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Systems Theories in Psychology: Definition & Concepts

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  • 0:01 Systems Theory
  • 1:14 Behaviorism Problems &…
  • 3:07 Mechanical Troubles
  • 4:03 General Systems Theory
  • 6:00 Application to Psychology
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

This lesson will describe systems theory, its history as a response to mechanistic scientific approaches, and some of its applications to psychology and therapy.

Systems Theory

Human behavior is often confusing and inexplicable to observers. The media bombards us with references to post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic behavior, and even the assurance that an individual is 'just crazy.' Psychologists use some of these terms, but they use them in a precise manner. The modern science of psychology is the result of a long process of experimental observation and theory crafting.

Originally, psychologists had sought to quantify human behavior with ideals developed from the physical sciences. Behavior came to be viewed in terms that would be applied with equal validity to machines. For instance, there was a great deal of emphasis on provoking a desired response by means of a proper input, thus engineering behavior. Some psychologists and other social scientists felt that these terms dehumanized subjects.

Systems theory in psychology was a reaction to these practices; one of its central tenets is that the human mind is more than the mere sum of its parts. According to systems theorists, the human mind is a complex weave of physiological, chemical, and mental processes, and thus human beings should be treated as systems in themselves.

Behavioral Problems & Examples

The mechanistic view of human behavior was the result of taking behaviorist approaches to their extremes. Behaviorism and neo-behaviorism were revolutionary for their time. The idea was that complex behaviors could be seen as the result of measurable physical phenomena, which helped to demystify human psychology. Rather than be seen as a 'soft science,' psychology could be quantified and analyzed in terms that were closer to those of the physical sciences: concrete, testable, and repeatable.

In simple terms, the principles distilled by behaviorist research stressed the pleasure principle. This principle was the observation that animals (including humans) tend to avoid discomfort and prefer to seek their own pleasure in most situations. This is intuitively true and is supported by experimental psychology. The pleasure principle results in a tension within an organism between the urge to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Behaviorist approaches were based upon this tension.

The most famous experimental example of classical behaviorism is Ivan Pavlov and his work with dogs. Simply put, Pavlov would ring a bell before feeding his animals, and they would respond by salivating. That's right - Pavlov collected and measured the saliva output of his animals for science! Eventually, they learned to salivate for the bell, without food having to be present.

The most famous experimental example of neo-behaviorism is B.F. Skinner's work with pigeons. Skinner trained his pigeons to peck at a light in order to receive a food reward. Later, he manipulated the lights in various ways to teach more complex behaviors. This included pigeons tapping on a ping-pong ball and bouncing it back and forth between them. In other words, the pigeons played ping-pong!

Mechanical Troubles

As psychology is a comparatively young science, psychologists have often struggled to put their findings into terms, which are coherent to members of other sciences. While the discoveries of Pavlov and Skinner did suggest that psychology could be measured in some cases, the methodologies and techniques they developed did not always have the predictive power they had hoped.

As prediction is incredibly important in science, this posed a problem for members of the scientific community. What behaviorist approaches did well was explain the process of learning relatively simple or incremental tasks. What they did poorly was explain the acquisition of more complex tasks, such as language. Behaviorist experiments, including the two famous ones, were most commonly performed on animals. Critics suggest that the principles uncovered by these experiments are not as easily applicable to more complex human behaviors.

General Systems Theory

Systems theory in psychology is an adaptation of general systems theory. Developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, general systems theory was developed as a response to what was seen as the radically impersonal nature in then-contemporary science. This mechanistic nature was especially poor at studying human beings, and there was no way to deal with teleology (the study of purpose or goals). Humans and other life forms have purpose, and a lack of acknowledgement of this trait can remove much of human behavior (in particular) from the context in which it occurs.

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