Page 2 Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Study Guide for the MCAT

Foundational Concept 7: Biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence behavior and behavior change.

This section concerns how psychological, sociocultural, and biological factors are related to human behavior. The interplay between these factors is important to comprehend why and how we behave and the reasons behind behavioral change.

Biological Influences on Behavior

It can be difficult to determine whether genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on our developing behaviors. Our genes have a huge role in when and how we learn, grow, and develop. For instance, the genetic makeup of a child will determine the age range in which the child will begin walking, but the environmental factors will influence whether they begin at the beginning or toward the end of this range. On the other hand, a human’s physiological development refers to his or her emotional, cognitive, intellectual, and social skills through his or her lifetime.

the nervous system (neurons, neurotransmitters, central nervous system, peripheral nervous system), neuronal communication and influence of behavior, endocrine system, behavioral genetics, genetic and environmental factors on developing behaviors, human physiological development


Personality psychology has led to abundant, and some of the best-known, psychology theories from thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. The major theories include: psychoanalytic theories, humanistic theories, trait theories, social cognitive theories, biological theories, and behavioral perspective theories. The situational approach to explaining behavior challenges the idea that personality determines behavior, and instead focuses on the situation and circumstances the person is involved in at the time of a specific incident.

theories of personality (psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, social cognitive, biological, behavioral perspective), situational approach to explaining behavior

Psychological Disorders

There are many different types of psychological disorders, some of which include: anxiety disorders, relating to an uncomfortable feeling of fear or dread that is often vague; personality disorders, when a person’s pattern of thinking differs significantly to the norm of others; depressive disorders, characterized by a persistent low mood and feelings of worthlessness and low self esteem; and schizophrenia, which is characterized by illogical thoughts, delusions, unusual behavior, and hallucinations such as hearing voices.

biomedical vs. biopsychosocial approaches, classifying and rates of psychological disorders, types of psychological disorders, biological bases of nervous system disorders (schizophrenia, depression, alzheimer’s, parkinson’s, stem cell-based therapy)


Motivation can be described as the reason behind choosing to behave in a certain way. It involves the biological, emotional, cognitive, and social forces influencing behavior. Psychologists state different factors impact motivation: instinct (or a fixed, human drive, for example for love or fear), arousal (people have different levels of arousal and act in accordance to maintaining their optimal level), and drives and needs (regarding basic biological needs such as eating, drinking, sleeping).

factors that influence motivation (instinct, arousal, drives, needs), theories explaining how motivation influences behavior (drive reduction theory, incentive theory, others), biological and sociocultural motivators


In psychology, attitude is an expression, emotion, or belief toward a person, place, thing, or event (attitude object). Attitudes have a powerful influence on behavior and have three different components (ABC): A for affective component, the emotional reaction to the attitude object; B for behavioral component, how one behaves in reaction to the attitude object; and finally C for cognitive component, one’s thoughts and feelings regarding the attitude object.

components of attitudes, link between attitudes and behavior (processes by which behavior influences attitudes, and by which attitudes influence behavior, cognitive dissonance theory)

Effects of Others

It has been well established that the presence of others can greatly affect our behavior. The improvement in our performance due to the presence of others is called social facilitation. According to social facilitation, when in the presence of others, people tend to perform better on simple tasks and tasks they do regularly, but perform worse on new and unfamiliar tasks.

social facilitation, deindividuation, bystander effect, social loafing, social control, peer pressure, conformity, obedience

Group Decision-Making

Whether people make better decisions in groups is debatable. Group interaction can lead to generating new ideas and solutions that individuals may have not formed by themselves. However, making decisions in groups can also lead to group polarization. This is when the beliefs or actions of an individual, in a group setting, can become more extreme than his or her actual private views. For example, if some of the individuals in a group tend to lean toward riskier decisions, it is likely that the ultimate decision will be that of a risky nature.

group polarization, groupthink

Social Norms

The social norms of a group are the implicit and explicit rules, or social obligations, a group has toward certain beliefs, values, and behaviors. For example, while in America it is polite to engage in eye contact when speaking to someone, in asian countries this is often considered rude. Different types of social norms include: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws. A sanction, in psychology, is considered the penalty (often moral pressure) that ensures conformity in a society.

sanctions, folkways, mores, taboos, anomie, deviance, aspects of collective behavior


Socialization refers to the lifelong process of learning and inheriting the norms, customs, and ideologies of a group or culture. We can identify four main agents of socialization. Family is often considered the most important agent of socialization, followed by schools, peers, and the mass media.

agents of socialization

Habituation, Dishabituation, and Associative Learning

Habituation is the gradual decrease in an organism’s reaction to a stimulus. With repeated exposure, the resulting response decreases. Dishabituation, on the other hand, is when we respond to an old stimulus as if it were new again. In addition, associative learning means our brains are unable to remember pieces of information in isolation. We tend to group information together with other related, meaningful information.

classical conditioning, operant conditioning, role of cognitive processes in associative learning, biological processes that affect associative learning

Observational Learning

Observational learning or modeling refers to an indirect type of learning, through watching and imitating others. This type of learning tends to be most common during childhood and plays an important role in the socialization process. Albert Bandura is the psychologist most associated with social learning theory, with his Bobo doll experiment imperative to seeing observation learning in action.

modeling, biological processes that affect observational learning, applications of observational learning to explain individual behavior

Attitude and Behavior Change Theories

As people change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors through their lifetimes, it is the psychological, biological, and environmental factors that affect whether these shifts will be long or short term. There are different factors/theories to attitude change, including: the elaboration likelihood model (relating to persuasion) and social cognitive theory (which relates to operant and classical conditioning).

elaboration likelihood model, social cognitive theory, factors that affect attitude change

Foundational Concept 8: Psychological, sociocultural, and biological factors influence the way we think about ourselves and others, as well as how we interact with others.

This concept concerns the physical, cognitive, and social parts of our identity and how they influence the way we think about, and interact with, others.

Self-Concept, Self-Identity, and Social Identity

Self-concept refers to how someone evaluates and perceives themselves, or defined by Baumeister (1999), “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.” Self-identity relates more to our morals and values, and the qualities that make up a person. One’s self-identity can only be described by that particular individual, but it is important to also make note of society’s role in defining our self.

self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus control in self-concept and self-identity, types of identities (race/ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, class)

Identity Formation

The psychologist we most associate with identity formation is Erik Erikson, with his theory of development stages. According to Erikson, identity formation begins in childhood and reaches its peak in adolescence. In adolescence, we are confronted with integrating our past experiences and characteristics in order to establish a stable identity.

theories of identity development (gender, moral, psychosexual, social), influence on social factors on identity formation (individuals, groups), influence of culture and socialization

Behavior Attribution

In social psychology, we can define behavior attribution as the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors, or why individuals explain events as they do. Heider (1958) had two theories on this matter: internal attribution, when we contribute the cause of a behavior to internal characteristics (such as a personality trait); or external attribution, when we assign the cause of a behavior to outside, environmental aspects, out of one’s control.

attributional processes, self perceptions influence on perceptions of others, perceptions of the environment shape our perceptions of others

Prejudice and Bias

A cognitive bias is a shortcut in our thinking and can sometimes lead to errors in judgments and decisions. We can distinguish between biases; for example, between prejudice and stereotypes. Prejudice relates to an emotional bias, such as a negative emotional reaction to a social group, whereas a stereotype is a mental bias, such as superficial reasons for disliking the social group.

processes that contribute toward prejudice (class, prestige, power, emotion, cognition), stereotypes, stigma, ethnocentrism


As mentioned above, a stereotype is a mental bias—a positive, negative, or neutral belief about a person based on his or her membership to a particular social group. Stereotyping can relate to theories of self-fulfilling prophecy; for example if we look at Stephanie Madon’s research on parents expectations about their child’s alcohol abuse. She found that when both parents expected their child to abuse alcohol, they did.

self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotype threat

Social Interaction Elements

Different elements of social interaction include: status, role, groups, networks, and organizations. Status refers to one’s role in a community and the position they hold in the social hierarchy, whereas a group is a collection of people who identify with one another in some way, and a network is the social structure between individuals or organizations.

status, role, groups, networks, organizations


Self-presentation can be defined as any behavior that conveys an image of ourselves to other people. As humans, our behavior often changes if we realise we are being watched. We can divide self-presentation (or impression management) into two tactics: self-enhancement (when we try to present an enhanced impression of ourselves to others) or other-enhancement (when we put effort into making others feel better).

expressing and detecting emotion (role of gender and culture), presentation of self (impression management, front stage and back stage self), verbal and non verbal communication, animal signs and communication.

Social Behavior

How we act around others of the same species is considered our social behavior. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions are influenced by the presence of others. We can look at an example of this through aggression (a type of social behavior); aggression is a deliberate behavior that causes or threatens harm to another and can be influenced by the presence of family members, relationships, or others in our work/school environment.

attraction, aggression, attachment, altruism, social support, biological explanations of social behavior in animals


Discrimination is the (usually negative) treatment of others based on the person’s class/race/gender etc. It can be individual or institutional—individual being the intended harmful behavior of an individual toward a person of a different race/class or gender, and institutional discrimination being the unjust mistreatment of an individual by a society or an institution.

individual vs. institutional discrimination, prejudice and discrimination, influence of power, prestige and class