Five Key Theories In Psychology To Know When Choosing A Therapist

Updated November 29, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, counseling may be a great treatment option. There are many different approaches to therapy, and some therapeutic models may work better for you than others. In this article, we will cover five of the common, key methodologies used in therapy to help you determine which method may be most effective for you.

Research from the University of Zurich study shows that online therapy is a more effective long-term treatment for depression than in-person. 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. If you’re considering online therapy, keep reading to pinpoint the most effective online therapy modality for you.

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Five Key Psychological Theories In Counseling

Mental health clinicians may use various methods to treat their clients. 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 you determine which treatment method is best for you.

Behaviorist Theory

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

This theory was developed in part based on research by physiologist Ivan Pavlov into classical conditioning. Classical conditioning theory posits that humans develop unconscious responses to repeat 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 certain behavior in particular situations.

Another research, B.F. Skinner, developed a similar theory in the 1930s called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning suggests that all actions either 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 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 behavior therapy (DBT).

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

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

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 deeper issues that might be going on internally. Additionally, behaviorist therapy cannot address severe trauma.

Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory of psychology suggests that our behaviors are ruled by our subconscious. 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 the most primitive part of the subconscious. It demands 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 helps individuals define morals and personal values.

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, by focusing on the subconscious mind so strongly, psychodynamic theory may diminish the role of free will.

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. Humanistic theory is more focused on an individual’s current emotions than on past experiences that may be influencing their behavior and feelings. 

In humanistic 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 particular 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 psychotic or destructive behavioral patterns.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory asserts that human behaviors are influenced by the way we think. Cognitive theory became popular in the 1970s when computers began to be developed. Cognitive theory seeks to examine how humans process and compartmentalize 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 therapy may work well for addiction, depression, and anxiety.

Criticisms Of Cognitive Theory

The primary criticism of cognitive theory is that it is too narrow. Because cognitive theory only focuses on individuals’ internal processes, it fails to account for social or genetic factors that may influence behavior. Additionally, studies on cognitive theory are limited by what can be observed and measured.

Biological Theory

The biological theory suggests that genes, DNA, and hereditary factors have a large influence over human behavior. In the biological theory, it’s assumed that most behaviors are inherited and shaped by an adaptation to one's external environment. The biological theory was developed based on research done by biologist and scientist Charles Darwin. 

The biological theory is strengthened by continuing advancements in the field of neurology, which show that the structure of the human brain is related to subsequent behavior.

Benefits Of Biological Theory

The biological theory can be used to investigate biological conditions like schizophrenia as well as individual characteristics with a biological basis, like IQ, gender roles, and aggression.

Criticisms Of Biological Theory

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

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. Psychology theories 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 being used by your mental healthcare provider, discuss them with your therapist.

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Mental Health Support Is Available Online

If you need one-on-one therapy support, online therapy is available. If you’re just starting to learn about therapeutic methods, you may wonder the best way to get treatment. Online therapy makes it simple to find the best therapist for you by giving you the flexibility to try several different providers, if necessary, without switching therapy offices or traveling long distances. Because all providers are available online, you may be able to find a therapist specializing in your symptoms from the comfort of your home. Online therapy can also be customized to support individuals living with a variety of mental health symptoms. For example, if your mental health challenges make it difficult to schedule a video call or a phone session, online therapists may be available via a messaging app.

BetterHelp therapists have supported thousands of individuals experiencing mental health challenges with various therapeutic approaches. Keep reading for reviews from some satisfied BetterHelp clients.

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, there are many different psychological theories that may be used to inform your mental health treatment plan. Your counselor may determine the best therapeutic method for you based on your presenting symptoms and goals for therapy. 

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