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The Four Approaches to Psychopathology

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Emily is a PhD student with a BSc in Molecular Biology and Genetics, an MSc in Molecular Medicine, and a passion for science communication.


The Biological Approach

Basically, the biological approach to psychopathy is assuming that the mental disorder the person is suffering from is caused by faulty biological mechanisms. Mental disorders are treated like your usual illness in that they are cured by removing the root cause of the illness to restore the body back to its normal state. The biological approach says that mental disorders illnesses are caused by four things:

1. Genetic Inheritance

Abnormal neuroanatomy/chemistry can be characteristics that were passed down from a person's parents. For a long time, psychologists have studied identical twins to try to investigate this theory that psychopathy or abnormalities are genetic. Psychologists will compare identical twins to see if when one twin shows symptoms of a mental disorder, whether the other one will too. For some mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, if one twin has it then the other one will often have it too—this shows that it could very well be genetic.

The biological approach

The biological approach

2. Biochemistry and Neuroanatomy

Once again genes play a huge role in this theory of how mental disorders come about. Genes determine a lot of functions in our body, they determine hormone and various neurotransmitter levels. How does this cause a mental disorder? Well, take the neurotransmitter serotonin for example. The levels of serotonin will be determined, for the most part, by your genes. High levels of serotonin have been associated with anxiety and low levels have been associated with depression. This shows that a person's mental state can rely on their hormone or neurotransmitter levels and thus their biochemistry or neuroanatomy.

3. Viral Infection

Some research (such as that done by Torrey in 2001) shows that the occurrence of certain mental disorders can be related to the exposure the individual had to certain viruses whilst in the womb. Torrey found that the mothers of individuals with schizophrenia had contracted a specific strain of flu during pregnancy. This virus may then stay in the child's brain until certain hormones activate it (i.e. during puberty) and the child will develop schizophrenia or associated symptoms.

The Behavioural Approach

Basically, the behavioural approach to psychopathy suggests that the response that a person makes to their environment, albeit internal or external, are what determines their mental state rather than their underlying pathology or other such things. This approach is based on the idea that abnormal behaviors are no different from normal ones in terms of how we learn them and are all learned through social learning or classical conditioning.

Also, it is thought that the environment the individual is in will be partly to blame for their mental disorder. For instance, if an individual were to show depressive symptoms or behaviours, someone else might be more inclined to help that person. Also, things we see in the media can influence our mental state, for example, if you saw someone on TV crash their car you might then develop a phobia of crashing your own car.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

The Psychodynamic Approach

The psychodynamic approach is essentially based on the view that the abnormal behaviour that an individual is showing is due to underlying psychological conflicts that they may not even be aware of. Freud is the most well-known psychologist that believed in this approach. Freud believed that it was psychological rather than physical things that cause mental disorders such as unresolved conflicts of childhood. There are a few different factors that were believed to make up an individual's personality and these were:

  • Id: the irrational and primitive part of an individual's personality that wants immediate satisfaction
  • Ego: the rational part of one's personality
  • Superego: the sense of right and wrong
  • Ego defenses: methods such as repression and displacement that help a person deal with their feelings.

It was believed that conflicts between these different parts of an individual's personality would result in things such as anxiety. The ego defense would then try and deal with these emotions. for instance by repressing something, and if overused would result in disturbed or abnormal behaviour. Freud also believed that children didn't have the emotional maturity to be able to deal with traumas and thus would repress them if they occurred. If a similar trauma then occurred later in the individual's life then the repressed feelings that they felt originally would be re-experienced and mental disorders such as depression may develop.

The Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach is based on the idea that the way that we perceive, reason and judge the environment and the world that we're in is what determines our behaviour. If this cognitive thinking is distorted, lacking or dysfunctional then abnormal behavior (or mental disorders) will occur. There are four different concepts regarding human cognition and these are:

  • Cognitive structures: how an individual organises information; for example do they see a spider as just another daily object that they need to live with or do they see that spider as an object of fear?
  • Cognitive content: whether a person thinks negatively or positively about certain situations
  • Cognitive processes: how the individual then processes this information and operate on it and whether they do so in a rational or irrational way
  • Cognitive products: this refers to the conclusion that the individual will draw from the processed information

Psychologists will use these concepts to judge an individual's mental state—for example when overhearing someone say 'I don't like what he's wearing today', your immediate thought is 'it must be me they are speaking about!' then this might show that your cognitive process is somewhat distorted!

Comments on March 06, 2020:

Cognitive approach is that best

Marie on September 27, 2019:

Helpful &useful Material

James on May 06, 2019:

This is a great article, I think all of these approaches are just as affective. I would vote for all of them.

C.G on August 13, 2018:

Thanks for this information, Very interesting

Okolo Pauline Chika on April 04, 2018:

All combined but biological approach most.

BBLOTZER on January 29, 2017:

This helped a lot. I was reading my text for my class for college but having a hard time understanding after awhile because it all sounded the same. This helped me break it down that I understood It better.

Dil Vil from India on April 13, 2013:

Great hub and a good read. Thanks for useful info.