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Reductionism | AQA B Psychology
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  • Reductionism – the argument that we can explain behaviour and experiences by reference to only one factor, such as physiology or learning.
  • Reductionism and determinism → closely linked, where you find one, likely to find the other.
  • Rose (1997) – identified 3 different forms of reductionism
    • Methodological reductionismrefers to the use of reductionism as a method of investigating phenomena. A researcher reduces behaviour to a set of variables which can be controlled and measured, thus cause and effect relationships can be established.
    • Philosophical reductionisman attempt to find a ‘Grand Theory of Everything’ – 1 language that can be used to talk about everything in the universe. Will help to form an all-embracing explanation of the world
    • Ideological reductionismserves a vested political interest, usually in the form of coercion.
  • There are many different types of reductionism:
    • Physiological reductionism - argues that all behaviour and experiences can be explained (or reduced to) by biological factors such as hormones or the nervous system
    • Genetic reductionismreduces all causes of behaviour to genetic inheritance. 
    • Social reductionism – argues that all behaviour and experiences can be explained simply by the affect of groups on the individual.

Arguments for reductionism

  • By breaking down a phenomenon to its constituent parts it may be possible to understand the whole.
  • This type of single mindedness has lead to some great discoveries in psychology as it has in the ‘natural’ sciences
  • Is appropriate for certain levels of explanation – e.g. if your talking about living cells, it makes sense to use cellular biology and not psychology.

Arguments against reductionism

  • Too simplistic because they ignore the complexities of human behaviour and experience. Behaviour often has a number of different causes and to reduce the possible explanations to one level can only provide a limited understanding.
  • Inappropriate for psychology – methodological reductionism reducing complex behaviour to variables which can be manipulated and measured, the results from these types of experiments cannot be generalised as they lack ecological validity.
  • Holistic may be more appropriate for psychology– looks at the process as a whole.

Examples of Reductionism in Psychological Theories and Studies


  • The cause has been linked to excessive activity by dopamine
  • Anti-psychotic drugs can be used to reduce dopamine activity in the brain and symptoms of the disorder
  • As a result, the drug itself may be able to eradicate schizophrenia by controlling the levels of dopamine. So where does this leave the environmental factors of schizophrenia?
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