Psychology - Issues and Debates


Gender Bias

Gender Bias:

  • Alpha bias is that which exaggerates the differences between male and female behaviour. Most likely to devalue females in relation to their male counterparts.
  • e.g. Sociobiological theory of relationship formation. Males interests to impregnate as many women as possible to pass on genes. Females interest is to look after offsrping. Male sexual promiscuity is genetically determined but for females it is not their nature.
  • Beta bias ignores the differences between the sexes. Often occurs when females are not involved in research process but the findings are applied to both sexes.
  • e.g. Flight or fight response was based on male animals but extended as a natural response to everyone.


  • If 'normal' behaviour comes from findings of all male samples any different behaviour is 'abnormal' and it is likely that female behaviour would be different and so female behaviour is 'abnormal'. (PMS medicalsises womens anger as hormonal when males anger is reasonable)
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Gender Bias Evaluation


  • Modern researchers are recognising the effect gender bias has on their research. They accept it as a big part of the research process.
  • Worrell (1992) put forward a criteria to avoid gender bias in reserach such as women being studied within real life contexts, genuinely participate in the research and not just be the objects of study.


  • Gender biased reserach may create misleading information about female behaviour.
  • Creates a scientific justiciation to deny women opportunities.
  • Lack of women in senior research positions may lead ti female concerns not being reflected in research process.
  • Research that shows gender differences are more likely to be published.
  • Many gender differences are based on an essentialist perspective.
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Cultural Bias


  • Beleif in the superiority of one's own cultural group. In psychology can be seen as the view that any behaviour that doesn't conform to the usual model is underdeveloped.
  • e.g Ainsworth Strange Situation (1970) as it only reflected the norms and values of American culture which doesn't always suit other cultures.

Cultural Relativism:

  • Imposed etic - imposing own cultural understanding on the rest of the world.
  • Berry (1969):
  • Etic - looks at behaviour from outside a given culture and attempts to describe those that are universal.
  • Emic - functions from within a cultural and identifies behavuiour that are specific to that culture.
  • Many aspects are said to be universal but only apply to one culture.
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Cultural Bias Evaluation


  • Cultural Bias in research is less of an issue than it used to be due to the smaller distinction between individual/collectivist distinction.
  • Some behaviours are universal such as facial expressions.
  • Cross cultural investigations may challenge our typical Western way of thinking of things. Studies willl have more validity if the role of culture is included in analysing behaviour.


  • Psychologists reference to culture without the individualist-collectivist distinction. Distinction between cultures no longer applies.
  • Demand characterists may be exaggerated when working with members of the local population.
  • Variables under review may not be expressed the same in different cultures.
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Free Will

Free Will:

  • Idea that we as people are self-determined and free to chose our thoughts and actions.
  • Doesn't deny there may be biological and envrionmental forces that extert some influence.
  • We are able to reject these forces as the masters of our own destiny.
  • Advocated by the humanistic approach.

Scientific emphasis on casual explanations:

  • Basic principles of science is that every event in the universe has a cause which can be explained using general laws.
  • Knowledge of causes and formation of laws allow scientists to predict and control events in the future.
  • Lab experiments allow psychologists to remove extraneous variables to precisely predict human behaviour.
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Free Will Evaluation


  • Has face validity as we are constantly exercising free will through our own choices.
  • People who have a higher internal locus of control tend to be more mentally healthy. Roberts et al (2000) showed adolescents with a strong belief in fatalism were more likely to develop depression.
  • Suggests that even the idea of free will can have a positive impact on mind and behaviour.


  • Neurological studies go against free will. Backed up by Benjamin Libet (1985) and Chung Siong Soon et al (2008)  showed that the brain activity which determines the outcome of simple choices may predate our knowledge of making choices.
  • The researchers found that the activity which reflects whether you press a button with your left or right hand occurs in the brain up to 10 seconds before you are consciously aware.
  • Our most basic experiences of free will are decided and determined.
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  • Free will has no place determining behaviour.
  • Hard determinism: Free will is not possible as our behaviour is always caused by internal or external events beyond our control.
  • Soft determinism: All events, inc. human behaviour have causes, but behaviour can also be determined by our conscious choices in the absence of coercion.

Biological, environmental and psychic determinism:

  • Biological: The belief that behaviour is caused by bioloigcal (genetic, hormonal, evolutionary) influences that we cannot control.
  • Environmental: The belief that behaviour is caused by feautres of the environment (such as reward/punishment systems)  that we cannot control.
  • Psychic: The belief that behaviour is caused by unconscious conflicts that we cannot control.
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Determinism Evaluation


  • Has evidence and predictions making it more reliable and consistent with the aims of science.
  • Cause/effect is testable so we can experience the effects, such as research enabling the prediction and control of human behaviour and also to lead us to developments of treatments.
  • Gives explanation as to why things happen the way they do. (e.g. God but also concerning mental health disorders as no one would choose to have a mental health disorder therefore casting doubt on the idea of free will.)


  • Not consistent in our legal system as we are held accountable for our actions.
  • Despite it’s scientific credentials, determinism is unfalsifiable as it is based on the idea that the cause of behaviour will always exist even if they may have not of been found yet.
  • People generally don’t like to think they are not in control of their life.
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Nature vs Nurture


  • Concerned with the extent to which aspects of behaviour are a product of inherited or acquired characteristics.

Relative importance of heredity and environment:

  • The interactionist approach - Attachment patterns between an infant and its parents are the result of a ‘two-way street’ - child’s innate temperament will influence the parents’ response and their responses then affect the child’s behaviour; heredity and environment interact.
  • Diathesis-stress model - suggests that psychopathology is caused by a genetic vulnerability (the diathesis) which is only expressed when paired with a biological or environmental trigger (the stressor). 
  • Epigenetics - a change in genetic activity without changing the genetic code.Process that happens throughout life and is caused by the environment. Our lifestyle, events leave epigenetic ‘marks’ on DNA. These tell our bodies which genes to ignore and which to use and may go on and influence the genetic codes of our children. 
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Nature vs Nurture Evaluation


  • Behaviour can be changed by altering the environment (behaviour shaping) has had practical applications in therapy - desired behaviours are selectively reinforced, and undesirable behaviours are ignored.


  • Has a determinist approach which led to controversy when attempted to link race, genetics, and intelligence and the application of eugenics.
  • Nature and nurture are so intertwined they cannot be fully separated.
  • People create their own ‘nurture’ by actively selecting environments that are appropriate for their ‘nature’. Plomin (1994) refers to this as niche-pciking.
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Holism and Evalutaion


  • The idea that any attempt to break up behaviour is inappropriate as this can only be understood by analysing the person or behaviour as a whole.


  • There are aspects of social behaviour that only emerge within a group context. E.g. effects of conformity.
  • Provides a more complete and global understanding of behaviour.


  • Testing methods and results can become vague and speculative as they become more complex.
  • Lacks empirical evidence
  • Produces a dilemma when trying to determine which aspect of an illness is the most prominent. Causes issues when trying to find a basis for a theory to treat a patient.
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Reductionism and Evaluation


  • Belief that human behaviour can be explained by breaking it down into smaller component parts.


  • Breaking behaviour down makes it easy for researchers to conduct experiments and find reliable and valuable results.
  • Able to help psychologists identify the specific aspects of an issue which makes it easier to treat specific illnesses.


  • Has been accused of oversimplifying complex events leading to a loss of validity.
  • Reductionist explanations do not include an analysis of the social context where the behaviour occurs. This context may be a clue as to why the behaviour occurs.
  • Can only ever form part of the explanation.
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Idiographic Approach

Idiographic Approach:

  • An approach to research that focuses more on the individual case as a means of understanding behaviour, rather than aiming to formulate general laws of behaviour.
  • Each individuals subjective experiences, motivations and values are taken into account.
  • Associated with methods that produce qualitative data such as case studies, unstructured interviews and self-reporting.


  • Humanistic: Rogers and Maslow took a phenomenological approach - only interested in documenting conscious experiences of the individual.
  • Humanistic psychologists referred to this as ‘anti-scientific’- they were more interested in investigating unique experiences than coming up with general laws of behaviour.
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Idiographic Evaluation


  • In depth qualitative methods of investigation gives a complete account of the individual.
  • Compliments the nomothetic approach - sheds further light on (or challenges) general laws.
  • Case studies may generate hypotheses for further study and reveal important information.


  • Narrow and restrictive as it is an in depth study of few individuals and doesn’t compare to a larger group or ‘norms’.
  • Freud’s work was often criticised as a number of his key concepts were developed from a single detailed case study (Little Hans - the Oedipus complex). Meaningful generalisations require further examples and a baseline with which to compare behaviour.
  • Conclusions considered open to bias and reliant on the subjective interpretations of the researcher due to ‘unscientific’ methods.
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Nomothetic Approach


  • This approach attempts to study human behaviour through the development of general principals and universal laws.
  • John Radford and Richard Kirby (1975) categorised the applications of the nomothetic approach into three broad types of general law: classifying people into groups, establishing principles of behaviour, establishing dimenstions.


  • Tends to be a feature of reductionist, determinist approaches that use scientific methods of investigation.
  • Behaviourist - Skinner (1953) took data from experimenting on rats to come up with his suggestion of operant condition.
  • Cognitive - Jacobs (1887) digit span experiment, later led to Miller’s (1956) 7±2
  • Biological - Brain scans conducted on countless numbers, used to make generalisations about localisation of function.
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Nomothetic Evaluation


  • Processes more scientific than idiographic - standardised conditions, data sets, analysis, control, compared against the unstructured methods of the idiographic approach.
  • Established ‘norms’ of typical behaviour arguably gives psychology greater scientific credibility.


  • Accused of ‘losing the whole person’ due to the focus on generalisations, laws and predictions, e.g. this approach tells us there is a 1% lifetime risk of developing schizophrenia but doesn’t tell us much about what sufferers experience as a result of the condition.
  • Treated as scores/percentages rather than people.
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Ethical Implications

Ethical Implications:

  • Many situations in psychological studies end up raising some form of ethical issue. Thus, ethical guidelines have been established to ensure none of these issues go untouched.
  • It is hard to stop the ensuing social impact that studies may bring up such as, how their study is viewed by the media, how that view effects public opinion, how viewpoints will influence perceptions of certain groups.

Ethical Issues in Socially Sensitive Research:

  • In 1988, Joan Sieber and Liz Stanley identified numerous concerns that should be noted and approached with care by psychologists:
  • Implications - The broader effects of the research discussed should be kept in mind because  of the social implications that arise if a study succumbs to prejudice, sexism, discrimination etc. while providing scientific reason to it.
  • Uses/public policy - Consider would the research be used for, and that It could potentially not be used for its intended purpose; or even misused
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Ethical Implications Evaluation


  • Sandra Scarr (1988) stated that research into such controversial topics may prove beneficial to the groups effected, because it is often that groups involved in such studies are often underrepresented.
  • Socially sensitive research has been a benefit to society e.g. the finding of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and how to optimize it was positively influential on the legal and justice system.


  • Seiber & Stanley (1988) made a warning that the phrasing of a research could influence how the results are perceived.
  • There are cases of research, even when seemingly harmless, that can have social consequences. This becomes a larger problem when used in public policy.
  • Though there are researchers that conduct their studies morally openly it is hard to prevent their study being viewed in the wrong way or misrepresented.
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