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Reductionism in Psychology

Introduction to reductionism as a technique in psychological research.

Reductionism in Psychology


In psychology, reductionism refers to a theory that seems to over-simplify human behavior or cognitive processes, and in doing so, neglects to explain the complexities of the mind.

Key Behavioral Theories

"The whole is more than the sum of its parts"

Greek Philosopher Aristotle in The Metaphysics

Reductionism can be undesirable if it ignores variables that may be contributing to the subject being theorised. For example, to say that a mental disorder such as schizophrenia is caused by environmental factors, without acknowledging hereditary correlations. However, it also can be useful if it enables psychologists to consider something as sophisticated as human thinking in biological terms, as a series of chemical reactions, and so isolate chemical imbalances which may contribute towards a problem.

Reductionist theories tend to be based on the assumption that everything can be considered in terms of its smallest constituent parts.

In psychology, therefore, we may see the brain in terms of the atoms that it is composed of, and assuming that no other "forces" are influencing them, our behavior and cognitive processes must be based on the way in which these atoms behave and interact with each other. This atomist approach lays the foundation for the biological research in psychology.

Examples of Reductionism

"Reductionist" is a common criticism of many approaches and theories in psychology.

  • The biological approach naturally ignores humans' free-will to act as they please when it explains behavior in terms of hereditary tendencies and chemical imbalance.
  • In applying scientific methods, the cognitive approach to psychology, too, may be understood to ignore individual differences in animals and humans, which make us think or behave differently to one another. Instead, it attempts to apply generalised theories to human thinking in the hope that all humans think in a uniform manner.
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