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Reductionism and Holism

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Reductionism and Holism

Should we study human psychology and behaviour as a whole? Can complicated behaviours be broken down into simpler components? When we raise these questions, we come across two opposing points of view in psychology.

Reductionism and holism in psychology are two approaches to studying people and behaviour. There is debate about which approach is best for understanding behaviour.

Let’s first look at the definition of holism and reductionism.

Reductionism is the view that aims to break down psychological processes into small and simple elements. It is based on the scientific assumption of parsimony. The concept of parsimony states that the answers to all problems should be the simplest possible explanation.

Holism comes from the Greek word ‘holos’, which means ‘whole’, ‘all’, ‘complete’. Holism holds that we should consider human behaviour as a whole rather than its parts. Many factors contribute to human behaviour, so all aspects must be considered as a whole. Holism can be summed up in the phrase: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Which approaches in psychology are reductionist?

Some reductionist approaches in psychology are biological, behavioural, cognitive, social, and psychodynamic. Rose (1976) proposed several levels of explanation for reductionism. The lowest level is biological explanations (e.g., genes, brain structure). These are followed by psychological explanations (e.g., cognitive, behavioural). The highest level is social explanations.

The biological approach

Biological psychologists attempt to explain human behaviour in terms of endogenous processes by looking at neurochemicals, genes, brain structure, and hormonal activity. This approach is called biological reductionism.

Excess dopamine in the brain causes schizophrenia. Thus, this approach explains schizophrenia with a biological component.

The cognitive approach

This explanatory approach reduces behaviour to cognitive explanations such as the role of mental processes and memory.Cognitive psychologists attempt to explain behaviour by breaking it down into isolated variables. They apply machine reductionism by portraying people as information-processing systems and disregarding emotional influences on behaviour.

Models such as the multi-shop explanation of memory explain memory as such. This explanation divides memory into three stores: sensory, short-term, and long-term.

The behavioural approach

Behaviourism explains behaviour with simple responses: stimuli, response, reinforcement and punishment. This approach is also called environmental reductionism because it explains simple and complex behaviour in terms of stimulus-response.

The social approach

This approach explains behaviour using the influence of society and social groups. For example, cultural norms and social influences shape gender according to the social approach.

The psychodynamic approach

The psychodynamic approach uses the id, ego, superego, and unconscious to simplify complex behaviours. For this reason, it is also referred to as reductionist.

Which approaches in psychology are holistic?

Humanistic psychology and social learning theory are holistic approaches in psychology.

Humanistic psychology

Humanistic psychology is considered a holistic approach. Humanistic psychology considers all facets of a person. Humanistic psychologists believe that holism is an excellent perspective to understand the mind and behaviour.

The proponent of the humanistic approach, Carl Rogers, described the self as:

organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself.

The concept creates awareness of who an individual is and who they can be, leading to self-actualisation. This is a holistic view, and in the humanistic sense, the basis of knowledge is the human psyche.

Social learning theory

Social learning theory is an example of a theory that combines several explanations. It explains learning through observing others and cognitive processes (if we think about behaviour and its consequences, should we imitate it? Will we benefit from exhibiting this behaviour?)

Evaluating holism and reductionism

Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. Let us examine this using holism and reductionism as examples.

Holism

Strengths

  • Holism considers all factors and components that can influence behaviour.

  • Because it considers all aspects that influence behaviour, it can have higher ecological validity.

  • Humanistic therapy is useful in therapy because it looks at the person holistically to determine how to help them.

Weaknesses

  • Holism does not rely on scientific methods and empirical experiments. It does not isolate variables and does not study behaviour in variables that can be manipulated and studied.

  • It does not provide clear explanations for determining cause and effect.

  • It is challenging to consider all the factors that can influence complex human behaviours.

  • It may overcomplicate behaviours for which there is a simple explanation.

Reductionism

Strengths

  • Reductionism supports a scientific approach and aims to make simple generalisations about human behaviour.

  • Effective chemical treatments have been developed using a reductionist approach to mental disorders.

Weaknesses

  • Biological reductionism overlooks the complexity of human behaviour.

  • Reductionism can lead to partial explanations.

Reductionism and Holism - Key takeaways

  • Reductionism is a view based on the scientific assumption of parsimony. Reductionism breaks down complex psychological processes into small parts and reduces them to simple explanations.
  • Holism argues that people should be viewed as a whole rather than as individual parts and focuses on the interaction of all parts.
  • Some examples of the holistic approach are humanistic psychology and social learning theory.
  • Some examples of the reductionist approach are the biological approach, the behavioural approach, the cognitive approach, the social approach, and the psychodynamic approach.

Frequently Asked Questions about Reductionism and Holism

The reductionism approach explains behaviour by breaking it into small and simple elements. Holism advocates that behaviour consists of multiple aspects and should be considered as a whole.

Holism and reductionism are two approaches in psychology to studying people and behaviour.

An example of reductionism is biological reductionism. For example, excess dopamine in the brain causes schizophrenia. Biological psychologists reduce the explanation of schizophrenia to a single component, dopamine.

Humanistic psychology is an example of holism, as it considers understanding humans and their whole systems, integrating different components of behaviour.

Yes. Reductionism is the opposite of holism and vice versa. 

Final Reductionism and Holism Quiz

Question

What is reductionism?

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Answer

Reductionism is a theory based on scientific assumptions of parsimony. It simplifies complex psychological processes into small parts and simplifying it.

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What could be considered an issue in reductionism?

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Answer

Issues around reductionist approaches are over-simplifying complex behaviour and perhaps ignoring relevant pieces of information. 

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What does the word holism mean?

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Answer

Holism comes from the Greek word holos, meaning whole.

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What is holism?

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Answer

Holism is the idea that humans should be seen as a whole rather than separated parts. It focuses on the interaction of all aspects of the entire structure co-existing together rather than looking at small parts.  

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What are the approaches in psychology considered reductionists?

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Answer

The approaches in psychology considered reductionists are biological approach, behaviourism, cognitive, social explanations, and psychodynamics.

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According to Rose 1976, what is the lowest level explanation for reductionism?

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Answer

The lowest level explanation for reductionism is the physiological or biological explanation.

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How would biology psychologists explain schizophrenia?

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Answer

Biology psychologists tend to reduce its explanation to a single component, dopamine. 

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How do behaviourists explain behaviour?

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Behaviourism explains behaviour by reducing the mind to behavioural components linking stimulus-response. They tend to explain human behaviour such as stimulus, response, reinforcement and punishment.

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How is cognitive psychology related to reductionism?

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Answer

Cognitive psychologists attempt to explain human behaviour by breaking it into isolated variables. Cognitive psychologists apply machine reductionism by presenting people as information processing systems, disregarding emotional influences to behaviour. 


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How is psychodynamics related to reductionism?

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Answer

The psychodynamic approach relies on basic structures such as id, ego, superego, and the unconscious mind to simplify super complex behaviours. For this reason, it is also considered reductionist. 

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Outline a psychological approach linked to holism.

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Answer

Humanistic psychology is considered to have a holistic approach.

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How is humanistic psychology a holistic approach?

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Answer

It is a holistic approach because humanism considers all the facets of human beings, including their social interactions. Humanistic psychologists believe that holism is an excellent perspective to understand the mind and behaviour.


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What was the most relevant basis for humanistic psychology and its holistic approach?

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Answer

Humanistic approach surge with Carl Rogers and his concept of self, or our sense of personal identity.

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Is self-actualisation a holistic idea?

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Answer

The concept brings awareness about who an individual is and who the individual can be, which brings us to the notion of self-actualisation. It is a holistic point of view. In humanist terms, the foundation of knowledge is the human psyche.


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Is holism considered a scientific concept?

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Answer

No, it does not rely on scientific methods and empirical experimentation.

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