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Neuroscience and Behavioral School of Thought

Psychology is a natural science that, similarly to disciplines such as biology and chemistry, relies on experimental methods for pursuing scientific goals of prediction, description, and explanation. Scholars across different areas of science do not always agree with each other on the nature and scope of their discipline. In the same vein, psychologists have always had different approaches to thinking about human behavior, which precipitated the development of different intellectual traditions (Fuller, Walsh, & McGinley, 2013). The origins of different beliefs about human action can be traced back to works of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (Fuller et al., 2013). It follows that intellectual propositions that have given rise to some schools of psychology have also shaped western thought.

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The aim of this paper is to summarize and compare the following perspectives on psychology: humanistic, behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and neuroscience. The paper will also present controversies associated with each school of thought and discuss an intellectual tradition to which I subscribe.


Table 1 compares and contrasts the five major schools of thought in psychology.

Table 1. Key Psychological Schools of Thought.

Name Humanistic
Key Features Humanism is an intellectual tradition in psychology that emphasizes on the holistic perspective. Therefore, humanists espouse the belief that an individual’s behavior is connected to their self-image (Royce, 2012).
Conflicting Viewpoints Unlike behaviorists, humanistic researchers operate on the assumption of free will. In addition, humanists place little value on science-based epistemological approaches.
Shared Viewpoints Rogers and Maslow, similar to scholars of other psychological schools of thought, argued that a person’s behavior is influenced by their perceptions about themselves (as cited in Royce, 2012).
Key Controversies Critics of humanistic psychology argue that its concepts cannot be objectified; therefore, humanistic research is hard to verify (Royce, 2012).
Name Behavioral
Key Features The adherents of this intellectual tradition stress on the importance of external environment in shaping thoughts of an individual. Despite numerous disagreements between behaviorists, they all agree that people’s minds are ‘clear slates’ at the moment of their birth (Fuller et al., 2013). According to Ingleby, Joyce, and Powell (2011), social stimuli is “the ‘chalk’ that etches its marks upon the ‘slate of the mind’” (p. 95). Skinner and Watson shared the view that all human behavior can be explained by external punishments and reinforcements (as cited in Cohen, 2016).
Conflicting Viewpoints Supporters of behaviorism opposed the idea that introspection can be used to infer mental processes.
Shared Viewpoints Both behaviorist and cognitive schools of thoughts ignore the importance of subjective experiences.
Key Controversies The meaning of verbal behavior as defined by Skinner is often disputed by adherents of the school (Lourdes & Passos). The idea of ‘blank slate’ is also highly controversial (White, Livesey, & Hayes, 2012).
Name Cognitive
Key Features Cognitive psychologists direct their attention to studying areas of perception and information processing. Their approach to epistemology is based on experiments and case studies. Adherents of this school of thought stress that the functioning of the human brain is similar to that of a computer (Kellogg, 2015).
Conflicting Viewpoints The cognitive perspective cannot be aligned with humanistic psychology due to its emphasis on lab experiments. Furthermore, it is argued that cognitive psychologists simplify internal processes of the mind (Kellogg, 2015). Under behaviorism, there are no inborn cognitive functions that can be studied.
Shared Viewpoints Not unlike behaviorism, cognitive school views human behavior as determined by physical stimuli. In addition, the two schools rely on subjective metaphors for interpreting their findings.
Key Controversies Skinner criticized the approach because of its overreliance on external stimuli (as cited in McLeod, 2015). Rogers maintained that laboratory experiments used by cognitivists lack ecological validity (as cited in McLeod, 2015).
Name Psychoanalytic
Key Features The intellectual tradition is based on the assumption that unconscious thoughts and feelings lie behind peoples’ psychological problems. The main goal of treatment is to force repressed memories and traumas to emerge (What is Psychology, n.d.). Another basic presupposition of this approach to psychology is that unconscious mind consists of three constantly conflicting entities: id, the ego, and the superego (What is Psychology, n.d.).
Conflicting Viewpoints Unlike behaviorism, psychoanalysis emphasizes on the importance of the human mind in studying the behavior of an individual. The proponents of the theory hold a more negative view of human nature than humanistic scholars (What is Psychology, n.d.).
Shared Viewpoints Humanistic and psychoanalytic approaches stress that “personality development is all to do with individuals and how they satisfy their needs and wants instead of saying that it is all an external occurrence” (Moodley, 2015, para. 18).
Key Controversies The school of psychological thought is often criticized for its preoccupancy with sexuality and circular structure (What is Psychology, n.d.). The theory of Oedipus complex has also been a center of controversy for a long time (Ahmed, 2012).
Name Neuroscience
Key Features Neuroscience is the most scientifically sound study of the nervous system. By drawing on the diverse fields such as biochemistry and pharmacology, neuroscience produces a large body of evidence that can be used by psychologists for explaining a wide range of phenomena (Paris, 2017).
Conflicting Viewpoints Unlike behaviorists, who are not interested in internal processes of the human brain, neuroscientists rely on neural mechanisms for explaining psychological phenomena.
Shared Viewpoints Neuro-chemical explanations of certain behaviors can be aligned with principles of cognitive psychology. Not dissimilar to psychoanalysis, neuroscience stresses the importance of feelings and emotions as biological drives that determine human behavior (Paris, 2017).
Key Controversies Neuroscientific research is criticized for “mistaking the essence of consciousness with that of a physical thing” (Vos & Pluth, 2015, p. 16). Neuroscientists are also often derided for their lack of dialogue with social scientists (Vos & Pluth, 2015).

Intellectual Traditions of Choice

Currently, I subscribe to two schools of thought: neuroscience and behaviorism. I disagree with the contention that behavioral science cannot be aligned with neuroscience due to its anti-physiological stance. Even Skinner, who was a radical behaviorist, once stated that organisms behave in a particular manner due to their “biological equipment,” and added that “eventually neurology will tell us all we need to know about the equipment” (as cited in Zilio, 2013, p. 34). I believe that the study of motivational states of a person should be supported by recent findings of neuroscience.

I am particularly interested in the conjunction of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology because it can provide me with interesting insights into human motivation. For example, my tendency to cooperate with other people can be explained by both behavioral game theory and cultural neuroscience. As an actor in the real world, I realize that my choices are largely shaped by external influences that, more often than not, guide me towards utility-maximizing decisions. Therefore, there is no surprise that I always exhibit reciprocal behavior, which is known to strengthen cooperation (Zumpe & Michael, 2012). However, it also stands to reason to look into genetic factors that prompt me to strengthen my social bonds by increasing cooperation levels.

A study conducted by Stallen and Sanfey (2013) reveals that cooperative behavior largely relies on “fundamental brain mechanisms, such as, for example, those involved in reward, punishment and learning” (p. 1). It means that a combination of neuroscience and behaviorism can be successfully applied to the explanation of complex psychological phenomena.

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The paper has compared and contrasted key intellectual traditions in psychology. It has been argued that neuroscience and behaviorism can be invaluable in deciphering complex behaviors.


Ahmed, S. (2012). Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory Oedipus complex: A critical study with reference to D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” Internal Journal of English and Literature, 3(3), 60-70.

Cohen, L. (2016). The handy psychology answer book. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press.

Fuller, R., Walsh, P., & McGinley, P. (2013). A century of psychology (psychology revivals): Progress, paradigms, and prospects for the new millennium. Abington, England: Routledge.

Ingleby, E., Joyce, D., & Powell, S. (2011). Learning to teach in the lifelong learning sector. Edinburg, England: A&C Black.

Kellogg, R. (2015). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. New York, NY: SAGE.

Lourdes,M., & Passos, F. (2012). B.F. Skinner: The writer and his definition of verbal behavior. Behavioral Analysis, 35(1), 1-19.

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McLeod, S. (2015). Cognitive psychology. Web.

Moodley, N. (2015). Psychology 1: A comparison between the psychoanaltyci and humanistic approaches. Web.

Paris, J. (2017). Psychotherapy in an age of neuroscience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Royce, J. (2012). Humanistic psychology: Concepts and criticism. New York, NY: Springer.

Stallen, M., & Sanfey, A. (2013). The cooperative brain. The Neuroscience, 14(1), 1-12.

Vos, J., & Pluth, E. (2015). Neuroscience and critique: Exploring the limits of the neurological turn. Abington, England: Routledge.

What is Psychology. (n.d.). Major psychological schools of thought. Web.

White, F., Livesey, D., & Hayes, B. (2012). Developmental psychology: From infancy to development. London, England: Pearson Higher Education.

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Zilio, D. (2013). Filling the gaps: Skinner on the role of neuroscience in the explanation of behavior. Behavior and Philosophy, 41(1), 33-59.

Zumpe, D., & Michael, R. (2012). Notes on the elements of behavioral science. New York, NY: Springer Science & Business.

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