The levels of analysis in Psychology

Many of you will be studying Psychology for the first time, and will be wondering at the ‘levels’ of analysis’ approach taken by the IB Diploma Psychology course.  This approach, with an acknowledged difference between the biological, cognitive and sociocultural levels of analysing the reasons for behaviour, is also taken by many university courses.  The reason for this goes back to the old and now outdated nature/nurture debate.  How much of our behaviour is inherited and how much is learned?

Nature_nurtureThe levels of analysis differ in their views on this, with the biological level of analysis tending to the viewpoint that we share our genetic inheritance with other animals and a lot of our behaviour is inherited.  The cognitive and sociocultural levels of analysis tend to investigate more the learned basis of behaviour, with the cognitive level of analysis looking at individual interpretation of sensory experiences and the sociocultural level investigating environmental influences on our behaviour.

All psychological research would agree that much investigation leads to the conclusion that we have a genetic predisposition or vulnerability towards certain behaviour, such as a certain mental disorder, which is then triggered environmentally.  If, for example, many of your family members have in the past suffered from depression, it may be that they have inherited a genetic predisposition towards this, which is triggered by a life event.

Genes_env_interactionPsychologists from different levels of analysis would differ in their views on how much the environment is responsible and how much of a predisposition is inherited.  Social psychologists, for example, might well argue regarding the example above that it is impossible to say that, just because several members of the same family from different generations have suffered from depression, a predisposition to depression is therefore inherited.  They would point out that the chances are, with this distribution of depression in your family, that you were raised in a family setting with an adult who suffered from depression and therefore this could be a learned reaction to life stress, not an inherited predisposition.


The model favoured is one of interaction between biology, cognition and environment.  This is illustrated perfectly in this short talk by the neuroscientist Dr.Vilayanur Ramachandran, who has added a lot to our understanding of how our thoughts, actions and brain activity are related.

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