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Individual Differences

Psychology often makes generalisations about people. Depending upon your point of view this can be seen as a great strength of psychology or a weakness or probably both.

It is important that we recognise that there are as many differences between people as there are similarities

An issue that is often included in the section of individual differences is what psychologists refer to as abnormality. However the concept of abnormality is also a highly controversial issue. The judgement that somebody is abnormal is relative and is based on factors such as culture, class, religion, sexuality and so on.

The study by Rosenhan (1973) challenges the ability of psychiatrists to classify abnormality. The study by Thigpen and Cleckley (1954) also illustrates the controversy of diagnosing multiple personality.

The study by Griffiths (1994) suggests that cognitive distortions underlie the behaviour of regular gamblers and this may explain why some people take part in addictive behaviour whereas other people do not.

The main assumption of the individual differences perspective is that to understand the complexity of human behaviour and experiences it necessary to study the differences between people rather than those things that we all have in common. For example the individual differences approach largely focuses on things such as personality differences, and abnormality.

A main strength of the individual differences perspective is that it can provide useful in improving the experiences of people with mental health problems. For example the Rosenhan study led to a revision of the way that people with mental health problems are both diagnosed and treated. Similarly the study by Griffiths suggests that a type of cognitive behavioural therapy may be successful with addicted gamblers.

A further strength of the individual differences approach has been the development and use of psychometric tests to measure the differences between individuals in qualities such as personality and intelligence. These psychometric tests provide reliable and quantitative data which can easily be analysed and therefore similarities and differences between individuals can be discovered. Psychometric tests were used in the study of multiple personality by Thigpen and Cleckley and have also been used in other studies on this course such as in the BBC experiment. However, not all tests are reliable and objective. For example, the projective tests used by Thigpen and Cleckley have little evidence to suggest that they are reliable and rely upon the subjective interpretation of the researcher.

A weakness of the individual differences approach is a reliance on dispositional explanations at the expense of situational explanations. That is the individual differences approach explains individual differences as resulting from a person?s own characteristics or disposition and has a tendency to ignore external factors such as the situation a person is in. For example many of Eve?s difficulties could also be explained by the expectations of being a wife in the US in the 1950s. The study by Rosenhan does highlight the weakness of this dispositional approach by showing how the behaviour of the pseudopatients was misinterpreted as being a consequence of their supposed illness when it was in fact a result of the hospital environment.

A further issue related to the individual differences approach is the ethical issues raised with labelling people as being different. The tendency to label people as being different, abnormal and so on can have a negative effect on individuals. Rosenhan was particularly critical about both the reliability of labelling and the negative effects such labelling has on the person. Furthermore such labels particularly negative ones can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which expectations about a person (or a group of people) can come true simply because of those expectations.