16 Reductionism


Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. This is essentially the disadvantage of the theory  of scientific reductionism. When approaching a complicated and thorough problem, the method of reductionism is a helpful tool that can be used. Reductionism is essentially breaking down a large problem into smaller, easier problems but the disadvantage of this method is that some parts of the problem sometimes get lost in the process. Therefore, reductionism can be a useful method because it makes a large, complicated problem less intimidating, but at the same time, we run the risk of losing small parts of the problem and the interconnectedness of the situation as a whole.

Concerns with reductionism

By definition, reductionist thinking is the idea that a certain field of study or even something more specific can be broken down into smaller parts that can thus be used to describe the idea as a whole again. The one concern with the theory of scientific reductionism overall is that the process in smaller components may simplify the situation as a whole too much and thus the whole could get distorted (Dictionary). When using reductionist theories, they “tend to be based on the assumption that everything can be considered in terms of its smallest constituent parts” (Psychologist World). This is seemingly a more efficient way of approaching a problem; for instance, when memorizing a phone number, we do not memorize ten numbers at once; we split the number up into three parts. But with other more serious investigations such as why some people become alcoholics after binge drinking in college and others don’t could be strictly because of genetics (Psychology Today). But without considering several other factors such as when the person started drinking, if they had roommates that drank excessively, their predispositions to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and general drinking patterns, the research will not be complete, and there will be gaps in the parts of this problem that make up the whole.

One of the most common ways reductionism is applied in the world today is the way reductionism has taken a cognitive approach in our society. Lindsey Tuominen, author of the article “Reductionism and Systems Thinking: Complementary Scientific Lenses”, makes a very good point as to why reductionism doesn’t always work:

“For example, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to look at the expression of every gene in an organism as if it is truly independent from all the others.  They all, after all, have a shared evolutionary history, are found in the same individual, and many have direct influences on each other.  Even using traditional methods to correct for multiple statistical tests doesn’t seem to fix this problem” (Science 2.0).

By combining the smaller parts of a situation as she suggests, sometimes these pieces do not all fit together when examined so closely individually.

With today’s advancements in research of the world, we can Google an animal and find endless articles on that animal that will explain what their diet is, when they sleep, for how they sleep and any other minute details one can think of. But are all animals the same? The answer is obviously no, and showing an analogous example about humans can prove this. If we were to apply this to humans, we could say something like humans generally sleep for about seven to eight hours each night, eat a mix of fruits and vegetables and, depending on their habitat, large amounts of carbohydrates and sugary foods. Applying this reductionist thinking to describe humans sounds a little ridiculous, because we obviously know that the above description does not apply to all humans everywhere. With this in mind, the same goes for animals; not all are alike, and by oversimplifying them because we generalized their behaviors in smaller ways then put them together creates overlooked facts that can make research more interesting and unique.

Another brief example of reductionism is the influence of certain ancient cultures on others. The Ancient Greeks created very foundational ideas and had a particular architecture and way of living that was unique to them. But, when the Ancient Romans became a more massive empire, they were very much influenced by the Greeks. Then, Greeks and Romans influenced people in the general Mediterranean region. Soon, the whole Western culture was somewhat influenced by these three cultural groups (Ancient History Encyclopedia). In the process of trying to break down these cultures in order to see how they are interconnected, we may lose certain facts that make those cultures different.

Benefits of reductionism

Although reductionist thinking can become an oversimplification of an idea, reductionism can also be a very useful process to use. Everyday, science is expanding and more research is being found that brings truly amazing information to the public that will help us grow as a global society in the future. Therefore, being able to use reductionism in the world helps us to generalize things that need to be generalized in order to collect and analyze information about our environment such as “species diversity, global climate patterns, and ocean pH levels ” (Science 2.0).

The reductionism and holism debate

Just as reductionism is the process of breaking down a complex problem and looking at its individual parts, holism is quite the opposite. Holism looks at a problem as a whole, and “refers to any approach that emphasizes the whole rather than their constituent parts. In other words ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Qualitative methods of the humanistic approach reflect a holistic position. Social psychology also takes a holistic view” (Simply Psychology). Referring back to the first quote in this chapter, Aristotle would probably be more incline to take a holistic approach to a situation. But, with these two opposing methods of solving a problem came an inevitable debate between the two. But in the end, it depends on the situation. In some cases, holism in psychology can be very useful for example in humanistic/social/abnormal psychology, psychoanalysis, and perception (where the brain “understands an interprets sensory information” (Simply Psychology)). In other cases, reductionism is the best approach to a problem. Out of the four main psychological approaches (behaviorist, biological, psychodynamic, and cognitive), reductionism is useful in all types of approaches, depending on the specific situation. For example, in a behaviorist approach, we use psychological terminology such as stimulus, response, reinforcement, and punishment to help us explain behaviors. This is a form of reductionism called environmental reductionism because “it explains behavior in terms of simple environmental factors. Behaviorists reduce the concept of the mind to behavioral components, i.e., stimulus-response links” (Simply Psychology).


Reductionism has been proven to be a useful tool in the psychological world; reductionist thinking can ease the difficulty of a complex problem by separating that problem into individual parts. But, there is equally as much research showing that reductionism is definitely not the best approach. Reductionism can run the risk of distorting the bigger problem because the individual parts either were not meant to be separately analyzed or those parts get overgeneralized which creates gaps in the whole problem, the essence of Aristotle’s words.


“Reductionism in Psychology”, Psychologist World. http://www.psychologistworld.com/issues/reductionism.php

“Why some phase out of college binge drinking and others are alcoholic”, Sarah A. Benton, M.S. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200906/why-some-phase-out-college-binge-drinking-and-others-are

“The Development of Roman Culture with Contact Through Greece Between”, James Lloyd. Ancient History Encyclopedia. http://www.ancient.eu/article/472/

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Reductionism and Holism. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/reductionism-holism.html

“Reductionism and Systems Thinking: Complementary Scientific Lenses”, Lindsey Tuominen. Science 2.0. http://www.science20.com/knocking_lignocellulosic_biomass/reductionism_and_systems_thinking_complementary_scientific_lenses

reductionism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved October 29, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reductionism