Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Types of Reductionism


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Biological Reductionism refers to the way that biological psychologists try to reduce behaviour to a physical level and explain it in terms of neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, brain structure, etc.

For example, explanations of psychological disorders are often biologically reductionist, as genes and neurochemical imbalances are offered as the main cause. For example, a meta-analysis of 14 twin studies of OCD found that monozygotic twins were more than twice as likely to develop OCD in comparison to dizygotic twins if their co-twin also had the disorder (Billett et al., 1998), thus suggesting a genetic link.

Environmental Reductionism is also known as stimulus-response reductionism. Behaviourists assume that all behaviour can be reduced to the simple building blocks of S-R (stimulus-response) associations and that complex behaviours are a series of S-R chains. For example, behaviourists reduce the complex behaviour of attachment down to a stimulus-response link, where the mother becomes the conditioned stimulus who becomes associated with the pleasure from feeding. Therefore the child comes to feel pleasure (conditioned response) when he or she encounters their mother, leading to the formation of an attachment.

Note: While Experimental Reductionism is not detailed in the specification, it is useful to understand this term, as it applies to the Cognitive Approach. However, you should not be asked a specific question on experimental reductionism in your exam.

Experimental Reductionism is where a complex behaviour is reduced to a single (isolated) variable for the purpose of testing. For example, while the Multi-Store Model of Memory suggests that memory consists of three stores and each store has its own coding, capacity and duration, cognitive psychologists often examine memory in terms of isolated variables. For example, Miller (1956) examined the capacity of short-term memory and Peterson and Peterson (1959) examined the duration of short-term memory. Experimental reductionism underpins the experimental approach; complex behaviours are reduced to operationalised isolated variables in order to measure and determine causal relationships.

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