What Is Holism?

How psychologists use holism to understand behavior

Smiling woman talking and gesturing in group therapy session
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In psychology, holism is an approach to understanding the human mind and behavior that focuses on looking at things as a whole. It is often contrasted with reductionism, which instead tries to break things down into their smallest parts.

Holism suggests that people are more than simply the sum of their parts. In order to understand how people think, holism suggests that you need to do more than simply focus on how each individual component functions in isolation. Instead, psychologists who take this approach believe that it is more important to look at how all the parts work together.

A Closer Look

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.”

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.

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.

How It’s Used

When looking at questions in psychology, researchers might take a holistic approach by considering how different factors work together and interact to influence the entire person. At the broadest level, holism would look at every single influence that might impact behavior or functioning.

A humanistic psychologist, for example, might consider an individual's environment (including where they live and work), their social connections (including friends, family, and co-workers), their background (including childhood experiences and educational level), and physical health (including current wellness and stress levels).

The goal of this level of analysis is to be able to not only consider how each of these variables might impact overall well-being but to also see how these factors interact and influence one another.

In other cases, holism might be a bit more focused. Social psychologists, for example, strive to understand how and why groups behave as they do. Sometimes groups react differently than individuals do, so looking at group behavior more holistically allows research to assess emergent properties that might be present.

Benefits

Just like the reductionist approach to psychology, holism has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, holism can be helpful at times when looking at the big picture allows the psychologist to see things they might have otherwise missed. In other cases, however, focusing on the whole might cause them to overlook some of the finer details.

Some of the key benefits of this perspective include:

It Incorporates Many Factors

One of the big advantages of the holistic approach is that it allows researchers to assess multiple factors that might contribute to a psychological problem. Rather than simply focusing on one small part of an issue, researchers can instead look at all of the elements that may play a role. This approach can ultimately help them find solutions that address all of the contributing internal and external factors that might be influencing the health of an individual. This is sometimes more effective than addressing smaller components individually.

By looking at people holistically, health care providers can address all of the many factors that might affect how a person is feeling, including their mind, their body, and their environment.

It Looks at the Big Picture

When researching a topic, it's frequently helpful to step back and look at the big picture. Reductionism tends to focus solely on the trees, but holism allows psychologists to view the entire forest. This can be true of both the research and treatment of mental health issues.

When trying to help a client with symptoms of a psychiatric condition, for example, looking at the patient holistically allows mental health professionals to see all of the factors that affect the patient’s daily life, and also how the patient interacts with their environment. Using this type of approach, therapists are often better able to address individual symptoms.

Human behavior is complex, so explaining it often requires an approach that is able to account for this complexity. Holism allows researchers to provide a fully inclusive answer to difficult questions about how people think, feel, and behave.

Drawbacks

While holism has a number of key advantages, there are also some important drawbacks to consider. Some of these include:

It Tends to Be Non-Specific

When trying to solve a problem, it is often important to focus on a particular aspect of the issue in order to come up with a solution. Holism tends to be more generalized, which can sometimes make precision more difficult. Scientists, in particular, must be able to focus their research on clearly defined variables and hypotheses. Looking at something too broadly can make it difficult to conduct tests using the scientific method, largely due to the fact that it incorporates so many varied factors and influences.

It Can Be Overly Complex

Because holism is so all-inclusive, it can make scientific investigations very challenging and complex. There may be many different variables to account for, as well as a plethora of potential interactions. This can make this approach unwieldy at times.

Examples in Psychology

There are a number of examples in the field of psychology of how holism can be used to view the human mind and behavior. The early schools of thought, structuralism and functionalism, are good examples of reductionist and holistic views. Structuralism focused on breaking down elements of behavior into their smallest possible components (reductionism), whereas functionalism focused on looking at things as a whole and considering the actual purpose and function of behaviors (holism).

Throughout history, there have been other perspectives and branches of psychology that have also taken a holistic approach.

Gestalt Psychology


Gestalt psychology
is a school of thought that is rooted in holism. The Gestalt psychologists not only believed that human behavior needed to be viewed as a whole; they also worked to understand how the human mind itself uses a holistic approach to make sense of the world.

The Gestalt laws of perceptual organization, demonstrate that the ways in which individual items relate to one another can influence how we see them. When similar items are viewed together, the law of similarity, for example, suggests that people will perceive them as components of a whole.

Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychology is a branch of psychology that emerged in the 1950s partially as a response to behaviorism. Where behaviorism had taken a reductionist approach to explain human behavior, humanist thinkers are more interested in looking at behavior holistically. This approach to psychology looks at all of the factors that contribute to how people think and act, as well as how all of these different components interact.

Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is one example of a humanistic theory that takes a holistic look at human motivation. This theory doesn't focus on any single aspect of motivation. Instead, it incorporates many aspects including environmental, social, and emotional influences.

Social Psychology

Social psychology tends to take a holistic approach since it considers individuals in their social context. In particular, this branch of psychology looks at how group behavior is often different than individual behavior, which is a good example of emergent properties and the sum being more than its parts.

Holism vs. Reductionism

One way to look at how holism and reductionism are used is to observe how these approaches might be applied when studying a specific psychological problem.

Imagine that researchers are interested in learning more about depression.

  • A scientist using the reductionist approach might look at a highly specific factor that influences depression, such as neurotransmitter levels in the brain.
  • A researcher using the holistic approach might instead focus on understanding how different contributing factors might interact, such as examining how thought patterns, social relationships, and neurotransmitter levels influence a person’s depression levels.

A Word From Verywell

Much of the appeal of holism lies in its ability to incorporate all of the elements that make us who we are. People are infinitely complex and varied, and holism is able to address all of the external and internal factors that influence our past, present, and future. Different areas of psychology often tend to focus on either one approach or the other. While reductionism and holism are often pitted against one another, they both serve an important role in helping researchers better understand human psychology.

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Article Sources

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  • Goodwin, CJ. A History of Modern Psychology, 5th Edition. New York: Wiley.