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What is Psychology

Published on 16th March 2010

Psychology as a science is very different from most of the other sciences since the results cannot always be proven to be correct or incorrect. Due to this, there are many theories that until this day have different views on the same matter but are both taken to be possible truths. The behaviour of human beings, how it is brought about in adulthood, is one of these questions with multiple answers. In this essay, two of the approaches taken to tackle the question will be seen and commented upon, stating the strength and weaknesses of each and showing how they are similar and also where they differ from each other. One thing throughout is for certain, there is no theory which will be able to account for all aspects of human behaviour therefore both are considered equally important.

The first of the approaches that will be shown is the psychoanalytic approach. This approach concentrates on the mind and what might be unconscious inside it. There is a big importance placed on the unconscious processes, which occur in the mind. Freud (1915) believed that slip-of-the-tongue, difficulty remembering a name, or a surrealistic dream that appears to have no meaning are not accidental. Freud later on not only declared that these slips are not only non-accidental but that there was a whole system to it. Freud also mentions the importance of two other concepts of the mind – repression and resistance. Repression was explained as the blocking of expression of energy which was seen to be the cause of problems such as anxiety and hysterical symptoms. These processes are created to help cope with traumas which have occurred in the past. Infantile experience is seen to be the very important by Freud. This led to the forming of the psychosexual stages. These are five stages of manifestations of the sexual drive. The stages are named as oral – from birth to one year and a half), anal – one and a half to three years old –, phallic – three years of age until the fifth –, latent – five years old until puberty – and the genital stage – puberty onwards –. Freud places great importance on these stages and says that there is a risk that there can be a fixation in one stage in some cases.

Freud influenced Erik Erikson but the latter believed development happened throughout the lifespan. His levels therefore were more in number and older in age. These were infancy (0-1), toddler (1-3), preschool (3-6), school-aged (6-puberty) adolescence (10-20), early adulthood (20-40), middle age (40-60), old age (60 on).

Freud (1923) also mentions three other factors in the unconscious mind. These are the id, ego and super-ego. The id is the part of humans which seeks pleasure and avoids pain. The super-ego on the other hand is the one which tries to control the id and stop it from getting through each time. The ego on the other hand is the intermediate of the two. Most people are usually able to control the two extremities but in some cases this fails and one or the other takes control.

As we can see, the psychoanalytic approach emphasises totally on the mind and the unconscious development through childhood at least. Therefore we can take it that there is at least a quite strong case that this might be the truth and that these stages are fundamental for the healthy upbringing of both body and mind.

The second approach which will be evaluated is the behavioural approach. This form tries to explain human behaviour by saying that we learn it through experiences. One of the most known behaviourists is Pavlov. Pavlov studied how dogs could be conditioned to salivate even when food was not present just by ringing a bell. This behaviour was learnt through time and reward schemes – the dog received food while the bell was ringing – and in the end the behaviour was conditioned in the animal. Another behaviourist was Watson. Watson was heavily influenced by the views of Jacques Loeb, a biologist who studied animal behaviour. Watson believed the whole to be much more important than the individual elements which created it and therefore unfortunately didn’t take into account central factors but the external ones.  Another behaviourist was Skinner. Skinner is known for the box which was given his name, which he invented to study if animals would learn how to get rewards after a few tries. The Skinner box is still known today and other versions of it are still used to test animal behaviour and reflexes. Both Watson and Skinner said that all behaviour can be explained by stimulus-response chains.

In the behaviourist approach, the emphasis of behaviour was put on learning by multiple trials which after leading to successful results would encourage the animal to keep on doing that behaviour when the same situation occurred. Then, the behaviourists believed since humans are an animal species, this ‘learning of behaviour’ would also apply to the case. This theory has been shown to have some truth in it such as in the experiment of Bandura (1989).

Bandura (1989) took nursery school children and made them watch an adult playing roughly with a bobo doll. He found that children who watched were more likely to play aggressively with the toy than those who didn’t watch. There is one major difference though to this experiment and the behavourist approach. Although behaviour is done by imitation, there is no conditioning to it.

It has been shown that the two sides have quite conflicting perspectives on the subject of human behaviour. The psychoanalytic approach is focused on the mind and its unconscious performance while the behaviourists believe that human behaviour is done through series of tries and learned gradually. There is no mention of stages in the behaviourist approach since there is difference in the number of time the same species of animal takes to do the same task as another member of the species took to learn what to do to get the reward. Another difference is that in the psychoanalytic approach, there are repercussions if there is a problem in the early stages of development while there is no mention of long-term trauma suffered by not solving the task quickly in the behaviourist scheme.

It can therefore be said that there the psychoanalytic approach seems to be the one who looks at the dangers that could happen and looks to them into detail due to their severity but also gives us explanations of what inbuilt systems humans have to deal with trauma or suffering which occurred in the early stages of life. It also shows us that these systems are not infallible and sometime might slip to reveal once again the part of life which was better left forgotten. The behaviourists show us the way in which behaviour can be simply explained and believe that behaviour can be predicted and controlled. Whichever of these two systems is the most viable is not for anyone to judge. As stated before, there are strengths and weaknesses in every approach to human behaviour and once again, there is no theory which will be able to account for all aspects of the human behaviour.


Bandura, A. (1962). Social Learning through Imitation. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE.

Bandura, A. (1975). Social Learning & Personality Development: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, INC: NJ.

Bandura, A., & Walters, R.H. (1959). Adolescent Aggression. Ronald Press: New York.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Freud, S. (1915). A case of paranoia running counter to the psycho-analytic theory of the disease. In E. Jones (Ed.), Sigmund Freud: Collected papers, Vol. 2. New York: Basic Books

Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id., S.E., 19:12-66.

John B. Watson (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177

Skinner, B.F. (1956). "Freedom and the control of Men," The American Scholar, 1955-56, 60.


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