The unseen 12 marker

Luna plays the flute. She loves practising at home, but suffers from ‘performance anxiety’, meaning she is virtually incapable of giving a performance in front of anyone else, due to high levels of anxiety.

To what extent can concepts, theories and/or research from biological psychology and learning theories help Luna overcome her problem? (12)

Biological psychologists might suggest that Luna has an inherited predisposition to experience high levels of stress – even when there are very few threats she is experiencing high anxiety. The inherited disposition explanation is rather pessimistic in terms of overcoming her fears, as it suggests her problem is innate and thus difficult to overcome. This explanation is supported by Ludeke et al. (2013) who showed that as children get older, the impact of genetic predispositions gets stronger. However, Ludeke’s et al. is a twin study and cannot show that genes cause the differences. Therefore, although there is a suggestion that Luna may struggle to overcome her problems, this may not necessarily be the case.

Biological psychologists might also suggest that Luna’s has an overactive hypothalamus. This subcortical structure governs the fight or flight response, which occurs when an environmental stimulus is perceived as a stressor, i.e. an audience watching her play the flute. Luna’s heart might race and she would start to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. She could take medication to block the effect of these increased hormone levels and research evidence suggests this could be effective. For example Maletzky et al. (2006) lowered testosterone levels using Depo-Provera, which reduced sexual aggression in offenders. This suggests Luna’s anxiety could be reduced using medication, allowing her to play in public. However, she may not want to take daily medication which can cause unpleasant side effects, potentially leading to non-compliance.

Learning theorists believe that learned behaviours can be unlearned, providing hope for Luna. A therapist might help her to create a fear hierarchy, starting with the least scary thing, such as playing at home behind a screen knowing her mum is there. Luna would gradually move up the hierarchy to the scariest scenario, e.g. playing a complex piece in front of experienced musicians at a prestigious venue.  She would be taught relaxation strategies (e.g. aromatherapy or meditation) (UCS) to bring about calm behaviour (UCR) and this would be paired with the first stage on the hierarchy. This therapy is called systematic desensitisation (SD) and is well supported by research. For example, Capafons et al. (1998) significantly reduced fear of flying in 90% of their sample using SD, suggests a similar therapy could work for Luna. This said, it does not work for everyone and if Luna’s anxiety stems from some form of trauma, a therapy which focuses on changing beliefs and enhancing self-esteem might work better for her. Also, studies supporting SD do not show whether the benefits are long lasting and therefore Luna might feel better in the short term but symptoms might return in a few months or years.

In conclusion, Luna should be hopeful that she can overcome her fear in the short-term at least. Although the genetic explanation is rather pessimistic, biological psychologists might recommend the use of medication. If this did not appeal to Luna, she could try a behavioural therapy such as SD, which is generally well supported by research evidence.

498 words

Commentary on this essay:

This is a context+synoptic question – there is a context (AO2) and two topics are mentioned so it would be marked as 4 AO1+ 4 AO2+ 4 AO3.

Each paragraph is well organised combining relevant AO1 knowledge about anxiety and how to overcome it, with detailed links to Luna (AO2) and finishing with carefully selected supporting evidence (AO3).

Phrases like ‘subcortical structure’ in relation to the hypothalamus lift the AO1 as does the detailed knowledge of the findings of Ludeke, Maletzky and Capafons – all of which helps place the writing in the top band.

Links to Luna are detailed and thoughtful throughout as in the section on the creation of the fear hierarchy suggesting top band for AO2.

The essay systematically includes relevant and detailed competing arguments, e.g. side effects of medication and questionable longevity of SD.

You need to be flexible in questions such as this where you will be faced with behaviours which are not part of your specification and expected to weave explanations and arguments from the material that you have learned but use them in a new and creative ways

NB This question is also suitable as a Section C synoptic question for AS students taking Paper 2 on Biological Psychology and Learning Theories