Monday, February 28, 2011

The Foundations of Psychology

The Foundations of Psychology

Contemporary psychology incorporates four major schools of thought, each with distinct and highly individualized underlying assumptions. Although each perspective maintains its distinction and independence, each has made considerable contributions to the science of psychology (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Despite the various array of fundamental suppositions and therapeutic solutions, the perspectives remain connected in an attempt to answer similar basic human life questions.

Each perspective continues to play a significant role in the advancement of psychological science as each provides a definitive overview and direction with which to navigate the complexities of the human psyche and its biological basis (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

The Four Major Psychological Perspectives

The Psychodynamic Perspective

Developed by Sigmund Freud, the psychodynamic perspective is based on the concept that many thought processes take place below the threshold of conscious awareness. Based on previously learned material, Freud believed that people have three psyches or personalities, the id, the ego, and the superego and when these internal psyches conflict with society, the internal conflict eventually disables the ability to cope and function normally. Freud believed these unconscious directives motivate behavior.

Despite the barrage of criticism and ridicule of his newly discovered ideas, many believed Freud was a forward thinker and ahead of his time with concepts of the unconscious, subconscious, and psychic energy (Taylor, 1998).

The Cognitive Perspective

      The second school of thought is the cognitive perspective, which, according to Kowalski
and Westen (2009), "focuses on the mental processes, specifically the way people process, store and retrieve information" (p. 29). This perspective examines the mind's processes of thinking, problem solving, perception, language, and memory and identifies coping skills such as organizing and processing external information to make it intelligible. It evaluates the relationship between these processes and the environment, specifically, the responses provoked by the environment (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

      Based on the assumption that psychological problems are caused by maladaptive thinking, cognitive therapy focuses on identifying faulty thought patterns and changing them to healthy patterns of thinking. As a means to diagnosing and treating mental imbalances, it studies how the individual perceives, reasons, and solves problems (Ellis, 1974).

The Evolutionary Perspective

      The evolutionary perspective is based on the assumption that Darwinian theory is a scientific explanation for the history of humankind including thought patterns, mental processes, typical tendencies, and behaviors (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Based on previously learned material, the evolutionary perspective asserts that humans are products of their evolution and human nature is a biological phenomenon acquired from the ability to change and modify as a species. Additionally, the evolutionary perspective theorizes that the basis of human nature is the natural selection process that enabled survival of the human species and its adaptation to the changing environment.

The Behavioral Perspective

      The behavioral perspective addresses the relationship between the environment and the individual, specifically the way people develop learned responses to external stimuli, and additionally how they learn to make choices according to the consequences of actions (Maslow, 1982). The behavioral approach theorizes that all human actions and thought processes, including responding, thinking, perceiving, and sensing are behaviors (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).  Behavioral therapy focuses on directly changing maladaptive behavior patterns and replacing or modifying with appropriate behavior (Maslow, 1982).

Biological Basis of Behavior

The Nervous System

      One of the primary systems that contributes to the biological basis of behavior is the nervous system. The nervous system is a complex network of specialized nerve cells called neurons that initiate all physical and mental activity in the human organism. Neurons create and communicate messages through the transfer of chemicals and electrical charges to other parts of the brain and body (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

The Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems

      Two basic systems divide the nervous system, the central, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral is a web of neurons. The peripheral nervous system carries messages to and from the central nervous system, whereas the central nervous system sustains and promotes basic life processes, and responds to external and internal stimuli (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

The Endocrine System

      The endocrine system is another integral part of the biological basis of behavior. According to Kowalski and Westen (2009), the endocrine system secretes chemicals called hormones into the bloodstream that function in a similar fashion as the neurotransmitters in the nervous system. The system acts as an additional communication system between the cells in the body. Hormones play a distinct role in gender behavior and development; they stimulate specific mental states and promote associated behaviors.


      The foundational systems that form the biological basis of behavior are complex, the depths of which psychologists and other scientists continue to navigate. Delving further into the human psyche, the psychological sciences explain the mysteries of human experience and behavior although many questions continue to defy definitive answers.

      Notwithstanding, psychologists from every perspective attempt to help individuals by modifying maladaptive behavior and thought patterns, unearthing unconscious conflicts, and recognizing biological imbalances in an effort to mediate discomfort and alleviate internal struggles. This desire to help the human psyche forms the foundational underpinnings of the science of psychology and its attempt to understand and advance the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.


Ellis, Albert. "A Cognitive Approach to Behavior Therapy." Humanistic Psychotherapy: the Rational-emotive Approach. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1974. 191-95.

Kennair, L. E. O. (2002). Evolutionary psychology: An emerging integrative perspective within the science and practice of psychology. Human Nature Review. 2: 17-61.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Maslow, A. H. (1982). Toward a psychology of being. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Rogers, Natalie. "Carl Rogers, Bio." Welcome to Natalie Rogers Home Page. Saybrook Graduate School. Web. 08 July 2010.

Taylor, E. (1998). Jung before Freud, not Freud before Jung: the reception of Jung's work in American psychoanalytic circles between 1904 and 1909. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 43(1), 97-114.

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