38 Famous Psychology Theories: Examples and Overview

psychology theories, explained below

Psychology is the social science that studies the mind. However, there is a broad range of ways to conduct this analysis, which has led to a proliferation of psychological theories.

These theories can be separated into a few key categories, including:

  • Psychoanalytic Theories
  • Behavioral Theories
  • Cognitive Theories
  • Developmental Theories
  • Social Psychology Theories
  • Motivation and Humanist Theories
  • Personality Theories

In each category, we have a range of contributing theories that have fundamentally shaped the field of psychology. Each is outlined below.

Psychology Theories Examples

1. Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalysis centers on uncovering unconscious thoughts and emotions that contribute to an individual’s mental afflictions. This can involves the interpretation of dreams and free association techniques.

The practice of psychoanalysis involves facilitating a patient’s self-insight by providing interpretations of the patient’s words and behavior in therapy.

Freud pioneered the notion of unconscious mental processes, highlighting the repressed conflicts that, under the surface, influence human behavior. He also introduced the concept of a structured mind consisting of the id, ego, and superego.

Building on Freud’s work, later psychoanalysts, such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, branched out to explore collective unconscious and individual psychology, respectively.

Major Psychoanalytic Theories

  1. Ego Psychology (Freud): This theory emphasizes the role of the ego in mediating between the demands of the id, the superego, and reality, focusing on defense mechanisms and adaptive functions.
  2. Psychosexual Development Theory (Freud): Freud proposed that individuals progress through five stages (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital) where pleasure is centered on different erogenous zones, and conflicts at each stage can impact personality and behavior.
  3. The Collective Unconscious (Jung): Jung believed in a shared, deep layer of the unconscious that houses universal memories and ideas inherited from our ancestors, distinct from an individual’s personal unconscious.
  4. Psychological Archetypes (Jung): Jung also proposed that we all have universally recognized symbols and themes, such as the Hero or the Mother, present in myths, stories, and dreams, stemming from the collective unconscious.
  5. Individual Psychology (Adler): Adler’s theory emphasizes the importance of feelings of inferiority, the striving for superiority or success, and the role of social connections in shaping personality.
  6. Psychosocial Development Theory (Erikson): Erikson proposed that individuals navigate eight stages of life, each marked by a specific conflict that influences personality development and social relationships.
  7. Object Relations Theory (Klein): This theory focuses on the importance of early relationships, especially with primary caregivers, in shaping how individuals relate to others and their understanding of social bonds throughout life.

Go Deeper: Psychoanalytic Theories in Psychology

2. Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories in psychology posit that human behavior is learned and shaped by environmental stimuli.

Breaking from the introspective nature of psychoanalysis, behaviorism asserts that all behavior can be explained without considering internal mental states. Instead, it maintains that behavior is a response to stimuli in our environment.

In fact, behaviorists argue that, in order for psychology to be considered a true science, unconscious and unobservable mental states should be rejected as unexaminable. (Behaviorists went as far as labelling psychoanalysis to be mere pseudoscience).

Behaviorism surfaced around the early 20th century with John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov as leading figures. B.F. Skinner later further developed the theory, emphasizing operant learning, the idea that a behavior’s consequence affects its likelihood of reoccurrence.

Major Behavioral Psychology Theories

  1. Classical Conditioning (Pavlov): The famous Pavlov’s dog experiment demonstrated that learning can occur in an organism (human or animal) when a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) becomes associated with a naturally occurring stimulus (such as food). Once these two stimuli become associated, we can infer a learned behavior – i.e. a dog salivating when a bell rings.
  2. Operant Conditioning (Skinner): This theory posits that behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences, including reinforcements (which increase behavior) and punishments (which decrease behavior). Rewards make a behavior more likely to reoccur, while punishments make a behavior less likely to reoccur.
  3. Social Learning Theory (Bandura): Through his famous Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura proposed that people can learn new behaviors and acquire new information simply by observing others, emphasizing the importance of modeling and imitation.
  4. Stimulus Response Theory (Watson): This theory suggests that behavior is a direct response to a stimulus, emphasizing the predictability of behavior in relation to specific stimuli.
  5. Contingency Theory (Rescorla): Rescorla’s theory emphasizes that for learning to occur, a stimulus must reliably predict another; it’s not just the pairing, but the predictive value of the pairing that matters.

3. Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theories focus on understanding how mental processes such as thinking, memory, perception, and problem-solving influence behavior.

Operating under the assumption that humans are rational and systemic in the way that they organize and interpret information, cognitive theories emphasize the active role of individuals in shaping their understanding of reality.

This perspective emerged as a reaction to the limitations of behaviorism, which disregarded the influence of cognitive processes on behavior. Cognitive psychologists argued that complex mental processes, such as problem-solving, could not be fully understood through observable behavior alone.

But don’t mistake it with the highly theoretical psychoanalysis – cognitive psychology has a strong empirical emphasis, relying on experimental research (see: experimental psychology) to reach its conclusions.

A leading figure in this field is Jean Piaget, known for his theory on children’s cognitive development. The concepts central to cognitive theory, such as schema and cognitive biases, have been highly influential in numerous subfields, including educational psychology, clinical psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.

Major Cognitive Psychology Theories

  1. Cognitive Development Theory (Piaget): Piaget proposed that children progress through four distinct stages of cognitive growth (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational), each characterized by specific ways of thinking and understanding the world.
  2. Information Processing Theory: This theory likens the human mind to a computer, emphasizing how information is taken in, processed, stored, and retrieved.
  3. Schema Theory (Bartlett): Bartlett suggested that our understanding of the world is organized into mental frameworks or “schemas” that influence how we perceive and remember information.
  4. Dual Process Theory (Kahneman): Kahneman proposed that human thinking operates on two levels: a fast, intuitive process (System 1) and a slower, more deliberate process (System 2).
  5. Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger): Festinger suggested that individuals experience discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes, leading them to change one to resolve the inconsistency.

Go Deeper: The Major Cognitive Psychology Theories

4. Developmental Theories

Psychological development theories are concerned with changes in cognitive, physical, and social abilities over the course of life.

These theories provide frameworks for understanding how humans grow, change, and learn across their lifespan. They aim to explain the processes of development and growth, outlining stages or phases that a person typically passes through from infancy to adulthood.

chrisEditorial Note: Most sub-fields in psychology have their own way to explain development. So, you’ll notice some of these theories are overlaps with other categories. E.g.: Piaget’s theory fits into both developmental psychology and cognitive psychology. Similarly, Freud’s theory fits into both developmental psychology and psychoanalysis.

Notable theorists include Jean Piaget, who proposed four stages of cognitive development and emphasized the role of active learning; Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, who outlined theories of psychosexual and psychosocial development respectively; Lawrence Kohlberg, who created a theory of moral development; and Urie Bronfenbrenner, who framed human development within an ecological systems context.

Broadly speaking, the theories explore how individuals’ abilities, behavior, and identities are shaped over time, in connection with genetic and environmental factors. They stress the importance of stages, critical periods, and the influence of early experiences on later behavior.

Major Developmental Psychology Theories

  1. Cognitive Development Theory (Piaget): Piaget proposed that children progress through four distinct stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational) of cognitive growth, each characterized by specific ways of thinking and understanding the world.
  2. Moral Development Theory (Kohlberg): Kohlberg outlined a three-level, six-stage theory where individuals progress through distinct stages of moral reasoning, from a focus on self-interest to a broader, universal ethical principle.
  3. Loevinger’s Theory of Ego Development (Loevinger): Loevinger described a series of stages where individuals progress in their understanding of self and others, moving from a simplistic, self-centered perspective to one of integrated self-awareness and concern for others.
  4. Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner): Bronfenbrenner proposed that an individual’s development is influenced by a series of interconnected systems, from immediate surroundings like family to broader societal structures.
  5. Montessori’s Planes of Development (Montessori): Montessori outlined four distinct developmental stages (or planes) from birth to adulthood, each with its own characteristics and educational needs, emphasizing self-directed learning and hands-on experience.

5. Social Psychology Theories

Social psychology theories aim to understand how individuals’ behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.

A key debate that led to the rise of social psychology was the disagreement between Piaget, of cognitive psychology, and Vygotsky. While Piaget held that children tend to develop at a relatively similar rate, Vygotsky disagreed, holding that social contexts (such as books in the house and parental support) can heavily impact rates of development.

Later, Barbara Rogoff demonstrated that cultural contexts also strongly affect development (e.g. children in different cultures develop along different paths).

Social psychology theories explore a wide spectrum of social phenomena that affect individuals, including, but not limited to, social psychology concepts like social perception, social interaction, group behavior, and social influence. These theories provide the foundation for understanding how social context shapes individual behavior and how the interplay between the two impacts a variety of outcomes – from attitudes and stereotypes to interpersonal relationships and collective action.

Ultimately, social psychology theories underscore the significant impact that our social environment has on our attitudes and behaviors, reminding us that our perception of reality is as much a social construction as it is an objective fact.

Major Social Psychology Theories

  1. Sociocultural Theory (Vygotsky): Vygotsky emphasized the critical role of social interaction and cultural context in cognitive development, particularly the influence of language and more knowledgeable peers or adults.
  2. Social Identity Theory (Tajfel): Tajfel proposed that individuals categorize themselves and others into in-groups and out-groups, leading to biases that favor one’s own group and shape self-esteem.
  3. Attribution Theory (Heider): Heider posited that people tend to explain others’ behaviors based on internal dispositions or external situations, influencing their perceptions and reactions.
  4. Social Exchange Theory (Homans): Homans proposed that social behavior is the result of an exchange process where individuals weigh potential benefits and costs of interactions.
  5. Social Learning Theory (Bandura): Bandura emphasized that people can learn new behaviors and acquire new information simply by observing others, highlighting the role of modeling and imitation.

6. Motivation and Humanist Theories

Motivation and humanist theories tend to overlap to the extent that I’ve decided to group them here.

Here is how they overlap:

  • Humanist psychology focuses on individual free will, personal growth, and the concept of self-actualization.
  • Motivation theories aim to comprehend the ‘why’ behind human actions, which presupposes free will and (usually) the fact we desire personal growth, given the right conditions.

Humanist psychologists assert that individuals have an inherent drive towards self-fulfillment and are inherently good. The subjective experiences and perceptions of the individual are given prime importance in these theories.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are among the leading figures in humanistic psychology. They strived to understand human psychology, not through mental illness symptoms, but by recognizing the potential for creativity, love, and self-actualization in all individuals.

Next, multiple motivation theories explore different angles and potential explanations for human drive. For instance, Drive Theory postulates that human behavior is propelled by a series of physiological needs, whereas Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs classifies the needs into a sequence of relative significance.

Combined, motivation and humanistic theories provide a holistic view of human behavior, integrating elements of inner drive, environmental influences, and the aspiration for self-improvement.

Major Motivational and Humanistic Theories

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow proposed a pyramid of human needs, starting from basic physiological needs to self-actualization, suggesting that lower-level needs must be satisfied before higher-level needs become motivating.
  2. Attachment Theory (Bowlby & Ainsworth): This theory posits that early relationships with caregivers form the basis for later social attachments and influence an individual’s emotional and social development.
  3. Rogers’ Person-Centered Theory: Rogers emphasized the importance of self-actualization, positive regard, and an authentic relationship between therapist and client for therapeutic change.
  4. Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan): Deci and Ryan proposed that optimal human functioning and well-being are achieved when individuals satisfy their innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
  5. Expectancy Theory (Vroom): Vroom suggested that motivation is determined by the expectation that a certain behavior will lead to a desired outcome, multiplied by the value of that outcome to the individual.
  6. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory: Herzberg proposed that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction arise from two separate sets of factors: motivation factors (which lead to satisfaction) and hygiene factors (whose absence can lead to dissatisfaction).

Read More: Examples of Humanistic Psychology

7. Personality Theories

Personality theories in psychology aim to define and explain the consistent patterns of behavior, thinking, and feeling that characterizes individuals.

Researchers in this field strive to elucidate how personality develops and how it influences behavior. Generally, they focus on identifying traits, behaviors, and motivations which distinguish individuals from one another and predict how individuals will behave in certain situations.

Regardless of their different views, all personality theories contribute to understanding the complexity of humans, seeking to explain why we are uniquely ourselves.

Major Personality Theories in Psychology

  1. Trait Theory of Personality: This theory posits that personalities are composed of a set of stable characteristics or traits that influence an individual’s behavior across various situations.
  2. Five Factor Model of Personality: This model identifies five core personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which are believed to describe the broad dimensions of human personality.
  3. Freud’s Personality Theory: Freud proposed that personality is shaped by the dynamic interactions among the id (primitive desires), ego (reality-oriented mediator), and superego (moral conscience).
  4. Adler’s Individual Psychology: Adler believed that individuals are driven by a sense of inferiority to strive for superiority or success, and that social connections and community play a crucial role in shaping personality.
  5. Humanist Theory of Personality: Rooted in the works of figures like Maslow and Rogers, this theory emphasizes individual potential, self-actualization, and the intrinsic nature of humans to grow towards their personal ideals in a supportive environment.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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