Holism and Reductionism in Psychology

Updated on July 18, 2019
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes to go to university next year.

Reductionism and holism are two different approaches in psychology that researchers use to create experiments and draw conclusions. Reductionism likes to divide explanations of behaviour into separate components, whilst holism likes to look at the picture as a whole. Both have disadvantages and advantages that will be evaluated in this article.



Reductionism is an approach that breaks down complex behaviours into simpler and separate components. This approach argues that explanations begin at the highest level of explanation then progressively works it's way down:

  • The highest level: social and cultural explanations for behaviour
  • The middle level: psychological explanations for behaviour
  • The lowest level: biological explanations for behaviour

Environmental reductionists believe that behaviour can be reduced to a relationship between behaviour and events in the environment and that behaviour is explained by past experiences. For example, the social learning theory proposes that children will copy the behaviour of their role model (often a same-sex parent).

Biological reductionists argue that all human behaviour can be explained, or reduced to, a physical explanation. Genes, neurotransmitters, hormones and more can all influence our behaviour, biological reductionists believe that biology alone can explain human behaviour.

Experimental reductionism reduces complex behaviours to isolated variables which can be manipulated in an experiment. They believe that these variables can be measured to determine causal relationships.


In contrast, holism focuses on systems as a whole rather than individually. An example of holism in Gestalt psychology. Founded in Germany in the early 20th century, Gestalt psychology focussed on perception and argued that explanations only make sense as a whole, and that looking at individual elements won't make sense on their own.

Similarly, humanistic and cognitive psychologists also follow a holism approach. The humanistic approach argues that actions as a whole forms an identity; so a lack of 'wholeness' or identity leads to a mental disorder. Cognitive psychologists believe that the network of neurons in our brain (which are formed and destroyed by environmental experiences) acts differently as a whole than as individual components.

This approach argues that individual components aren't as important in explaining behaviour than how all these components work together as a whole.


Evaluation of Reductionism

An advantage of biological reductionism is that it has led to an increased use of drug therapies. A greater understanding of biology has enabled more successful and effective drugs to combat mental illnesses. As a result, less individuals have been institutionalised and it has also encouraged a more humane treatment for those with mental disorders. A biological explanation prevents blame from being pushed onto individuals with disorders. However, drug therapies also have limitations. For example, many treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have shown to be highly effective, but drug therapies may encourage people to ignore the success of CBT to use the cheaper and quicker option of drugs. Another issue with drug therapies is that they treat symptoms not causes - there may be environmental causes to certain disorders. Taking drugs will not cure any mental illnesses in the long run because they don't always address the actual issue.

Another limitation of biological reductionism is that it can make people overlook the meaning of behaviours. For example, Wolpe (1973) treated a married woman who had a fear of insects with systematic desensitisation. There was no improvement, which later revealed to be because her husband had been given an insect nickname. Her fear of insects had been caused by her worries about her unhappy and unstable marriage. This example shows that biological reductionism cannot treat or explain psychological levels of explanation and can lead to an ignorance of actual causes of behaviour.

A criticism of environmental reductionism is that the approach was developed on research conducted on non-human animals, for example Harlow's study of attachment on monkeys. Such explanations may be appropriate for animals, but human behaviour is more complicated and influenced by thousands of different factors. Relying on non-human animal studies means it is in danger of over-simplifying human behaviour.

A limitation of experimental reductionism is its lack of realism. Experiments cannot always replicate real-life factors and influences. For example, Loftus and Palmer found eye witness recall was easily susceptible to misleading information and would provide inaccurate information as a result of this. However, this was in lab conditions. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) found that individuals who had witnessed a real robbery had a more accurate recall of events. This implies that conclusions drawn from lab studies cannot always be applied to the real world.


Evaluation of Holism

An advantage of holism is that social behaviour within a group cannot be understood fully when looking at the individual members, rather the group must be studied as a whole. For example, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment.

However, holism can lead to a very vague generalisation of human behaviour, this could lead to an unrepresentative explanation of human behaviour.

Complex behaviours can be difficult to explain as a whole, and it is difficult to prioritise. For example, if researchers acknowledge that there are many different factors that contribute to depression, it becomes challenging to figure out which factor is the most influential and which one should be used as a basis for therapy.

To Conclude

Reductionism is when complex behaviours are separated into simpler components, in contrast, the holism approach looks at it as a whole.

Reductionism can overlook other causes behind behaviour and is in danger of over-simplifying human behaviour.

Holism makes it difficult to prioritise and use only one or two factors as a basis for therapy.

Which Approach Do You Think Is Most Effective?

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Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


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    • Asad Dillz profile image

      Asad Dillz Khan 

      12 months ago from United Kingdom

      Holism is a good idea and well way of treating.... This article is very good and well written! An incredible Job!


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