10 julio, 2024

The 20 most influential psychological theories

The psychological theories they try to explain human behavior by proposing different causes, models and explanations. There are general theories that explain the behavior or general life of the human being, and specific theories that explain certain areas such as love, social relationships, learning, personality, success, among others.

Psychology is one of the most recent sciences. The first serious studies of human behavior and experience were carried out a little over a century ago. Due to this, today there is still no unified theory that is capable of explaining all the phenomena related to the human being.

On the contrary, in the field of psychology a multitude of theories coexist, each of them with a greater or lesser amount of scientific evidence that supports them. Many of them are still valid today and have practical applications. For example, within the field of therapy, it is common to use techniques drawn from several different currents depending on the problem to be treated.

Although there are many different psychological theories, in this article we will see only some of the most important, both historically and today.


General psychological theories

Psychology of the faculties

This theory was defended by Saint Augustine, Reid and John Calvin. He maintained that thanks to the activity of certain faculties of the thinking substance, mental phenomena were produced.

In his theory, Saint Augustine affirms that the human soul is immortal and spiritual, that it is not found in a specific part of the body and that it joins the body in an accidental way or as a form of punishment.

He also explained that people have two ways of obtaining knowledge; through the senses, which allow us to know the sensible world, and through reason, which allows us to reach truth and wisdom.


Psychoanalysis was one of the first formal attempts to explain all phenomena related to the human mind in a unified way. It was originally developed by Sigmund Freud, a Viennese therapist who tried to discover a cure for the most common mental disorders of his time.

Psychoanalysis is based on the idea that in our mind there are three elements that interact with each other, creating all kinds of conflicts and problems in doing so: the id, the ego and the superego. Each of these structures is responsible for an aspect of our lives. While the ego is our conscious part, the id is in charge of our instincts, and the superego of our morality.

In addition, in psychoanalysis it is considered that most of our problems are caused by the relationship we have with our parents during childhood. Thus, this theory defends that the disorders suffered by adults have to do with issues that occurred during the first years of life and that have not yet been resolved.


One of the first psychological theories that used scientific research to reach its conclusions was behaviorism. This way of understanding the human being defends that everything we do is determined by our experiences. According to behaviorists, when we arrive in the world, our minds are completely blank: what is known as the idea of ​​a «blank slate».

For those who defend this psychological theory, over the years we develop our personality, tastes and ways of acting through a learning process. This is produced by basic mechanisms, such as classical and operant conditioning, habituation and sensitization.

On the other hand, behavioral psychologists believe that the only thing that can really be studied is human behavior, that which is directly observable. For this reason, those who defend this vision of the human being avoid investigating phenomena such as feelings, happiness or beliefs.


Thorndike, with this theory, defines learning as the result of the association between stimuli and responses. Furthermore, he affirms that the most characteristic form of association is that obtained through trial and error.

His main contribution was the formulation of the law of effect. This dictates that if a certain response given by the subject is followed by reinforcing consequences, these responses will have a greater probability of future occurrence when the same stimulus reappears.

Another of the laws that he established was the law of exercise or repetition. With it, he affirms that the more times a response is given in the presence of a stimulus, the longer its retention time will be.

Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology was a current developed in Germany in the first decades of the 20th century. It was one of the first that decided to study purely mental phenomena from a scientific, replicable and rigorous point of view.

The main idea of ​​this current is that our brain constructs our reality in an active way, instead of simply being a passive receiver of information.

Gestalt psychology focused especially on phenomena such as perception and memory, which until then had not been really rigorously investigated. Its defenders discovered several principles that affect our way of understanding reality, and that are produced in an immutable way in all people.

cognitive psychology

One of the most important psychological theories in the entire history of this discipline is cognitive. It appeared in the second half of the 20th century, and at the time it was a complete revolution for the study of human behavior. It is based on the idea that the phenomena that occur in our minds are decisive for our way of acting, our ideas and feelings, and our experience.

Cognitive psychology seeks to understand the mental processes that determine how we are. Thus, after many years of mastery of behaviorism, researchers began to apply the scientific method to phenomena such as love, happiness, feelings, and beliefs.

For the defenders of this theory, our experience in the world has to do with our way of thinking. Therefore, to really understand how we work, it is necessary to first study what goes on inside our brains. From this approach, it is considered that each person actively constructs their reality, filtering what happens to them through their preconceived ideas.

Social psychology

Social psychology is a branch of this science whose main objective is to understand how the rest of the people around us affect us. From this current, each individual is not seen as an isolated element, but as part of a group, a society and a specific environment.

Social psychology is one of the broadest branches within this science, and is in charge of studying phenomena as diverse as love, persuasion, violence, altruism, friendship, and motivation. However, all their research has something in common: they focus on the influence that other people have on all these phenomena.

For example, in studies on aggression, social psychology tries to understand what is the best way to avoid the appearance of violence, using elements such as group pressure or social values.

humanistic psychology

Humanistic psychology was a branch that was of great importance in the 50s and 60s of the last century. At first it arose as an attempt to reconcile two of the most important positions of the time, behaviorism and psychoanalysis, which were apparently opposed in almost every way.

Humanistic psychology, instead of looking for general explanations for all phenomena, tries to understand the personal experience of each individual. At the same time, he considers that there are some phenomena that are universal, such as love, joy, positive and negative emotions, motivation and desire.

From humanistic psychology, it is about reconciling, for example, the mind and the body. In addition, for the first time in Western psychology, the «ego» is mentioned in the sense that it is given in Eastern philosophy, and it is about finding a way to go beyond it.

Some of the most important humanistic psychologists were Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. The latter developed the theory of the pyramid of needs, which has transcended this current and is used today in many different fields.

Cognitive-behavioral psychology

As we have already seen, cognitive psychology originally arose as an attempt to reject behaviorism, which was mainstream in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, while cognitivism advocated the paramount importance of the mind and inner experience, behaviorism focused solely on behavior.

However, over time the researchers realized that both positions could perfectly complement each other. Thus, to understand the human experience it is necessary not only to focus on behavior or mind separately, but to integrate both. This is how cognitive-behavioral psychology arose, the most important trend today in the world.

Within cognitive-behavioral psychology, it is understood that the human being is made up of both mind and body, and that both elements interact and feed each other. In this way, tools from both currents are used to achieve more complex objectives.

It should be noted that cognitive-behavioral therapy, based on this current, is the one that has shown the highest rates of effectiveness when it comes to treating most of the mental disorders that exist.

psychosocial theory

This theory was developed by Erikson, a psychoanalyst who has laid the foundation for evolutionary psychology. This psychologist has tried to explain how the person matures in all aspects of his life.i

The stages into which the psychosocial development of the person is divided are eight and as it is overcome, it would go on to the next one. But if this does not happen, the person will have a conflict at that stage that will lead to difficulties.

Stage of trust versus mistrust from birth to one year.
Stage of autonomy versus shame and doubt from 1 to 3 years.
Initiative versus guilt stage from 3 to 6 years.
Stage of industriousness versus inferiority from 7 to 12 years.
Identity stage versus role confusion from 12 to 20 years.
Stage of intimacy versus isolation from 21 to 40 years.
Productivity stage versus stagnation from 40 to 70 years.
Stage of the integrity of the self versus the despair of the 60 years until death.


As we have just seen, within all the psychological theories that exist, the cognitive-behavioral current is the most used and the one that has the greatest amount of scientific evidence today. However, in recent years it is gaining…

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