Differential psychology

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Differential psychology studies the ways in which individuals differ in their behavior and the processes that underlie it. This is a discipline that develops classifications (taxonomies) of psychological individual differences; this is distinguished from other aspects of psychology in that although psychology is ostensibly a study of individuals, modern psychologists often study groups, or attempt to discover general psychological processes that apply to all individuals.[1]

For example, in evaluating the effectiveness of a new therapy, the mean performance of the therapy in one treatment group might be compared to the mean effectiveness of a placebo (or a well-known therapy) in a second, control group. In this context, differences between individuals in their reaction to the experimental and control manipulations are actually treated as errors rather than as interesting phenomena to study; this approach is applied because psychological research depends upon statistical controls that are only defined upon groups of people.

To study individual differences psychologists use a variety of methods. Most expensive and time-consuming methods use psychophysiological experiments on both, humans and other mammals; these methods include EEG, PET-scans, MRI, functional MRI, neurochemistry experiments with neurotransmitter and hormonal systems, caffeine and controlled drug challenges. These methods are used for a search of biomarkers of most consistent, biologically-based behavioural patterns (temperament traits and symptoms of psychiatric disorders). Other sets of methods, less expensive but also time-consuming are behavioural experiments, to see how different people behave in similar settings; this set of methods is often used in personality and social psychology. The easiest methods are lexical and self-report methods where people are asked to complete paper-based and computer-based forms prepared by psychologists.

Importance of individual differences[edit]

Individual differences are essential whenever we wish to explain individuals differ in their behavior. In any study, significant variation exists between individuals. Reaction time, endurance, preferences, values, and health-linked behaviors are just a few examples. Individual differences in factors such as personality, temperament, intelligence, memory, or physical factors such as body size, sex, age, and other factors can be studied and used in understanding this large source of variance. Importantly, individuals can also differ not only in their current state, but in the magnitude or even direction of response to a given stimulus; such phenomena, often explained in terms of inverted-U response curves, place differential psychology at an important location in such endeavours as personalized medicine, in which diagnoses are customised for an individual's response profile.

Areas of study[edit]

Individual differences research typically includes personality, temperament (neuro-chemically-based behavioural traits), motivation, intelligence, ability, IQ, interests, values, self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-esteem (to name just a few). There are few remaining "differential psychology" programs in the United States, although research in this area is very active. Current researchers are found in a variety of applied and experimental programs, including clinical psychology, educational psychology, Industrial and organizational psychology, personality psychology, social psychology, behavioral genetics, and developmental psychology programs, in the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development in particular.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fisher, A.J.; et al. (2018). "Lack of group-to-individual generalizability is a threat to human subjects research". PNAS. 115 (27): 6106–6115. doi:10.1073/pnas.1711978115. PMC 6142277. PMID 29915059.

Further reading[edit]