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What Are Psychological Theories?

Psychological theories are frameworks that help explain various aspects of human thought and behavior. Such theories are created as a way to explain, predict, and modify human behaviors. By using these theories, psychologists can create interventions and treatments to help people live and function more effectively.

Some of these theories are more historical in nature and not supported by current research. In other cases, these theories still play an essential role in our understanding of different aspects of psychology.

In either case, learning more about these theories can help you better understand psychological history and current perspectives on psychology.

What Is a Psychology Theory?

A psychological theory acts as a framework to help understand and explain different aspects of the human mind and behavior. Such theories also serve an important role in that they can help researchers and mental health professionals make predictions about how people might respond in certain situations or under specific conditions.

Using these theories, experts might be able to make guesses about:

  • How people will respond in certain situations
  • How people will be affected by changes
  • Treatments that might be effective
  • What factors might play a role in causing a certain problem

Types of Psychological Theories

There are some main types of psychological theories: grand, mini, developmental, and emergent.

Grand Theories

This type of psychological theory strives to present an overarching framework that explains virtually all aspects of human behavior. Examples of grand theories include:

  • Behaviorism
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Humanistic theory
  • Cognitive theory
  • Biopsychological theory


This type of psychological theory is much more focused and seeks to explain a much more specific aspect of human behavior.

For example, mini-theories may focus on areas such as motivation, emotion, or personality. Examples of mini-theories include:

  • Cognitive dissonance theory
  • Information processing theory
  • Social learning theory
  • Attachment theory
  • Self-efficacy theory

Developmental Theories

Developmental theories focus on describing how people change and grow as they age. Such theories may focus on a specific aspect of development or a particular time period, such as early childhood. Some examples of developmental theories include:

Emergent Theories

Emergent theories are those that incorporate new ideas and concepts, often drawing on disparate information from other disciplines. Such theories often don’t yet have a cohesive theory or explanation. Examples of emergent theories include:

  • Intersectionality theory
  • Social identity theory
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Positive psychology
  • Cross-cultural psychology

Major Theoretical Perspectives

Psycholgical theories are often rooted in one of the following perspectives:

Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalysis was the school of thought founded by Sigmund Freud. This approach suggested that the human mind comprises the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind consists of everything we are aware of, while the unconscious mind is all the thoughts, feelings, memories, and urges that are kept out of awareness.

Behavioral Theories

Behaviorism is a theory of learning that suggests that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner were among the prominent psychologists who advocated this approach.

For the first half of the 20th century, behaviorism became the dominant school of thought. While other theories eventually took precedence, techniques rooted in behavioral therapy are still used today to treat mental health conditions such as substance use, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theories of psychology focus on explaining mental processes that influence behavior. These theories often center on topics such as memory, language, problem-solving, motivation, decision-making, thinking, and attention.

Humanist Theories

During the 1950s, another approach called humanistic psychology emerged and became known as the “third force” in psychology. While psychoanalysis and behaviorism focused primarily on problems, humanism took a more positive approach to explaining and understanding human behavior.

Humanists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow focused on individual strengths and the innate goodness of people. Many psychology theories that emerged from the humanist perspective continue to have an impact today, particularly in the field of positive psychology.

Biopsychological Theories

Theories that take a biopsychological perspective focus on understanding how biological processes influence human thought and behavior. This perspective often focuses on how things like genetics, brain structure, brain chemistry, and other biological factors affect the mind and body.

Personality Theories

Personality theories focus on understanding the patterns of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that make each person unique. Such theories try to explain how personality develops and how it may change over life.

Examples of Psychological Theories

It can be helpful to look at some specific examples of psychology theories to better see how such frameworks can help researchers better understand a specific phenomena.

Some popular theories in psychology include:

  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: This theory focuses on explaining intellectual develop in kids starting at birth up through adolescense.
  • Social learning theory: This theory focuses on how social influences contribute to learning processes.
  • Classical conditioning: This theory explains how people learn through conditioned associations.
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: This theory explains human motivation by identifying different human needs, starting at the most basic and moving up to the more complex.

Importance of Psychological Theories

Psychological theories serve an important role. They can help guide research so that psychologists can better answer important questions about human thought and behavior.

Such theories can also:

  • Help researchers determine which approaches are most successful for dealing with specific problems
  • Help psychologists better understand the long-term effects of human behavior
  • Provide answers about why people do the things they do
  • Discover factors that play an important role in mental health and well-being

Key Points to Remember

  • Psychological research has inspired many theories to explain how and why people think, act, and feel the way they do.
  • Some significant psychological theories include psychoanalysis, behaviorism, humanism, cognitive theory, and biopsychological theories.
  • Understanding these theories can help provide insight into how the field of psychology came to be where it is today.
  • It can also help professionals better understand some of the factors that affect mental health.


Rawat, T., & Jain, S. (2022). Depression detection: Approaches, challenges and future directions. In Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Mental Health in Pandemics (pp. 209–234). Elsevier.