IB Psychology Overview

If you are still new to the IB Psychology course, you may be wondering what lies ahead over the next two years.  What is Psychology really about?  What topics do Psychologists study?  This article will give you a brief, bird's eye view of the entire course. 

  • In Year 1 of the course, you will study the three Core topics - Biological, Cognitive, and Sociocultural.  Each topic represents a different approach to understanding behavior, and combining these approaches provides the most holistic view of human psychology.

  • In Year 2 of the course, you will study either one (SL) or two (HL) Options from a list of four - Relationships, Abnormal, Developmental, and Health.  These options will involve greater in-depth study of some of the key areas in Psychology.  (This website will focus on Relationships and Abnormal)

  • Throughout the course, you will also study Research Methods - the different ways that Psychologists carry out scientific investigations, in order to answer the burning questions about human behavior.  You will also get an idea of what it's like to carry out research yourself - by replicating a famous Psychology study for your IA


The video to the left shows the process of neurotransmission - how brain cells (called neurons) communicate with each other.  This is happening millions of times- inside your brain - right this very moment!

The Biological level of analysis focuses on how your brain works.  The basic assumption is that every human thought, feeling, emotion and action is related to biological processes.  When you fall in love with your best friend, get angry at someone who runs a red light, or decide to buy a new cellphone - there's something going on in your brain that's responsible!

Some of the topics you'll encounter in the Biological level of analysis may include:

  • How tiny chemicals - called neurotransmitters - can help explain why cocaine is so addictive, why mood swings happen, and why a good hug can make your day

  • How brain abnormalities might explain why some people - such as serial killers - feel no remorse or empathy for their victims

  • How your brain literally changes every time you learn something new - and how this knowledge can help you master a new skill, whether it be becoming fluent in German or finally learning to play the guitar


Can you read the text on the left?  The mind is indeed capable of impressive things!  Even though each "word" is actually a nonsense combination of numbers and letters, your brain processes the information seamlessly.

The Cognitive level of analysis focuses on how people think.  Key topics in this level of analysis involve how people process information, how memories are stored and retrieved, and how people make decisions - often irrational ones!

For instance, imagine you are deciding which smart phone to purchase - an I-Phone, a Samsung, or a Chinese clone.  How will you decide?  Will it your decision be based on careful logic, or the emotions you feel for each brand?  How will your memories associated with each brand influence your decision? 
Some of the topics you'll encounter in the Cognitive level of analysis may include:

  • Why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable - in some cases, causing innocent people to spend years in prison for a crime they didn't commit

  • Why two people can read the exact same information - for instance, a study on the effects of the death penalty - and yet still come to completely opposite conclusions about its effectiveness

  • How people can fabricate completely false memories and be convinced that they are true - and on the other hand, why difficult or traumatic life events (like a bad breakup) can be etched vividly in our memories despite our best efforts to forget


The video to the left is a classic scene from the film "Mean Girls" - depicting the moment a new girl at school has to choose which high school "tribe" to affiliate herself with - the jocks, geeks, or plastics? 

This scene suggests a basic human truth - we all need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  Whether its our country, religion, peer group or political affiliation - groups give us a sense of security, belonging and identity.

The sociocultural level of analysis focuses on how the groups we belong to shape how we think and act - in both  favorable and potentially harmful ways. 

Some of the topics you'll encounter in the Sociocultural level of analysis may include:

  • Why negative stereotypes of some groups - such as African-Americans - can be so difficult to eradicate, and how these stereotypes can lead to unfair prejudice and discrimination towards minority groups

  • How the culture you grow up in determines your way of seeing the world - how you think about the flow of time, the relationship between you and your family, and what constitutes right and wrong behavior

  • How globalization, immigration and cultural assimilation are rapidly changing age-old traditions and causing cultural clashes, while perhaps also opening up opportunities for greater understanding and coexistence


Can you fall in love with any stranger, just by asking (and answering) 36 questions?  Take a look at the video on your life, and decide for yourself!

People are often our greatest source of both happiness and misery in life.  During the best of times, we may fall in love, experience romantic bliss, and feel a warm sense of community with our friends and neighbors.  But during the worse of times, we may feel terrible heartbreak, experience the indifference and coldness of others, even perhaps be witness to horrible acts of human cruelty, such as war and ethnic brutality.  The Relationships unit looks at some of the ways that people help each other, hurt each other, and love each other.
Some of the topics you'll encounter in the Relationships unit may include:

  • How communication can be the key to a romantic relationship, determining which couples stay together forever and which end their marriages in divorce

  • How people can seem so helpful in some situations - perhaps jumping in front of a moving train to help a stranger who has fallen onto the tracks - and so cruel and callous in other situations, ignoring those in genuine need

  • What causes groups of people - such as nations - to work together for the common good of humanity, or descend into brutal war that kills innocent men, women and children


Just like any other part of the body, the brain can suffer from disorder, and the effects can be devastating.  Take a look at the video on the left, in which one woman describes her experience of depression.  Notice how her illness dramatically affects how she thinks and feels.

The Abnormal unit focuses on mental disorders - depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), just to name a few of the most common.  These disorders, collectively, may affect up to 1 in 4 people.  Chances are, even if you are lucky enough to never develop a mental disorder, someone you love will develop one at some point in their life.
Some of the topics you'll encounter in the Abnormal unit may include:

  • How abnormal behavior has been viewed and understood in different cultures and at different times

  • How a combination of vulnerable genes, patterns of negative thought, and stressful life events can combine to trigger the onset of a psychological disorder, such as depression

  • How a psychological disorder is diagnosed and treated, and whether psychiatric drugs or counseling and therapy is more effective in treating a disorder