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Posts archived in Approaches to psychology



According to a recent article on the Guardian’s ‘Note’s and Theories’ section, approximately 10 million people in the UK are believed to have some form of phobia: that’s out of a total UK population of 64 million. (I would tell you what percentage that was but I have a fear of calculating statistics.)

The vast majority of those phobias are not causing these people to visit their GPs or report them in any other way (so the 10 million figure is an estimate and we don’t know from the Guardian what this estimate is based on), but for some people their phobias cause them to make significant changes in the way they live their lives. The NHS lists the top ten phobias in the UK (from a survey by Anxiety UK) as:

  • social phobia – fear of interacting with other people
  • agoraphobia – fear of open public spaces
  • emetophobia – fear of vomiting
  • erythrophobia – fear of blushing
  • driving phobia – fear of driving
  • hypochondria – fear of illness
  • aerophobia – fear of flying
  • arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • zoophobia – fear of animals
  • claustrophobia – fear of confined spaces.

The new AQA A Level specification puts phobias together with the behavioural approach to psychology, in which we learn about (amongst other things) the two-process model as an explanation for why phobias develop, and systematic desensitisation (SD) as a technique for treating phobias. This Guardian article is mostly about using virtual reality SD techniques as a way of treating phobias that are difficult to recreate in other ways – for example the phobias for public speaking or flying. What is good about phobias, in virtual reality terms, is that the simulation doesn’t need to be entirely realistic because the parts of the brain that produce the initial anxiety – the insula and amygdala – pick up on any trigger relating to the feared situation: a waggly, spidery leg is enough for someone with arachnophobia.

As we know, many people can relate their phobias directly to personal experience – they were once sick on a train, for example, and now they are worried about being sick every time they go on a train. Others pick up fears from the media even if they have not had a bad experience themselves – this is common for those with aerophobia. But for around one third of sufferers, the cause of their phobia is not known. It might be that they have simply forgotten it – perhaps it happened when they were very young. However, this Guardian article offers another possible explanation which might be useful for those evaluating the behavioural approach to phobias:

‘While there is currently no evidence that this occurs in humans, research involving animal models  suggests the effect of traumatic experiences can be passed from the brain to the genome and inherited by future generations. Scientists found that the offspring of mice conditioned to experience fear when exposed to a particular odour became fearful when they were exposed to the same smell.’


Identical twins – helping research methods stay ethical

An excellent article on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog considers why it is so difficult to establish cause and effect in studies of links between intelligence and education. One difficulty is that it is not ethical to remove one randomly-selected group of children from education to test what happens to their intelligence levels in later life. Another is that genetic differences between children may have as much to do with later differences in their IQ scores as the education they receive. Again, it seems unlikely that psychologists will consider it ethical (or practical) to clone children in order to remove this genetic influence from research on education and intelligence.

Such is the ingenuity of psychologists, however,  that studies have tackled both these difficulties without unethical methods being resorted to. So for example, identical twins have pretty much 100% genetic similarity, so any differences in reading ability between twins should be due to differing environmental influences.

The difficulty then comes in establishing what those differing environmental influences are. The researchers writing the article could identify an effect, but could only speculate on the possible causes – and all the possible alternative explanations for their findings. But they hope that by using twin-studies in this way, they are ‘edg[ing] further up the causal ladder, away from the basic correlational study’.

Our fabulous authors Cara Flanagan, Mike Cardwell, Ros Geillis and Mike Griffin have been VERY hard at work on the A Level Year 1/AS Complete Companion student book (Cara and Mike C) and Teacher’s Companion (Ros and Mike G), making sure they are the best resources possible to support the new AQA specification.

You can see two sample spreads from the new student book here and also two sample worksheets from the new Teacher’s Companion. These aren’t in their completely final form yet, but we hope you like what you see.

Social influence sample spread2

Memory sample spread



AQA’s new (draft) AS and A Level specifications feature Approaches in Psychology, where students learn about the contribution made to our understanding of human behaviour by psychologists and other individuals who probably secretly wished they were psychologists.

The behaviourist approach is a favourite of ours, especially operant conditioning as exemplified in this clip from The Big Bang Theory.

Results day has come and gone, and we hope with all our hearts here at the Psychology Blog that everyone who has just got their results will continue to get lots of interest and value out of your psychology knowledge and skills – either at school, if you are going into your second year, or in college or out in what psychologists tend to call the ‘real world’ (it isn’t noticeably realer, truth be told).

In this post we’ll take a first look at the results statistics for psychology this year. You can find the data at this link.

  • Compared to last year, psychology numbers have gone down from 56,088 candidates last year to 54,818 this year – a drop of 1,270
  • This is in the context of an overall drop in A Level candidate numbers of 17,000 students
  • The drop in psychology numbers was not as significant as that for other large-cohort A Level subjects like English (-4,000) or General Studies (-7,600)
  • Subjects seeing the biggest rises in numbers were biology, chemistry and physics. Maths saw an increase, but so did Religious Studies (both grew by about 800 candidates)
  • Psychology is the fourth largest A Level subject still, with chemistry nipping at our heels: 53,513 candidates so 2,575 candidates behind.

More analysis to follow once the boards have released their individual results statistics.

















We hope it all went well and you got the results you wanted. Remember, its all because of your ability and effort. Mind you, if it didn’t…well, you can always blame your parents, after all you are a product of their genes!

Page 110 of the Research Methods Companion has a small but statistically very significant error: in the table for Step 3, the last value should be 0.3905 instead of 1.3905. We are very grateful to Kelly Bristow for bringing this typo to our attention and the corrected page is attached here: apologies for any chi-squared confusion that has resulted from this mistake.

912962_ch5 p110

Today is the centenary of the start of the First World War for Britain, a war in which seventeen million soldiers and civilians from countries around the world were killed. The horrors of the First World War produced psychological trauma on a scale never before seen in warfare: ‘shell shock’.

The following video from the Wellcome Library shows film clips made of several cases of shell-shocked British soldiers.

The British Army appointed an experimental psychologist called Charles S. Myers to investigate cases of shell shock and, it was hoped, to come up with a way to successfully treat it. At first Myers agreed with many others who thought shell shock was due to physical damage to the brain and nervous system, perhaps caused by concussion from being in the vicinity of an exploding shell. But many patients had no physical injuries, some hadn’t been on the front line of fighting. Myers diagnosed psychological disorders caused as a consequence of the shell-shocked soldier trying to repress traumatic memories.

His recommended treatment followed Freud’s (psychodynamic) approach of seeking to restore the patient’s memory of the repressed event. The belief was that if the patient could be helped to talk about the repressed memory instead of trying to block it or hide it away, especially if they recalled it in detail again and again. Evidence seemed to suggest to Myers and his colleagues too, that this approach worked best if patients were treated as soon as possible after they started to show symptoms. It was much harder to get productive results once the soldier was moved away from the war zone.



Wilhelm Wundt features in the new draft A Level psychology specification from AQA where students, as part of their introduction to approaches in psychology, will learn about the ‘Origins of Psychology: Wundt, introspection and the emergence of Psychology as a science’.

The following three video clips provide some background information about Wilhelm Wundt’s methods, origins, personality and importance to psychology. The first one is fast-paced and fun and the second two provide depth and detail, although the level of these is pitched more for undergraduates than for 17 year olds.

It is interesting to note that the author and narrator of the second two clips, Peter Smith, says of Wundt ‘His name is now largely forgotten, except by scholars. There are many people outside of psychology who can easily identify people like Freud and Pavlov, or even Piaget and Maslow, but even many psychology undergrads have little idea who Wundt was’ – a situation that is shortly to improve dramatically!

Our new draft AQA A Level psychology spec includes Explanations for forgetting in the Memory topic, which means we’ve decided to make a note of this recent research on forgetting (as reported in the BPS Research Digest) before it slips our mind.

In the first part of this research, conducted at Regensburg University, Germany, participants were presented with particular German words and trained, over several trials, to respond to some with a right-handed key press and others with a left-handed key press.

In the second part of the research, the same participants had to categorise the same German words by gender but this time half the words had a key-press requirement that was the opposite of the one the participants had learned in the first half of the study. It makes your brain hurt just to think about it.

As you’d expect, this caused some problems. The participants who went straight on to complete the second part of the experiment got the new commands mixed up with the old ones fairly often – they still remembered what they’d been trained to do when they saw the words the first time, and it was hard to do the opposite.

However, the researchers treated one group of participants a little differently. After they had completed the first part of the experiment, the participants in this group were told that, unfortunately, a computer crash had occurred and they should now just forget everything they’d learned about which key to press when they saw each word; now they’d learn something new. This group then went on to complete the second part of the experiment with no problems at all – any interference from what they’d learned in the first part was completely eliminated.

This research therefore suggests that it is possible to forget recently-formed memories very quickly, with a conscious decision. But you can forget that if you want to.