Levels of explanation
Reductionism can feel like a really hard concept to teach well. Initially students seem to grasp the idea that some approaches are limited by the focus of the explanation of human behaviour. The term reductionism then becomes a popular stick with which to beat the numerous theories and explanations in A Level Psychology. It is, however, important not to mistake their eagerness to use the term critically, for an accurate understanding of levels of explanation.
In the most recent formulation the AQA specification (see 4.3.1. Issues and Options) requires students to learn about…
“Holism and reductionism: levels of explanation in Psychology. Biological reductionism and environmental (stimulus-response) reductionism.”
Examiner feedback from the previous specification often highlighted that students were using the term reductionism incorrectly in their evaluative writing. At best students were rote learning a “reductionism point” that they were attempting to shoehorn into their responses to gain analysis marks with little or no real comprehension. Rote learning is usually a response to confusion and can act as a form of damage limitation. I think the confusion for learners seems to centre around mistaking a reductionist approach for one that offer theories and explanations that “lack detail” or are “very simple” or “don’t take into account all the other approaches”, rather than focussing on the level of the explanation and whether that level is appropriate.
Using appropriate language
So do we just accept the confusion or try to address it? I think we should do the latter by focussing on the words that are used around this concept.
The language we hear when we first learn about an idea will shape our understanding. Furthermore, the language we choose to add as we try to elaborate on what we have learned will continue to mould that mental representation. It makes sense then that if we, as teachers, allow our learners to use language which is incorrect, or if we ourselves use language without clarifying the precise meaning of the term we are using, it is very likely to lead to the concept becoming distorted in the mind of the learner.
So here’s where I think the problem might lie. Reductionism definitions often refer to the basic or simplest components of human behaviour. Psychology teachers and textbooks use the word basic very differently to students. The word basic to a student more often means simple/easy and has a value judgement attached to it of being not good enough. Mark schemes and other assessment criteria often use the term basic to describe work at a low level. When a student hears the word basic they associate this with lacking detail and being too simple (why wouldn’t they?). In this context, however, the learners prior understanding is misleading. As an adjective, one online dictionary defines basic as: “forming an essential foundation or starting point; fundamental”, offering synonyms such as rudimentary, primary, elementary and root. With this understanding of basic the misconception about a lack of detail seems much less likely to occur. This might also decrease the chance that students continue to automatically criticise a theory for being reductionist because they think it is missing something and appears too simple regardless of the approach it is based on (and, therefore, the level of explanation).
In the classroom
Talk about it
I think it’s worth having a conversation with learners in small groups about what reductionism means, taking the opportunity to pay attention to the language your learners use and giving them examples and/or carefully selected analogies to feed their understanding. Throughout the conversation keep listening and be ready to bring them back to the precise language of the concept (and ultimately the mark scheme). Try swapping words like simple with fundamental and detailed with low/high level and talk about what the word basic means in this context from the start. This will help students to grasp the following:
- that a genetic explanation, for example, is reductionist because it focusses on our basic, fundamental biological makeup, reducing human behaviour to it’s constituent parts;
- that it doesn’t mean that biological explanations offer simple explanations that lack detail;
- that offering a higher level of explanation by taking into account the socio-cultural influences on behaviour might be more appropriate for the given behaviour;
- that not all theories/explanations that ignore the influence of another approach are reductionist.
Analogies and visual stimuli can really help understanding. In the image below I have represented the idea of differing levels of explanation with 3 shelves (a low shelf, middle shelf and a high shelf). The biological components (the fundamental components) are on the lowest shelf and the socio-cultural influences (e.g. the family) are on the highest shelf. Students might like to consider what might go on the middle shelf and what else might be missing.
Another way to consider the concept is to imagine an alien sitting on a faraway planet with a massive inter-galactic telescope wondering why humans do the things they do. The highest level of explanation, using this analogy, is the first they will see. Taking into account the whole view, the alien sees people in social and cultural groups and notes how this is influencing human behaviour. If the alien then sharpens their focus and drills down a bit further into humanity they might focus on the individual and start to wonder about the psychological basis of human behaviour. If the alien drills down to a lower level still, they are now looking at humans under a microscope of sorts and examining their basic (fundamental) make up and the influence biology has on behaviour. Reducing behaviour to the simplest constituents parts often makes for a very testable explanation, but this may be at the expense of consideration of the socio-cultural influences on behaviour, so zooming out to a higher level might be more appropriate. This analogy would make for a much better image than the shelves! [I’m sure someone else has already suggested this sort of analogy before me so I’m not claiming I thought of this!].
Obviously any analogy can start to unravel the more you try to make it fit, but if it helps the student think about the concept more deeply then it has been a worthwhile exercise. If the analogy starts to unravel and the student has understood why it no longer works and can explain this to you, then the exercise has been a resounding success!
About 10 years ago, Chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver led a successful campaign to improve the quality and nutritional value of school dinners. The TV series aired in 2005 (“Jamie’s School Dinners”) played a significant part in changes being made to the policies surrounding the content of school lunches across the country. This campaign coincided in a timely manner with my early teaching of the concept of minority influence and social change (as featured in the now historical AS AQA spec A Social Influence topic) and I used Jamie for many years as a hook on which to hang the concepts of consistency, commitment and other factors that can lead to a change in the majority view point and behaviour. Over the years, however, students became less aware that school dinners had been anything but “healthy” and less familiar with Jamie Oliver, so the relevance of this real life example of minority influence declined. Imagine my delight then when Jamie jumped right back up on his high horse, this time about the amount of sugar we are eating, in his Channel 4 documentary “Jamie’s Sugar Rush” (airing at time of posting) which makes a perfect hook for the new specification (AQA).
The new specification
AQA’s new specification for AS and A Level Psychology includes the following in topic 4.1.1 Social Influence:
- Minority influence including reference to consistency, commitment and flexibility.
- The role of social influence processes in social change.
Some textbooks break social change into the influence of minorities and majorities separately. Jamie’s campaign at the moment fits the bill for the teaching of minority influence and as an example of social change through minority influence.
Jamie’s new campaign
The majority view point is that sugar is great, in fact a necessity, and we are eating the sweet stuff by the sticky bucket load every day, often without even realising it. Jamie’s aim is to fight obesity by helping us make better choices about our food and drink intake. The minority – Jamie and non-celebrity nutritional experts who have probably been saying this for years – would like us to see sugar for the baddy it is and reduce our intake dramatically. As this campaign is in its infancy it provides a perfect opportunity for students to imagine they are part of the campaign team and work out how to ensure they are as influential as possible. This could be done by providing students with historical examples such as the Suffragettes and Jamie’s first campaign (other examples are on the AQA scheme of work) and analyse how they were able to be influential. Students could then plan a campaign using these strategies and present to the class teacher – who might like to pretend to be Jamie Oliver if you like a bit of role play (I’m seeing sugar-free snacks playing a part in this lesson too!).
In – and outside – the classroom: flip it!
As part of the planning process students could analyse these campaigns and consider how successful they have really been. Attitudes towards women have changed dramatically as a result of many things including the Suffragettes but although school policies might have changed as a result of Jamie’s first campaign, it is not clear whether people’s attitudes to food have really shifted (follow this link to read an article published in the Guardian which suggests Jamie’s first campaign may not have been that successful after all).
This is the sort of activity that often traditionally might take the following – not very productive – pattern:
- Lesson on the research including Moscovici.
- Get students into groups and set homework to plan strategies for making Jamie’s new campaign successful. Work in groups for homework (1 person will probably do all the work!).
- Lesson for presentations.
- Another lesson for the presentations there wasn’t time for (or for those who were absent) and a plenary…
An alternative and more time productive approach would be to introduce a few concepts at the end of the previous lesson to introduce minority influence and social change and clarify any new terms, then set the reading about Moscovici’s research and social change for homework with clear guidance to bring notes to the lesson (you could provide headings to help students avoid copying and provide structure). In the next lesson on this topic (with an appropriate time allowance for the homework) ask students to work in their groups on how they can use what they have learned to help Jamie. Instead of spending a whole lesson on presentations ask each group to record a simple video or audio presentation (this can be done by adding narration to a Power Point presentation for example) of their campaign suggestions which can be handed in and watched/listened to by the teacher outside of the lesson. Choose a small selection of the videos/audios to analyse as a class and ask the groups questions about their strategies and ask them to justify their ideas, commenting on each other’s work. This turns a 4 lesson sequence of learning into a more productive 2 lesson sequence with lots of active reflection rather than passive presentation and will allow you as the teacher to ensure of the concepts students will have acquired from their reading have been revisited and their understanding of them assessed.
Now I’m off the have a cup of tea and a biscuit – sorry Jamie!
A new angle on Milgram
Although there is no shortage of resources available for the teaching of many of the so-called “classics” in Social Psychology, such as Milgram’s obedience studies, I thought it was still worth blogging about an article In August 2015’s The Psychologist magazine entitled “Rhetoric and Resistance”.
Stephen Gibson (Department of Psychology and Sport, York St John University) writes about the importance of qualitative data and qualitative analysis to really understand what Milgram’s research tells us about human behaviour. The article, published in the British Psychology Society’s member’s publication, has the potential to offer a familiar context for students to learn about qualitative research methods for A Level Psychology.
Experiments and qualitative research methods
It can be easy for students to get the impression that qualitative research methods are used by researchers who don’t like experimental methods and that researchers might somehow fall into two camps distinguished by those who favour “scientific” experiments and those who prefer the richness and flexibility of qualitative methods. Many experiments in Psychology aim to tell us what humans might do under particular conditions but qualitative methods are also often employed and are vital for telling us why participants might have behaved in a particular way. Both Asch and Milgram gathered extensive data from post-experimental interviews in order to try to find out why they did or did not conform or obey and the content of these interviews has given insight that numbers alone cannot provide.
Is it really obedience or something else…?
The author of the BPS article focusses on an often overlooked source of qualitative data collected by Milgram which has the potential to challenge assumptions made about what Milgram’s study revealed about human nature. In his classic obedience studies, where a participant is given an order to give electric shocks to confederate for making errors in a memory test, Milgram revealed high levels of “obedience” measured by a willingness to deliver a shock to the “learner” (the confederate) up to 450 volts. Stephen Gibson, however, suggests that the audio transcripts of the interactions between the participant and the experimenter issuing the order reveal a social process that may not actually be obedience at all. Gibson suggests that contrary to popular belief the audio reveals that the experimenter did not stick to the standardised “script” and appeared able to improvise in their interactions much more than reports of the study seem to suggest was the case. This might suggest that participants showed more resistance to the request to carry on and deliver the shock than the quantitative data might imply. The validity of Milgram’s research, therefore, may be in doubt if this source of data is taken into account.
The BPS article includes a section of the transcript of the audio from the experiment where a participant is asking for reassurance from the learner that they are ok and willing to continue. Although we might assume that the experimenter would have simply repeated that the participant must continue, the audio reveals a much more drawn out discussion involving some negotiation rather than standardised orders.
The author points out that it is the recording of this qualitative data that makes this scrutiny possible and makes the case that it is important to gather qualitative data and recordings of the interactions between participants and investigators in experiments, rather than focus solely on the outcome of the experiment.
In the A Level Psychology classroom
The article caught my eye because it offers an angle that could be useful for exploring concepts related to qualitative data analysis and the validity of the experiments such as Milgram’s (AQA AS Psychology – Social Influence 3.1.1: How well does Milgram’s research actually enable us to explain obedience?; 188.8.131.52 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 184.108.40.206 Data handling and analysis: content analysis, coding, thematic analysis).
The article ends with the following line: “If we attempt to analyse what happens in experiments without exploring the use of language, we risk missing the social processes that should be at the heart of the study of social Psychology”. I love quotes to stimulate discussion in lessons and I think this closing line from Stephen Gibson would make a great starter or plenary for a lesson on Milgram’s research which has the potential to either simply introduce the importance of qualitative research methods or as an extension for those who you are encouraging to take opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.
The article includes extracts of the transcripts of the audio of the interaction between the participant and the confederate acting as the experimenter. If you are not eligible for membership with the BPS you can become an e-subscriber for a small annual fee and access the full article and much much more…
Attachments in the New Specification
The new specification for AQA places more emphasis on the formation of attachments and has removed the need to explore the impact of day care. The topic of “Attachment” now starts by exploring the early interactions between infant and caregiver that are the building blocks for the development of this bond.
Although the introduction of the concepts of reciprocity and interactional synchrony are welcome additions, the newly published textbooks seem to offer a blurry and, sometimes interchangeable, definition of these concepts. This is particularly important to point out because even the AQA approved books seem to offer slightly different definitions to the historically popular books (e.g. the companion series). I queried this with AQA and was told that candidates need to be aware that the concepts overlap but that they should be able to define the terms separately. They were very helpful and the senior examiner recommends referring to Condon and Sander (1974) which is on page 16 of the Scheme of Work on the AQA website and is discussed further below.
The Over Lap
The concepts in this area are describing the metaphorical dance between infant and caregiver. It looks, feels and acts like a conversation between infant and caregiver. Though no words may be uttered (not on the baby’s part anyway) this two-way interaction has two active contributors. The interactions will be rhythmic and mutual; infant and caregiver are likely to appear to be in harmony as they take turns in this attachment promoting conversation which is likely to involve the infant and caregiver responding to each other with similar sounds, emotions and behaviours. Infant and caregiver are able to anticipate how each other will behave and can elicit a particular response from the other.
What does it look like? The caregiver who smiles at their baby in response to a smile-like facial movement from the infant or who opens their mouth in mock surprise when the infant scrunches up their face, is engaged in this two-way pattern of interaction and is laying the foundations for an attachment to form. The infant that cries and elicits a sad expression and look of upset on their caregivers face or the caregiver who laughs in response to their infants giggling sound and tickles them, is experiencing synchronised interaction.
Defining the Terms Separately
The word reciprocal means two-way, or something that is mutual. Infant and caregiver are both active contributors in the interaction and are responding to each other. This is referred to as reciprocity.
The word synchrony means a simultaneous action or occurrence. Interactional synchrony relates to the timing and pattern of the interaction. The interaction is rhythmic and can include infant and caregiver mirroring each other’s behaviour and emotion. The infant and caregiver’s behaviours and affect are synchronised because they are moving in the same, or a similar, pattern.
Condon and Sander (1974) have investigated interactions between infants and caregivers in particular in relation to responses to adult speech. In their paper they report “As early as the first day of life, the human neonate moves in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.
According to research by Meltzoff and Moore (1983) infants as young as 3 days imitate the facial expression of adults. This implies that this ability to mirror is an innate behaviour.
Beyond the course
Learners may be interested in the applications of this knowledge in Psychology. Music therapists and other therapists who work with parents and infants/children who have experienced disruption in their attachment formation (e.g. when children are adopted and attachments with foster carers need to be transferred to adoptive parents) recognise the importance of reciprocity and interactional synchrony in their therapeutic work. For example, caregivers are encouraged to mirror and share their child’s emotion by imitating facial expressions and engaging in reciprocal behaviour in response to music or other stimuli.
There are a few new (at time of posting) additions to the Psychopathology topic in the AS and A Level course for AQA but I thought I would blog about the return of the “statistical infrequency” definition of abnormality in the revised specification. This definition has a history of being in and out of the AQA spec and it is back, some might say rightly so, for September 2015.
Put simply the definition states that abnormal behaviour is statistically rare behaviour. Any behaviour that does not occur very often is regarded as abnormal and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. So the focus is on the numbers of people showing the behaviour rather than the acceptability (Deviation from Social Norms) or the impact the behaviour has on day to day life (Failure to Function Adequately).
The AQA scheme of work suggests bringing in the normal distribution (from research methods) at this point, which makes sense. Most textbooks will include a normal distribution graph showing the symmetry of the distribution of IQ scores across the population. Obviously few people will have a very low IQ and few have a very high IQ and most of us are somewhere near the middle. This would suggest that having a very low IQ (or high for that matter) would be considered abnormal.
Showing understanding by using precise language
In my experience students often make the mistake of referring to frequency of behaviour when they are actually describing the deviation from social norms definition (DSN). For example, I have repeatedly encountered reference to a behaviour being abnormal because “most people don’t do it” in student answers, mixed in with reference to the acceptability of the behaviour. Although an unacceptable behaviour is also likely to be uncommon, this merging of concepts is dangerous territory for students as it can imply they don’t really understand the definition.
A useful activity to reduce the lack of clarity and emphasise the need for precise language involves displaying a set of behaviours and asking students to explain why each one in turn might be considered abnormal (or not) using each of the definitions. This could work as a sort of reverse Taboo game. For example, usually in the game taboo you would ban words that are relevant to the definition in order to ensure students can explain the concept rather than just rote learn some key terms. In this “reverse” version you could provide the name of the definition and a list of words related to the other definitions which must be avoided in order to be successful.
Students might find it useful to see sentences (e.g. those below) using precise language to ensure they understand the different angle each definition takes. Learners could then be asked to put these sentences in the context of the given behaviour.
|Statistical Infrequency||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because few people show this behaviour. As the behaviour is rare it may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
|Deviation from Social Norms||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because other people would find it unacceptable. As the behaviour goes against the implicit and explicit rules of society is may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
|Failure to Function Adequately||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because it impacts on the individual’s ability to carry out their day to day activities. This disruption to their daily functioning may be a change in their behaviour and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
You could think of one for deviation from ideal mental health.
Evaluating statistical infrequency as a definition of abnormality
The specification no longer refers specifically to the “limitations” of the definitions so strengths and weaknesses should be considered in order to prepare for an “evaluate” or “discuss” question.
|The definition can provide an objective way, based on data, to define abnormality if an agreed cut-off point can be identified.||Some rare behaviours are desirable and don’t seem to indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Having a very high IQ, having a STM digit span of 20 or having exceptional musical ability are all rare but actually highly desirable rather than “disordered”.|
|The definition (unlike DSN) does not make judgements about the acceptability of behaviour. The behaviour is rare rather than wrong.||It can be difficult to know where the draw the line between behaviour that is frequent enough to be normal and rare enough to be abnormal. This makes the definition highly subjective. The definition also does not take into account the severity of the behaviour only whether it is common on not.|
|The definition is limited because some behaviours are rare in some cultures but not others. This suggests that caution needs to be taken when judging the behaviour of individuals from a different culture.|
Using real statistics
Ask students to consider some real statistics related to the rates of diagnosis of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Statistics are often reported in the media which show an increase in mental health issues and reference to the claim that “many” of us will experience mental health problems at some point over our lives is often made in campaigns which aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness (“Fact: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year”, reported on www.time-to-change.org.uk). Asking students to interpret real data will not only develop their data analysis skills but will also give them the opportunity to identify a criticism of the statistical infrequency definition of abnormality given that some mental health problems may not actually be that rare. Students could discuss these statistics and comment on the implications for the definition. This could also include a discussion about the increases in self-harming behaviour in teenagers and whether this definition would imply this is becoming a “normal” behaviour for this age group. I would recommend seeking advice about how to manage this sort of discussion sensitively and appropriately (always assume you are teaching individuals who have self-harmed or who are self-harming to be on the safe side).
An article on the the role of culture on mental health reported that “the prevalence rates for major depression varied from 2 to 19 percent across countries” (Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General). Students could also discuss this finding in relation to the limitation of the definition regarding culture.
I’m sure there are lots of other useful stats out there! Share if you find some.
Now that the A Level Psychology specifications for September 2015 are approved and published, I thought I’d focus my blogging attention on the near future.
Prize winning research
The brand new AQA specification features a number of new areas including hemispheric lateralisation and split brain research (AQA A Level; 4.2.2 Biopsychology). This week on Twitter I came across an interesting article which may provide a useful opportunity to debunk a neuroscience myth whilst teaching A Level students about Sperry’s Nobel Prize winning research (Prize for Medicine awarded in 1981).
Sperry’s research (1960’s and 1970’s) revealed that when the two hemispheres of the brain are disconnected, they become functionally separate. Studies of patients whose corpus callosum had been severed, disconnecting the left and right halves of the brain, revealed this insight.
Click here for more on lateralisation and the procedures and findings of the experiments.
Watch this video for a demonstration of the experiments.
In an article entitled “Right Brained, Wrong Brained: How Caltech Neuroscience became a Buzzfeed Quiz” (Los Angeles Magazine, Feb 9th 2015), author Jason G. Goldman highlights the inappropriate use of Sperry’s research to suggest that people can be left or right brained. The idea that people can be categorised as being one or the other, to account for our strengths and weaknesses, is a neuro-myth. The article points about that the brain needs both sides to function but that both sides need the corpus callosum to communicate. The misreporting of the findings – and a human need to find ways to explain and predict our success and failures – seems to be responsible for the widespread misuse of this finding. The idea of right or left “brained-ness” is popular probably because it seems more scientific than horoscopes or out-dated personality classifications.
Follow this link for more about this myth.
A quote for a starter
“”The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you.”
I think this great quote (above) from Roger Sperry himself, according to www.nobelprize.org, would make a great starter to get students thinking about the focus for the lesson and reveal any existing knowledge – or misconceptions – about the left and right hemispheres of the brain.