Five Key Theories In Psychology

By: Gabrielle Seunagal

Updated January 27, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Psychology is a broad field that covers the study of human behavior. There are many aspects to the field, including abnormal psychology, psychological theories, and research. In this article, we will cover five of the common, key methodologies used in therapy. Different clinicians use different methods to treat their clients. It's important to take the time to understand these key psychological theories, especially if you're looking to get mental health treatment.

Conquer Life's Challenges With Affordable, Professional Help
Speak With A Professional - Sign Up Today
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
Source: rawpixel.com

Five Key Psychological Theories

In the field of psychology, there are six main theories that provide the foundation for various other studies, therapies, and perspectives. By reviewing and comprehending the following key theories, you truly begin to understand psychology and what it's all about.

1. The Behaviorist Theory

Behavior theory focuses on the stimulus-response behaviors. According to this theory, all behaviors are learned through interactions with the environment.

The behaviorist theory in professional settingsrefers to the environment as stimuli and the person's behavior is a response.

The physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered the connection between a stimulus and a response. Two stimuli link together and result in a learned response in a person or animal. Classical conditioning like this is a prevalent theme within the behaviorist theory of psychology. There are two forms of it: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Source: pixabay.com

Classical conditioning is a phenomenon whereby people learn to respond through sensory observation or repeated patterns.

There are phases of classical conditioning. In the acquisition phase, a stimulus is repeated. Then, there's an unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov's case, he was conditioning dogs to salivate in response to hearing the sound of a bell. He rang the bell and presented the dogs with food to start the process of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner, a psychologist, in the 1930s. It's a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for particular behaviors. Individuals make associations between behavior and consequences, and thereby adjust their behaviors.

People are rewarded for positive behaviors and punished for negative actions. After some time, a person learns to stop engaging in harmful behavior to avoid getting punished. They then participate in positive behavior to receive rewards.

There are many types of mental health treatments that incorporate the behaviorist theory. People seeking to change their behaviors might look for a behavioral therapist or someone who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, people learn to reframe their negative thoughts into positive thoughts.

In addition to CBT, there's also a form of treatment called DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). DBT was created initially to treat those with borderline personality disorder. The term "dialectical" incorporates two concepts: acceptance and change. When you accept what's happening around you, and within yourself emotionally, you can make life changes. DBT has four components, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and distress tolerance. It's a form of treatment that helps people handle their emotions and change their behaviors to build sustainable relationships.

Many people have critiqued behavior therapy. Some critics assert that it's too simplistic, and doesn't address deeper issues that might be going on internally. You're addressing the surface level behavior but not what the root cause of it is. For example, a person who has trouble with drinking can't stop abusing alcohol just because it's negative behavior. There are deep-rooted reasons why they're engaging in substance abuse that need to be explored. While CBT is a great model for helping people with anxiety, OCD, depression, and other mood conditions, it doesn't address severe trauma. There are better models of therapy for confronting and healing from traumatic wounds.

2. The Psychodynamic Theory

The psychodynamic theory of psychology helps people look at their subconscious mind. This particular theory came into being as a result of the studies of Sigmund Freud, a psychoanalyst. Freud believed that everyone's subconscious contains an ID, ego, and superego. Each component contains subcomponents and plays its own role in psychodynamic psychology.

Conquer Life's Challenges With Affordable, Professional Help
Speak With A Professional - Sign Up Today

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The ID is the part of us that wants things and needs to have them immediately. When you're hungry, that's a base emotion. When you have a sexual desire, that's your ID speaking. The ID doesn't care about anything but achieving immediate desires. Children are driven more by the id than the other components of the subconscious, which Freud coined.

The ego pertains to the perception of self. Your ego determines how you see yourself and whether you believe you have value. When you feel like a person is insulting you, and your ego is damaged, you might respond with hurt or angry feelings. How we see ourselves impacts how we relate to others. If your ego is secure, and you feel you have value, you will act according to that. If you feel insecure and your ego is fragile, you will behave in that manner. The ego is a reflection of how you think about you.

Lastly, the superego deals with each person's moral compass. Various factors contribute to the superego. The superego governs the ID and ego. It oversees when you're doing something that you're unsure of, and guides you towards making morally responsible choices. The relationship between the ID, ego, and superego is what encompasses the psychodynamic theory.

3. The Humanistic Theory

The humanistic theory of psychology primarily regards the humanity of the individual and the different factors which contribute to their feelings, actions, and self-image. To be precise, humanism states that each is unique in their way and capable of change if they so choose. The humanistic theory asserts that everyone bears responsibility for being happy and properly functional in the world.

Humanism has played a significant role in psychology. Also known as person-centered theory, humanistic psychology allows the client to guide a therapy session. Carl Rogers developed person-centered therapy, which helped the client take responsibility for their actions and emotions. When a person engages in person-centered therapy, they're taking control of their mental health treatment. Critics of this particular theory still believe that the humanistic approach is too idealistic and even naive. Those who take issue with humanism have also stated that this theory fails to account for the darker sides of humanity.

4. The Cognitive Theory

The cognitive psychology theory asserts that human behaviors begin with a person's mindset. Within the cognitive theory, attention, memory, and perception of humans are especially focused on. The way people process and compartmentalize information is valuable to understand what we see on the outside.

Source: pexels.com

Cognitive psychology has a significant role in psychology. It's provided insight into the basic functions of the brain. As a whole, human memory goes through three different stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding occurs first and foremost when the human mind gets information and pays attention to it. Next comes storage when the brain holds onto intel which it deems as important or valuable. Finally, the memory retrieves this information, thus bringing it back to the surface when it becomes necessary for a certain purpose. Cognitive theory has led to new developments in not only psychology but also the legal field, such as eyewitness testimony.

5. Biological Theory

The biological theory was largely brought into inception via the studies of biologist and scientist Charles Darwin. According to this particular psychological theory, genes, DNA and other hereditary factors have an impact on human behavior. The biological theory asserts that most behaviors are inherited and shaped by adaptation to one's external environment.

Neurology also plays a role in the biological perspective of psychology. According to studies, how a human brain is structured shares connections to various subsequent behaviors. This is especially seen in individuals who suffer from various atypical mental health issues or disorders. Various mental disorders almost always come with symptoms which are abnormal in comparison to most people.

In psychology, the biological theory can be very advantageous in the field of dealing with mental health issues and disorders. However, critics may take issue with the idea that most human behaviors are simply inherited. Questions could be raised regarding free will and whether or not people have the power to behave in ways which are contrary to what is observed in their external environments.

Which Theory Is Correct?

The great thing about psychology is that there are so many different ways to look at human behavior, and each of the theories above is valid in its way. Human beings are innately complex and that means there are certain psychological theories which will be appropriate for one situation, but not another.

Conquer Life's Challenges With Affordable, Professional Help
Speak With A Professional - Sign Up Today
Source: rawpixel.com

Understanding which theory works in a particular situation is the responsibility of a licensed psychologist or mental health provider. That's why certain psychologists specialize in behaviorism while other ones have expertise in humanism, cognitive behavior, or psychodynamic theory. No one school of thought is better than the other.

Psychological Theories Inform Therapy

Psychology theories are essential in therapy. You'll choose a therapist who practices one of the forms of treatment that works best for your needs. Whether you work with a behavioral therapist or a humanistic one, you can get the help you need. One of the best things about therapy is that no matter what key psychological theory it extends from, it has the power to help you. Therapy has changed countless lives and helped people to improve themselves. No matter what you may be going through, there is a therapist who can support you.

There's nothing wrong with consulting with a therapist, whether they’re online or in your local area. Although the stigma associated with therapy is changing, there are still some people who are afraid to seek treatment. In many cases, uncertainty or fear of sharing specific intimate details with a therapist is a factor. No matter what therapist you work with, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable expressing yourself to that person.

If you are interested in connecting with a therapist for some emotional insight, online counseling is a great option. Here at BetterHelp, we have an awesome team of therapists who would be more than thrilled to work with you. Life throws challenges at all of us, and everyone deserves to have a strong support system who they can turn to, including a therapist or counselor.

BetterHelp has been found to be just as effective in treating a variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, and addiction, as face-to-face therapy. In fact, a University of Zurich study found that online therapy is actually more effective than in-person therapy in the medium- and long-term with treating depression. In fact, 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.

Additionally, online therapy is rated as more convenient, more accessible, and more affordable than traditional face-to-face therapy. BetterHelp can be used anytime, anywhere – you’ll just need an internet connection to get started. Sessions are fully customizable, and can be conducted via phone call, instant messaging or texting, video chat, live voice recording, or any combination thereof. And since online therapists don’t need to pay to rent out office space and you don’t have to pay to commute to sessions, online therapy is often more affordable!

You can get started with BetterHelp at any time by clicking here. Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our licensed therapists from people seeking different treatment methods.

“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.”


Previous Article

What Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Psychology, Definition And More

Next Article

Evolutionary Psychology Definition: Humans, Behavior, And Evolving Norms
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist Today
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.