Holism is often referred to as Gestalt psychology. It argues that behavior cannot be understood in terms of the components that make them up. This is commonly described as ‘the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.’
In other words human behavior has its own properties that are not explicable in terms of the properties of the elements from which it is derived.
A holistic approach therefore suggests that there are different levels of explanation and that at each level there are “emergent properties” that cannot be reduced to the one below.
Holistic approaches include Humanism, Social and Gestalt psychology and makes use of the case study method. Jahoda’s 6 elements of Optimal Living are an example of a holistic approach to defining abnormality.
Reductionist explanations, which might work in some circumstances, are considered inappropriate to the study of human subjectivity because here the emergent property that we have to take account of is that of the “whole person”.
Otherwise it makes no sense to try to understand the meaning of anything that anybody might do.
Holism in Psychology
As an approach to understanding systems, holism is used in psychology as well as in other areas including medicine, philosophy, ecology, and economics. One key phrase that summarizes the key idea behind the holistic approach is that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
The field of holistic medicine, for example, focuses on treating all aspects of a person’s health including physical symptoms, psychological factors, and societal influences.2
In order to understand why people do the things they do and think the way they think, holism proposes that it is necessary to look at the entire person. Rather than focus on just one aspect of the problem, it is necessary to recognize that various factors interact and influence each other.
One reason why it is so important to consider the entire being is that the whole may possess emergent properties. These are qualities or characteristics that are present in the whole but cannot be observed by looking at the individual pieces.1
Consider the human brain, for example. The brain contains millions of neurons, but just looking at each individual neuron will not tell you what the brain can do. It is only by looking at the brain holistically, by looking at how all the pieces work together, that you can see how messages are transmitted, how memories are stored, and how decisions are made.
Even looking at other aspects of the brain such as the individual structures does not really tell the whole story. It is only when taking a more holistic approach that we are truly able to appreciate how all the pieces work together.
In fact, one of the earliest debates in the field of neurology centered on whether the brain was homogeneous and could not be broken down further (holism) or whether certain functions were localized in specific cortical areas (reductionism).
Today, researchers recognize that certain parts of the brain act in specific ways, but these individual parts interact and work together to create and influence different functions.
Examples of Holism in Psychology
Humanism investigates all aspects of the individual as well as the interactions between people.
It emerged as a reaction against those dehumanizing psychological perspectives that attempted to reduce behavior to a set of simple elements.
Humanistic, or third force psychologists, feel that holism is the only valid approach to the complete understanding of mind and behavior. They reject reductionism in all its forms.
Their starting point is the self (our sense of personal identity) which they consider as a functioning whole. It is, in the words of Carl Rogers, an “organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself”.
It includes an awareness of the person I am and could be. It directs our behavior in all the consciously chosen aspects of our lives and is fundamentally motivated towards achieving self-actualization.
For humanists, then, the self is the most essential and unique quality of human beings. It is what makes us what we are and is the basis of a difference between psychology and all natural science.
Humanistic psychology investigates all aspects of the individual as well as the interactions between people.
Reductionist explanations undermine the indivisible unity of experience. They run counter to and ultimately destroy the very object of psychological enquiry. A holistic point of view is thus in humanist terms the very basis of all knowledge of the human psyche.
Social Psychology looks at the behavior of individuals in a social context. Group behavior (e.g. conformity, de-individualization) may show characteristics that are greater than the sum of the individuals which comprise it.
Psychoanalysis – Freud adopted an interactionist approach, in that he considered that behavior was the results of dynamic interaction between id, ego and superego.
Abnormal psychology – mental disorders are often explained by an interaction of biological, psychological and environmental factors. An eclectic approach to therapy is often taken using drugs and psychotherapy.
Perception – This is were the brain understands and interprets sensory information. Visual illusions show that humans perceive more than the sum of the sensations on the retina.
• Looks at everything that may impact on behavior.
• Does not ignore the complexity of behavior.
• Integrates different components of behavior in order to understand the person as a whole.
• Can be higher in ecological validity.
• Over complicates behaviors which may have simpler explanations (Occam’s Razor).
• Does not lend itself to the scientific method and empirical testing.
• Makes it hard to determine cause and effect.
• Neglects the importance of biological explanations.
• Almost impossible to study all the factors that influence complex human behaviors