In this series on psychological perspectives, we continue our journey in this article starting with Sigmund Freud and ending with Abraham Maslow.
Freud and Psychodynamics
The psychodynamic perspective is synonymous with the combined works of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the father of psychoanalysis. This perspective seeks to understand the causes of behaviour by examining the internal workings of the human mind, emphasising the role of unconscious processes, and exploring the central elements of motivations and drive which are formed during the critical early childhood years between the ages of 3 and 5.
In the late 19th century, Freud, then a young physician in Vienna, began treating patients with a range of physical symptoms but with no apparent medical cause. Freud also treated patients who had phobias and other conditions. In the absence of a medical explanation, Freud believed that the cause must be psychological, more specifically that the causes were unconscious, hidden from awareness.
Freud used a technique known as free association in which patients were required to verbalise their thoughts. He subsequently developed a form of therapy called psychoanalysis, which involved the examination of unconscious psychological forces.
He also proposed that we have innate sexual and aggressive drives that are restricted and suppressed during childhood, resulting in fear and anxiety when we become aware of their presence. This, according to Freud, causes us to develop defence mechanisms, which are psychological techniques to help us cope with anxiety.
Freud proposed grand theories of human psychology, and his ideas were further developed and extended by several scholars, including Melanie Klein (1882–1960), whose contribution to developmental psychology is still evident today in the form of play therapy. Freud’s ideas also contributed to the development of dreams analysis, and to the formal study of memory and mental disorders.
While many of Freud’s theories have been rejected by contemporary psychological science, his views on the unconscious and the idea that behaviour can be determined by non-conscious thoughts still play an important role in modern psychological science.
The behaviourist perspective emphasises the role of the environment in our behaviour. The behaviourists worried that psychology was becoming too subjective and unscientific.
In the 1910s, John B. Watson (1878–1958) started a new movement that directly opposed the structuralist, functionalist, and psychodynamic approaches. Watson believed that psychology should only be dealing with directly observable behaviour, as opposed to unconscious, unobservable processes.
B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) played a crucial role expanding the behaviourist perspective. Skinner’s research largely involved experimentation on rats to determine how behaviour can be shaped through the processes of reinforcement and punishment. In other words, not only was he concerned with observable behaviour but also with the effects of behaviour.
In the 1950s, Skinner developed the idea of ‘programmed learning’, suggesting that learning happens through small, incremental steps, with immediate reinforcement for the student.
Skinner’s approach became known as radical behaviourism, which emphasised that society could use the environment to modify human behaviour in beneficial ways. Behaviourism inspired a collection of techniques known as ‘behaviour modification’, which manipulate environmental factors to increase positive behaviours and decrease negative ones.
In the 1950s, Skinner developed the idea of ‘programmed learning’, suggesting that learning happens through small, incremental steps, with immediate reinforcement for the student. Behaviourism dominated research on learning in the 1960s, challenging the psychodynamic perspective.
However, the rise of the cognitive approach and the study of mental processes caused the interest in behaviourism to wane. Despite this, behaviourism has had a significant impact on our understanding of human learning, and its principles are widely used in education systems today. For example, behaviourist principles of rewards and incentives are often used to motivate students in the classroom.
In their 2002 book Motivation in Education: Theory, Research and Applications,Pintrich and Schunk noted that student motivation can be influenced using rewards and incentives by teachers. Rewards and incentives are the not, however, the same thing.
In the behaviourist perspective, a reward is defined as an appealing object or event given to a student following a successful exhibition of a desired behaviour. For example, a student may be rewarded with a gold star sticker and a certificate for 100% attendance during term time.
Rewards and incentives are useful tools to manage motivation with respect to a task in the short run but may not be effective in the long run.
An incentive, on the contrary, is an object or event that can be used to either encourage or discourage a certain type of behaviour. For example, the promise of the gold star sticker and a certificate for 100% attendance is an incentive; actually getting the sticker and certificate is the reward.
Incentives may also be used to discourage negative behaviours – for example, the threat of detention for not completing homework. Rewards and incentives are useful tools to manage motivation with respect to a task in the short run but may not be effective in the long run.
By the mid-19th century, a new perspective began to emerge challenging both the psychodynamic and behaviourist perspectives. Humanists rejected the Freudian idea that human behaviour is guided by unconscious forces. They also rejected the behaviourist idea that human behaviour is simply a response to external stimuli. Instead, the humanistic perspective focused on free will, personal growth, and finding meaning and value in life.
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) was a key figure in the development of humanism and created the hierarchy of needs, one of the most influential humanistic explanations of motivation. According to Maslow, human needs can be divided into five stages, namely, physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest, etc.,); safety needs (physical safety and security); belongingness and love needs (intimate relationships, friends); esteem needs (prestige, feeling of accomplishment); and self-actualisation (achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities).
According to this view, self-actualisation is reached through realisation and fulfilment of an individual’s full potential. Humanists also emphasise the importance of free choice, responsibility, personal growth, and self-worth. From a humanistic perspective, we are individually capable of giving meaning to our lives.
While humanism has had a relatively limited impact on psychological science, it still made important contributions. For example, Carl Rogers (1902–1987) applied humanist principles to psychotherapy. Maslow’s theory has also been instrumental in education where there has been a growing appreciation for whole child development, including their physical, social, and emotional well-being.
Humanistic ideas have also paved the way for the emergence of the positive psychology movement. In contrast to many approaches in psychology that emphasise what is wrong in the world, positive psychology focuses on how life can be made more fulfilling and how we can nurture the best in ourselves. Positive psychology is primarily concerned with using psychological theory, research, and intervention techniques to understand the positive, adaptive, creative, and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behaviour.
In your own classrooms, as you observe your students, reflect on how unconscious processes may be shaping their behaviours. Using your takeaways from the behaviourist perspective, think about a type of behaviour you would like to see in your classroom. Once you have identified a desired behaviour, identify the series of steps that may be required for you to actualise it in the classroom. After identifying the ‘learning steps’ required, consider how you may be able to incentivise the adoption of your desired behaviour, and how you may be able to reward your students on successfully adopting the new behaviour.
And, finally, discuss with your students the various stages of Maslow’s hierarchies, and observe and analyse how they define their own needs. Also, considering the way that education is now widespread in most societies and cultures as long as food, water and shelter are provided, why do you think that education is such a fundamental aspect of human culture?
We will explore more perspectives in future articles in this series. Until then, happy teaching!
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