Theoretical Perspectives In Psychology

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated July 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychology is an inherently broad field that countless people have dedicated their lives to understanding and furthering. Psychologists may differ in their methods depending on their predominant psychological or theoretical perspective or approach to conceptualizing problems people face.

In psychology there are many theoretical perspectives, four major ones are: The Psychodynamic Theory, Behavioral Theory, Cognitive Theory, and Biological Theory, which will be discussed in this article.

There are many other theoretical perspectives in sociology that you may wish to learn more about as well, including: social change theories, such as conflict theory (often involving race and ethnicity issues) and symbolic interactionism. Various social institutions offer an introduction to sociology courses that cover these theories and their associated research methods, sub-theories, and contributors.

Prominent theories of human behavior

Numerous theoretical frameworks have been developed over the years to help explain the ways we think, feel, and act during everyday life. The following are four major theories in modern psychology.

1. Psychodynamic theory
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Learn these four theoretical perspectives in psychology

The psychodynamic perspective, or psychodynamic theory, of psychology, maintains that human behavior and mental health concerns can be traced back to each person's childhood, interpersonal relationships, and unconscious thoughts. The activity and construct of the unconscious mind are considered very important in psychodynamic theory. This theory proposes that each person's mind is made up of an id, which acts on underlying urges and instincts; an ego, which is seen to be battling with the unrealistic or instinctual id; and a superego, which brings morals and ethics into the equation. One of the major goals of this theory is understanding the influences on conscious and unconscious motivation and how the two may conflict and influence our behaviors and decisions.

Often called psychoanalytic theory, this perspective was originated by Sigmund Freud in the early part of the 20th century. Though much of Freud’s thinking was controversial at the time, many perspectives in modern psychology have borrowed from psychodynamic theory. There are three core assumptions at the heart of psychodynamic theory:

Critical importance of early experiences

This is the idea that events that happen in our childhood, especially substantial or life-changing ones, can help mold us and our personalities.

Importance of the unconscious

One of Freud’s most well-known contributions is the notion of the unconscious and its role in our thoughts and behaviors. According to psychodynamic theory, many of our emotions and motivations come from the unconscious, which is shaped by our past experiences and plays a major role in driving our behavior.

Psychic causality

Psychic causality, also called psychic determinism, is the third element of psychodynamic theory. It posits that there is no such thing as random feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. This is where the term “Freudian slip” comes from. 

2. Behavioral theory
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Behavioral theory, also called behaviorism, was initiated as a systematic approach to understanding behavior. One premise of this theory is that all behaviors are acquired by conditioning, or learning. Behaviorism dominated psychology during the first half of the 20th century. The information that was gained during the development of behaviorism on how and why we learn certain behaviors is still in use today to help people learn new skills and behaviors and extinguish unhelpful behaviors. Here is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about behavioral theory:

“Wilfred Sellars (1912–89), the distinguished philosopher, noted that a person may qualify as a behaviorist, loosely or attitudinally speaking, if they insist on confirming ‘hypotheses about psychological events in terms of behavioral criteria’…. A behaviorist, so understood, is someone who demands behavioral evidence for any psychological hypothesis. For such a person, there is no knowable difference between two states of mind (beliefs, desires, etc.) unless there is a demonstrable difference in the behavior associated with each state. Consider the current belief of a person that it is raining. If there is no difference in his or her behavior between believing that it is raining and believing that it is not raining, there is no grounds for attributing the one belief rather than the other. The attribution is empirically empty or unconstrained.”

3. Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory deals with the various inner workings of the human mind. This includes language, memory, learning, thought processes, and problem-solving. The unseen processes of the mind and internal states like motivation and attention are explained by cognitive theory and cognitive psychology.

One central tenet of cognitive perspective is that thought precedes emotions and behavior. Therefore, some psychologists who follow a cognitive approach, or cognitive psychologists, focus on the importance of changing our thoughts in order to change our behaviors, emotions, and relationships. 

4. Biological Theory

The biological perspective of psychology stands out from other perspectives in that it is more materialistic, emphasizing the importance of the brain and genetics. Biological psychology deals, specifically, with how genetics and hereditary factors can influence or contribute to human behavior. The brain, nervous system, immune system, genetic factors, and more are regularly studied by psychologists to better understand behavior.

As a theory focused on the physical, biological theory is considered by some biological psychologists to exist at the intersection of psychology and the natural sciences. It offers methods for studying natural causes of mental health conditions and human behaviors. 

Theoretical perspectives in psychology

Outside of the four theories mentioned above, there are other major perspectives that psychologies may pull from when working with patients. Some of these different perspectives include: 

Outside of the four theories mentioned above, there are other major perspectives that psychologies may pull from when working with patients. Some of these different perspectives include: 

  • Humanistic perspective – humanistic psychology focuses on the whole person, including childhood experiences, rather than focusing on one mental process. 

  • Evolutionary perspective – psychologists use an evolutionary lens to view mental processes, for example, men may prefer mates with healthy appearances because it means they may produce healthy offspring. 

  • Obedience psychology – scientists look at factors relating to obedience within our lives. 

Major sociological perspectives

To understand our thoughts and behaviors, it can help to discuss the various aspects of social life that they can stem from or influence. Sociological theories seek to explain different social phenomena, such as social interaction, structures, and relationships. The following are prominent sociological perspectives that have been developed in recent centuries. 

Functionalism

In the 19th century, responding to a rapidly changing world—a product of which was increases in criminal behavior and other concerns—many academics and philosophers began expressing a desire for social stability. These scholars developed the theory of functionalism, which sought to explain social institutions in terms of the vital functions they serve. Functionalism’s basic premise is that strong social ties and overall social stability are necessary to ensure the success of a society. Proponents of functionalism compared society to the human body. They argued that society’s various institutions are like the different body parts, each of which plays a vital role. 

Several sub-theories arose out of functionalism. For example, Robert Merton, an early sociologist, argued that there are two types of functions, manifest functions and latent functions. Manifest functions are the intended purposes of a social institution, and latent functions are the unintended functions. 

Conflict theory

Developed out of the ideas of Karl Marx and Max Weber, conflict theory seeks to understand how a population’s social structure may create inequity, power imbalances, and other social ills. According to conflict theory, tension arises out of a competition for limited resources. The conflict perspective opposes the functionalist perspective that social change must happen incrementally. According to proponents of conflict theory, sweeping changes must occur to create equality among different groups in a social structure. 

Symbolic interactionism

A micro sociological theory, the symbolic interactionist perspective suggests that an individual’s self-conception is formed based on interactions with others. This theory emphasizes the importance of communication—through symbols—in understanding small-scale social phenomena.

Critical theory

Like conflict theory, critical theory addresses social challenges by identifying the social structures that perpetuate them. However, the thinkers who developed critical theory focused on a broad range of factors (e.g., politics) that contribute to social inequality. Critical theory has spawned numerous related frameworks, including feminist theory and critical race theory.

Feminist theory

Focused on gender inequality, feminist theory aims to identify and change systems that produce power imbalances. This sociological theory asserts that oppression is a feature of society and a natural result of patriarchal social structures that subordinate certain groups based on gender, as well as race, sexuality, and class. According to many proponents of feminist theory, gender differences have been constructed and reinforced to perpetuate these systems of oppression. 

Critical race theory

According to Oxford University Press, the purpose of critical race theory is to “interrogate policies and practices that are taken for granted to uncover the overt and covert ways that racist ideologies, structures, and institutions create and maintain racial inequality”. Critical race theory’s advocates stress that race is a construct without a biological basis—and that racism has permeated the structures of society in a way that continues to create inequity.     

Psychology and its contributions to society
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Learn these four theoretical perspectives in psychology

Psychology and each of the psychological perspectives have made tremendous contributions to society. Thanks in part to psychology, we understand more about people, the choices they make, and how various factors influence the way we develop as people. For example, obedience psychology will enable us to comprehend what obedience is and its role in our lives.

Therapy is one of many contributions to society that are supported by various psychology perspectives. The benefits of therapy are well documented in research. The challenges that people face in daily living, learning difficulties, addictions, and many other difficulties may be helped by certain types of therapy. 

Psychology has also contributed research that has helped create testing and evaluation tools, which provide therapists with insight into how their clients function and what problems they may be facing.

In a broad-based review published in World Psychiatry—a peer-reviewed medical journal—researchers assessed the value of online therapy, and specifically online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), on those experiencing a broad array of mental health concerns.

This study primarily looked at the possibility for innovation that online methods of psychological treatment can foster, in addition to the usefulness of online modalities when administering acceptance and commitment therapy and the most common form of therapy, online CBT. CBT aims to help individuals understand and reframe the negative thought patterns that may be underlying unwanted behaviors and feelings so that they can manage potentially triggering or difficult situations more easily.

Online counseling or talk therapy with licensed therapists who employ combinations of the theories in psychology discussed above may help you meet your goals, face challenges, and learn more about yourself. With BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Also, you have the option of reaching out to your therapist outside of sessions. If you need to review a specific psychological topic, need any of the major perspectives explained, have a question about something, or just want to chat, you can send your counselor a message, and they will get back to you as soon as they are able. 

The qualified mental health professionals at BetterHelp have worked with thousands of people to help them better understand their mental health. Read below for counselor reviews from those who have sought help in the past.

Counselor reviews

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Takeaway
Psychology research is ongoing, with new developments building on the foundational theoretical perspectives above. If you have questions about any of these perspectives and how they might inform your personal journey toward improvement, a licensed therapist may be able to answer your questions and help you move forward. Reach out to a professional therapist whenever you’re ready.
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