Five Key Theories In Psychology To Know When Choosing A Therapist

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated October 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Counseling may be a valuable treatment option if you're experiencing mental health challenges, as it offers the opportunity to explore various theoretical perspectives in psychology and work collaboratively with a trained professional to address your specific concerns. There are many different approaches to therapy, and some therapeutic models may work better for you than others. In particular, five common, key methodologies used in therapy might help you determine which method you prefer.

Overcome life’s challenges with affordable professional support

Five Key Psychological Theories In Counseling

Mental health clinicians may use various psychological theory frameworks to treat their clients. They may use algorithm psychology, insight therapy, or behavioral therapy. Some clinicians, called integrative or holistic therapists, may use multiple therapeutic techniques depending on the individual client.

Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of your therapist's chosen theoretical framework may help determine which treatment method is best for you. A collection of theories called “grand theories” are the ideas proposed and shaped by major thinkers in the psychology world such as Freud, Erickson, and Piaget. In this article we’ll take a closer look at five of these large-scale psychology theories. 

Behaviorist Theory

Behaviorist theory centers around the idea that all human behavior is a reaction to the environment. According to behaviorist theory, each person begins as a blank slate, and their observable behaviors are learned through interactions with the world, not genetics.

This theory was developed in part based on research by physiologist Ivan Pavlov on classical conditioning. Classical conditioning theory posits that humans develop unconscious responses to repeated stimuli. In Pavlov's famous experiment, he demonstrated classical conditioning by ringing a bell before feeding dogs. 

Over time, the dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell, even when food was not presented to them. This experiment indicates that individuals may become "trained" to demonstrate specific behavior in particular situations.

Another researcher, BF Skinner, developed a similar theory in the 1930s called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning suggests that all actions receive reinforcement in the form of rewards or discouragement in the form of punishment. Over time, individuals make associations between behavior and consequences and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning theories are primary components of behaviorist theory.

Types Of Behaviorist Theory Methods

Since behaviorist theory often involves how we learn and reinforce our unconscious actions, people seeking to change their behaviors may benefit from a behaviorist therapist. Two of the most common behaviorist therapy approaches are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

In CBT, people learn to reframe their negative thoughts into positive thoughts. CBT may be an effective treatment method for people with anxiety, depression, addiction, or marital stress.

DBT often involves learning to accept and change your current behavioral patterns. DBT may be an effective treatment for those living with a personality disorder, suicidal ideation, or persistent self-harm tendencies and individuals living with anxiety, depression, or addiction.

If you are experiencing thoughts or urges of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support.

Criticisms Of Behaviorist Theory

Some critics may assert that behaviorist theory is too simplistic. Behaviorist theory only addresses an individual's outward behaviors, not any internal issues. 

Additionally, behaviorist therapy may harm those experiencing trauma in some cases. It can infer that trauma can be fixed with lifestyle changes or the individual may be hooked on the Just World Hypothesis belief that the symptoms they're facing are their fault. However, trauma often involves a physical and mental component. 


Psychodynamic Theory

The psychodynamic theory of psychology suggests that our subconscious rules our behaviors. Based on the research of Sigmund Freud, psychodynamic theory indicates that each human's subconscious mind is made up of three competing factions: the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id is said to be the most primitive part of the subconscious. It may demand physical satisfaction at all times, like a child. The ego is the decision-making facet of the subconscious. It is ruled in part by your self-perception. The superego is developed by the society in which you are raised. The superego may help individuals define morals and personal values. In psychoanalytic theory, how these factions interact can determine future human behaviors. 

Benefits Of Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy, sometimes called talk therapy, may provide long-term positive effects for people with mental health disorders, including depression, panic disorders, anxiety, and personality disorders. The positive effects of psychodynamic therapy may continue to grow over time.

Criticisms Of Psychodynamic Theory

Critics of psychodynamic theory indicate that it ignores other primary decision-making factors, like conscious thought, and inherited traits, like genetic mental health disorders. Additionally, psychodynamic theories may diminish the role of free will by focusing on the subconscious mind. 

Humanistic Theory

Humanistic theory, or person-centered theory, indicates that each person is unique and capable of change. In this theory, individuals are responsible for their own happiness and social functioning. It is one of the four major personality theories, which also include such theories as psychoanalytic, trait, and social-cognitive perspectives. 

Humanistic theories are often focused more on an individual's current emotions than on past experiences that may be influencing their behavior and feelings. In humanistic psychology therapy, the client guides the therapy session while taking responsibility for their actions and emotions.

Benefits Of Humanistic Theory

Humanistic therapy may work well for people with depression, panic disorders, schizophrenia, addiction, marital or relationship problems, and anxiety. It may also empower individuals experiencing low self-worth or lack of purpose to take control of their lives.

Criticisms Of Humanistic Theory

Critics of this theory may suggest that the humanistic approach is too idealistic or naive. Critics may also indicate that by not examining the past, humanistic theory enables destructive behavioral patterns.

Cognitive Theory

The cognitive theory asserts that human behaviors are influenced by how we think. Cognitive theory became popular in the 1970s when computers began to be developed. The cognitive theory examines how humans process and categorize information and how that information may impact behavior. 

Benefits Of Cognitive Theory

CBT, which was described above in the behaviorist theory discussion, is a blend between behaviorist theory and cognitive theory. Like CBT, cognitive psychology may work well for addiction, depression, and anxiety.

Criticisms Of Cognitive Theory

The primary criticism of the cognitive theory is that it is too narrow. Because cognitive theories only focuses on individuals' internal processes, they may fail to account for social or genetic factors that could influence moral development and behavior. Additionally, empirical research is limited, because the results of cognitive theory can be difficult to observe and measure. 

Biological Theory

The biological theory suggests that genes, DNA, and hereditary factors significantly influence human behavior. In biological theory, it's assumed that most behaviors are inherited and shaped by a biological adaptation to one's external environment. The biological theory was developed based on research done by biologist and scientist Charles Darwin. The evolution theory of Charles Darwin became the basis of evolutionary psychologists in explaining humans’ relationship with their environment.

Advancements strengthen the biological theory in the field of neurology, which shows that the structure of the human brain is related to subsequent behavior. It may also posit that mental health diagnoses are due to a biological or hereditary factor. 

Benefits Of Biological Theory

Biological psychology can be used to investigate biological conditions like schizophrenia and individual characteristics with a biological basis, like IQ, gender roles, and aggression.

Criticisms Of Biological Theory

Critics of biological theories may take issue with the idea that most human behaviors are inherited. Because a biological perspective does not recognize cognitive decision-making, like free will or meditative thought, some critics find its application to abnormal behavior limited. 

Other Popular Theories

A couple of final categories that should be mentioned (though not expounded upon) are developmental theories, and industrial psychology. Developmental theories focus zeroes in on human growth, cognitive development, and theories of personality development across the lifespan. Many psychology theories have influenced this way of understanding human behavior, and popular branches of this theory include Freud’s psychosexual theory, Piaget’s stage theory, its adaptation into Kohlberg’s theory stages of moral development, and Bowlby’s attachment styles. Behavioral theories are the root of the “nature vs nurture” debate. Emergent theories in this field focus on the entire lifespan from prenatal stage to old age. 

Industrial psychology was created to develop employee behaviors. It takes aspects of social learning theory, as well as motivational and emotional theories, and tries to meet the emotional needs of workers. Psychology researchers create different theories under the industrial psychology umbrella to increase job satisfaction. 

Which Counseling Theory Is Best For Me?

Understanding which theory may work best in a particular situation is the responsibility of a mental health provider, and based on which behaviors exist. Psychology theories from the best psychology books inform therapy, but a therapist's chosen treatment method isn't the only factor influencing whether your mental health symptoms will improve.

If you have questions about the methodology used by your mental healthcare provider, discuss them with your therapist.

Overcome life’s challenges with affordable professional support

Finding A Counselor 

Counseling can be beneficial for those looking to explore psychology theories that benefit them. Many therapists have practiced CBT in the past. However, other types of therapies are often available, from EMDR to grief therapy and art therapy to person-centered therapy. Additionally, not all of the existing psychological approaches are listed above, like social comparison theory and other theories. If you have questions about a psychological school of thought, ask your provider upon meeting. 

In the modern age, many individuals now also appreciate online counseling. If you're learning about therapeutic methods, you may wonder about the best way to get treatment. Online therapy makes finding a counselor more available by allowing you to try several different providers, if necessary, without switching therapy offices or traveling long distances. 

Research from a University of Zurich study shows that online therapy is a more effective long-term treatment for depression than in-person counseling. Their research shows that three months post-treatment, 57% of those who had utilized online therapy experienced a continued decline in depression symptoms compared to just 42% of those who had been treated with in-person therapy. 

Because all providers are available online, you may be able to find a therapist specializing in your symptoms from the comfort of your home. Consider utilizing a platform such as BetterHelp to connect with a counselor that works for you. 

Counselor Reviews

“Tavia has helped me consistently, reliably, and whole-heartedly through my journey and time with her. I highly recommend her to anyone that needs help with life coping skills and CBT. She was always able to recognize my problems when I couldn't and provided numerous resources and guidance material each month. She's positively wonderful!”

“Tara is an authentic, warm and caring counsellor who listens so very well and is very attuned. She is genuine, educated and experienced. She is easy to talk to and creates a safe space to be yourself and feel valued and respected. Her voice is very calming and she has helped me ground at times of distress and emotional upheaval with DBT techniques and other tools. I have waited several months to "evaluate" her because I don't personally trust face value too quickly, but what you see is what you get and Tara has earned my trust. I'm lucky to have found her.”


If you're experiencing mental health challenges, many psychological theories may be used to inform the mental health advice, diagnosis, and treatment plan you negotiate. Your counselor may determine the best therapeutic method for you based on your presenting symptoms and goals for therapy.

Explore mental health options online

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started