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5 Major Psychological Perspectives

Psychological perspectives represent different ways of thinking about how people behave. Some of the main psychological perspectives that have emerged to help scientists study and understand human thought and actions include:

  • The psychodynamic perspective
  • The behavioral perspective
  • The humanist perspective
  • The biological perspective
  • The cognitive perspective

Some psychologists take a single approach in their research. For example, a cognitive psychologist might utilize a cognitive perspective when analyzing human problems.

Researchers often take a more eclectic approach, incorporating many different perspectives to build a deeper and richer understanding of how humans think, feel, and behave.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the psychological perspectives. One important thing to remember is that no single perspective is considered the “right” approach. Each perspective brings essential insights to the understanding of psychology.

What Are Psychological Perspectives?

Ever since the earliest days of psychology and Wilhelm Wundt’s lab, several different schools of thought have emerged to compete for dominance. These early schools of thought in psychology included structuralism, functionalism, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism.

Psychology has become more modernized, and the techniques and tools available to researchers to study human thought and behavior have also advanced.

Because psychologists now focus on many different aspects of human behavior, it’s unsurprising that many different psychological perspectives have emerged.

In today’s world of psychology, few psychologists would align themselves with a single school of thought. Instead, most go into a particular specialty area and then utilize one or many different psychological perspectives in their study and understanding of psychology.

Psychodynamic Psychological Perspectives

The psychodynamic perspective is based on the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic school of thought in psychology. He also developed the use of important concepts, including the unconscious mind, ego, and defense mechanisms.

Freud believed that human behavior was motivated by an energy he called the libido. Personality, he suggested, was made of three main parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The libido is the driving force between the part of personality known as the id.

The id is the most primal part of personality. It is present at birth and strives to fulfill all basic urges. As people age, part of the personality known as the ego develops, which is responsible for mediating between the id’s demands and reality. 

The last component of personality to emerge is known as the superego. This part of personality strives to make us behave in moralistic ways.

Freud also believed that much of our behavior is driven by unconscious desires, wishes, and urges. Childhood experiences play a critical role in shaping our personality and our behavior as we grow older.

Freud originated psychoanalysis, but other thinkers, including Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, Eric Erickson, Melanie Klein, and Carl Jung, also contributed to the psychodynamic perspective.

While psychoanalysis is not a dominant school of thought today, the psychodynamic perspective remains an important part of psychology.

Behavioral Psychological Perspectives

During the early part of the 20th century, the school of thought known as behaviorism emerged. The school of thought was focused on studying observable, overt behaviors and making psychology a more scientific pursuit.

According to the behavioral perspective, behaviors can be explained by looking at the processes of conditioning and reinforcement. Two of the key ways that behaviors are learned are through the processes known as classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is the process that was first discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov during his famous studies on the digestive systems of dogs.

He discovered that the dogs had been conditioned to salivate whenever they saw the white coat of his lab assistant. Because the animals associated the white coats with the presentation of food, a learned response was formed.

Operant conditioning is the learning process described by the American psychologist B. F. Skinner. Operant conditioning involves using reinforcement or punishment as a consequence of a behavior.

Actions followed by reinforcement become more likely to be repeated in the future, while those followed by punishment become less likely to occur in the future.

Humanist Psychological Perspectives

The humanist perspective focuses on looking at human beings in a holistic way. Rather than focusing on dysfunction, humanists believe that people are innately good and possess an actualizing tendency that leads them to pursue self-actualization.

Those who take a humanist perspective emphasize the importance of free will and allowing people to maximize their full potential. The work of humanistic psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow is important in this view of behavior.

Rogers was the theorist behind client-centered therapy, a non-directional approach that stresses the importance of unconditional positive regard for mental well-being.

Maslow is best known for his famous hierarchy of needs. His hierarchy is often displayed as a pyramid in which the most basic needs lie at the bottom and increasingly complex needs lie higher up toward the peak.

Biological Psychological Perspectives

Physiology has played a major role in psychology since the earliest days of the discipline. However, it is only fairly recently in history that scientists and doctors have had the ability to look at the brain and other biological processes more closely.

Advanced brain imaging techniques such as MRIs and PETs have allowed psychologists to learn much more about how the brain, nervous system, and other body systems contribute to how we think and act.

Psychologists who take a biological perspective look at how the brain and nervous system work and the many factors that might influence them. Topics such as genetics, the limbic system, the endocrine system, and the immune system are just a few things that might interest someone who takes this perspective.

Biological psychologists also look at how brain damage and disease influence people’s actions as well as their personalities.

Cognitive Psychological Perspectives

While the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism, it was after 1960 that a new approach known as cognitive psychology began to emerge and rise to become a major force within psychology. T

The cognitive revolution led to many within psychology focusing on internal processes such as thinking, decision-making, language, and information processing.

The cognitive perspective, along with the biological perspective, is often considered one of the most prominent ways of thinking about the human mind and behavior today.

This field has grown considerably in recent decades as researchers strive to learn more about the mental processes contributing to people’s functioning.

How Are Psychological Perspectives Used?

So how do all of these different psychological perspectives the way that psychologists view human issues? Let’s take a look at a few examples of how psychological perspectives are used.

For example, imagine that psychologists want to investigate test anxiety. This type of anxiety can impact students and make it difficult for them to perform well on school exams.

Using a psychoanalytic perspective, one psychologist might choose to look at how unconscious influences might lead to or exacerbate test anxiety.

Using a behavioral perspective, another psychologist might look at how conditioning process have contributed to the anxious feelings. Behavioral techniques such as classical conditioning or operant conditioning might be used to help reduce the feelings of anxiety.

Using a cognitive perspective, another psychologist might look at the thought processes that contribute to these feelings of anxiety.

Using a biological perspective, a psychologist might look at genetic factors as well as brain processes that might lead to feelings of anxiety.

Using a humanist perspective, a psychologist might look for ways to help people focus on more positive aspects of their experience rather than dwelling on negative emotions.


As you can see, the many different psychological perspectives represent different ways of thinking about different issues that affect the mind and behavior. While some psychologists tend to take a different perspective over others, it is common today for professionals to take an eclectic approach when looking at a problem.

Learn more about some of the main branches of psychology.


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