.

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 What is operant conditioning?


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Operant conditioning is the process in which an individual is conditioned to maintain or cease performing a behaviour by positive and negative reinforcement.

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Question

How did behaviorism advance the field of psychology as a science?


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Answer

Behaviour is explicit and can be recorded and studied more objectively than thoughts.

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Question

Who created the ‘human circulation balance’ technique of brain imaging?


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Answer

Angelo Mosso

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How have brain scans advanced the field of psychology?


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Answer

Because now psychologists can observe and study the brain more accurately.

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In which model of memory can we still see the influences of philosophy on psychological theory?


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The multi store model of memory, as it is mostly based on hypothesis and theory rather than explicit data.


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What did structuralist psychologists believe?


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Structuralist psychologists believed that the brain was made up of many parts, similar to the way that chemists break down chemicals into their smaller components.

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Who developed structuralism?


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Ivan Pavlov

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Who developed cerebral angriography?


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Answer

 Angelo Mosso

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What are the modern brain scans that we use today?


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Answer

MRI, fMRI and CT scans.

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Question

What was Freud’s aim when developing psychodynamic theory?



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Answer

Sigmund Freud conducted a series of theoretical studies and writings about human nature to understand the relationship between an individual’s emotions and behavioural patterns.

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Question

Could you summarise one of the theories applied to the psychodynamic approach?




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Answer

The psychodynamic approach includes theories that see human behaviour based on the individual’s drives and forces. The idea is that, in every person, different parts of the personality conflict with each other, desiring different things.

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Question

What are the aims of the psychodynamic approach?

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Answer

  • To acknowledge an individual’s emotions.


  • To identify repeating or toxic behavioural patterns.


  • To improve interpersonal relationships.

  • To recognise and address avoided issues.

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Question

What are the assumptions of the psychodynamic approach?


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Answer

  • Human behaviours have a root cause.


  • Human behaviour originates from conflicting desires experienced back in early life.


  • Internal processes and the external environment contribute to adult personality.

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Question

Who, other than Freud, developed 

the psychodynamic approach?




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Answer

The theories around the psychodynamic approach to therapy originated from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. In the mid-1940s and 1950s, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and others further developed psychodynamics by the general application of the psychodynamic approach.

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Question

What does the term 

psychodynamic mean?



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Answer

It means mind energy or mind in conflict.

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Question

What are defence mechanisms?




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Answer

When the mind is triggered by unpleasant events, it finds ways of protecting itself from the effects of these conflicts. Examples include repression, displacement and denial.

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Question

How does the psychodynamic 

approach explain adult behaviour? 



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Answer

 The psychodynamic approach sees human functioning based upon the interactions of drives and forces within the individual, this explains why they behave in a certain way. Some of these may be rooted in childhood.


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Question

What led Freud to divide the 

mind into three different parts?



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Answer

Freud observed the conflicts between different parts of the personality wanting different things. 


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Question

What did Freud name the three different parts of the mind?




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Answer

 Id, ego and superego.

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Question

What are the psychosexual 

stages of development?



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Answer

The psychosexual stages of development are:

Oral stage

Anal stage

Phallic stage

Latency stage

Genital stage

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Question

What are “unconscious conflicts in the psyche”?



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Answer

It refers to unresolved conflicting feelings and behaviours that we might not be aware of.


Show question

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