What Are Five Key Theories In Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 24, 2024by 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.

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Five key theories in psychology

Psychological theories provide insights into the human experience, helping us understand our thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. Mental health clinicians may use various psychological theory frameworks to treat symptoms of mental illness and other challenges experienced by 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 group of theories called “grand theories” are the ideas proposed and shaped by major thinkers in the psychology world, such as Freud, Erickson, and Piaget. If you’d like to conduct further research, consider finding information from a trusted source (e.g., a journal article or psychology book). 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 environmental 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 suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7.


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. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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—with each other, and with the conscious mind—can determine future human behaviors. 


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.


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. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a key concept in developmental psychology, is one of the most prominent theories within the humanistic approach. According to Maslow’s hierarchy, human motivation to fulfill diverse sets of needs dictates behavior. 

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. 


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 and improve their self-esteem.


Critics of humanist theories may suggest that this 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. 


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.


The primary criticism of the cognitive theory is that it is too narrow. Because cognitive theories only focus on individuals' mental processes, they may fail to account for social or genetic factors that could influence human 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. 


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


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 psychological theories of human behavior

There are dozens of other psychological theories that seek to explain the ways we think, feel, and act. A couple of final categories that should be mentioned are developmental theories and theories of industrial psychology.

Theories of human development

The field of developmental psychology includes several different theories and mini-theories. These theories seek to explain the formation of human personality, thought, and behavior over time. The psychosexual stages of Sigmund Freud and the psychological types of Carl Jung are two of the earliest theories of development. Freud proposed that there were five stages of development: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital; while Jung outlined four stages, which did not have a psychosexual premise. Both Jung’s and Freud’s theories were later built upon, with many theories of human development using a stage model.   

Theory of cognitive development

Jean Piaget created the most well-known theory of the development of human thought. According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the human mind forms the key components of cognition—such as learning, reasoning, and problem-solving skills—over four distinct stages. 

Theories of moral development

Many psychology theories have influenced the way we understand morality and human behavior. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development is the most well-known theory in this psychological realm. Kohlberg was influenced by Piaget’s ideas on development. Emergent theories in this field focus on the entire lifespan from prenatal stage to old age. 

Industrial psychology theories

Industrial psychology was created to develop employee behaviors. It takes aspects of social learning theory, as well as motivational and emotional theories (e.g., expectancy theory), and tries to meet the emotional needs of workers. Psychology researchers create new 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.

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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. 

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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.
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