What Are Major Theories In Psychology? How Psychological Theories Helped Us Understand Our World?

Theories in psychology are systematic explanations or frameworks that help understand human behavior, thoughts, and emotions. They serve as models for predicting psychological phenomena. So, what are major theories in psychology, and how have psychological theories helped us understand our world? Read on to find out.

In the fascinating realm of psychology, numerous major theories have emerged over the years, seeking to unravel the complexities of human behavior, cognition, and emotions. These influential theories serve as cornerstones, providing researchers and practitioners with valuable frameworks to understand and explain various aspects of the human mind.

As the exploration of human psychology continues to evolve, so do the theories that underpin our understanding of the human mind. Each major theory contributes a distinct perspective and unique insights, enriching the field of psychology and fostering a more comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of human behavior and mental processes. By delving into these major theories, researchers and practitioners continue to advance our understanding of the human psyche, paving the way for a more profound grasp of human nature and its complexities.

To know more about major theories in psychology and how psychological theories have helped us understand our world, follow this article.

What are major theories in psychology?

Several major theories have significantly shaped the understanding of human behavior, cognition, and emotions in psychology. Some of the prominent ones include:

  • Psychoanalytic theory
  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitive theory
  • Humanistic theory
  • Socio-cultural theory
  • Evolutionary theory

Psychoanalytic theory:

Psychoanalytic theory is a psychological framework developed by Sigmund Freud. It seeks to understand human behavior and mental processes by exploring the unconscious mind, particularly the role of unconscious desires, conflicts, and motivations. This theory posits that early childhood experiences significantly shape an individual’s personality and behavior. It also involves concepts like defense mechanisms and the interpretation of dreams to gain insights into the inner workings of the human mind.

Key principles:

Here are the key principles of psychoanalytic theory:

  • Unconscious Mind: The most influential aspect of the human mind is the unconscious, which contains hidden desires, memories, and emotions that influence behavior.
  • Psychic Determinism: Behavior is not random; unconscious mental processes and past experiences drive it.
  • Structure of Personality: Freud proposed a tripartite model of personality – ID, ego, and superego, each playing a distinct role in behavior.
  • ID: Represents primitive instincts and operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification of desires.
  • Ego: Acts as the rational mediator between the id’s impulses and the external world, operating on the reality principle.
  • Superego: Internalizes societal norms and values, serving as the conscience and enforcing moral standards.
  • Defense Mechanisms: Unconscious strategies used by the ego to protect itself from anxiety by distorting or denying reality, such as repression, projection, and displacement.
  • Psychosexual Stages: Freud proposed that human development occurs through distinct psychosexual stages, each marked by a focus on different erogenous zones.
  • Oedipus Complex: A crucial concept in early development, where a child experiences feelings of desires for the opposite sex parent and rivalry with the same sex parent.
  • Dream Analysis: Dreams are believed to be a window into the unconscious, and their interpretation helps reveal repressed thoughts and desires.


Here are the advantages of psychoanalytic theory:

  • In-depth understanding: It offers a comprehensive understanding of human behavior by delving into the unconscious mind and early experiences, providing insights that other theories might overlook.
  • Focus on the unconscious: By emphasizing the role of the unconscious mind, it recognizes that not all mental processes and motivations are accessible to conscious awareness, helping explain complex behaviors.
  • Emphasis on childhood: It acknowledges the significance of early childhood experiences in shaping personality and behavior, providing a foundation for understanding developmental issues.
  • Exploration of defense mechanisms: By studying defense mechanisms, it sheds light on how individuals cope with anxiety and protect their psyches, offering insights into adaptive and maladaptive responses.
  • Depth of psychotherapy: Psychoanalytic therapy provides an opportunity for clients to explore their unconscious conflicts, facilitating profound personal growth and emotional healing.
  • Focus on Individuality: It recognizes the uniqueness of each individual’s experiences, personality, and conflicts, avoiding oversimplification of complex psychological issues.
  • Long term Approach: Psychoanalytic therapy is designed to be a long term process, allowing for deep exploration and gradual transformation, which may be beneficial for certain psychological conditions.
  • Influence on Psychology: Freud’s work has greatly influenced the field of psychology and paved the way for the development of various psychological theories and therapies.


Here as the limitations faced by psychoanalytic theory:

  • Lack of empirical evidence: Some aspects of psychoanalytic theory lack empirical validation and are challenging to test scientifically.
  • Overemphasis on sexuality: Freud’s focus on sexuality and the Oedipus complex is criticized for being too narrow and not fully capturing the complexity of human motivations.
  • Limited cultural generalizability: The theory’s development was based primarily on European and Western experiences, potentially overlooking the influence of diverse cultural factors.
  • Subjectivity in interpretation: The interpretation of unconscious processes, dreams, and defense mechanisms can be highly subjective, leading to potential bias in understanding individual experiences.
  • Gender bias: Freud’s theory has been criticized for its gender bias, portraying women as inferior or attributing certain behaviors to gender stereotypes.
  • Lack of focus on social or environmental factors: Psychoanalytic theory places less emphasis on the impact of social and environmental factors on human behavior compared to other psychological theories.

Behaviorism theory:

Behaviorism is a psychological theory that focuses on observable behaviors rather than internal mental processes. It suggests that all behaviors are learned through conditioning from the environment, and that individuals respond to stimuli in predictable ways. This theory was prominent in the early 20th century and has had a major influence on the field of psychology, especially in areas such as learning, behavior modification, and therapy. Notable behaviorists include Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F Skinner.

Key principles:

Here are the key principles of behaviorism theory:

  • Observable behavior: Behaviorism focuses on studying observable behaviors rather than mental processes or internal states.
  • Empirical approach: Behaviorists use scientific methods and empirical data to study and understand behavior.
  • Conditioning: Behavior is learned through various forms of conditioning, such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
  • Stimulus response: Behaviorists view behavior as a direct response to specific environmental stimuli.
  • Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing rewards, while negative reinforcement involves removing aversive stimuli to reinforce behavior.
  • Punishment: Punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring by introducing negative consequences.
  • Extinction: When a past reinforced behavior is no longer rewarded, it tends to decrease or disappear.
  • Generalization: Learned behaviors can be generalized to similar stimuli or situations.
  • Discrimination: The ability to differentiate between similar stimuli and respond accordingly.
  • Environment: Behaviorists emphasize the significance of the environment in shaping and influencing behavior, and they believe that individuals are not passive recipients but actively respond to their surroundings.


Here are the advantages of behaviorism presented by Ivav, Watson, and Skinner.

  • Observable and measurable: Behaviorism focuses on observable behaviors, making it easy to measure and analyze objectively through data and scientific methods.
  • Effective learning strategies: Behaviorist techniques like reinforcement and repetition can be highly effective in teaching new behaviors and skills.
  • Applicable to various settings: Behaviorism can be applied in a wide range of contexts, including education, therapy, animal training, and organizational behavior.
  • Behavior modification: It provides practical tools for behavior modification, allowing individuals to address unwanted behaviors and promote positive changes.
  • Predictability and control: By understanding the principles of behaviorism, individuals can predict how certain stimuli will affect behavior and use this knowledge to control or modify behaviors.
  • Focus on results: Behaviorism emphasizes the importance of tangible results and measurable outcomes, making it useful in goal oriented situations.
  • Compatibility with empirical research: As behaviorism relies on empirical evidence and scientific methods, it aligns well with the principles of experimental research and systematic observation.


Here are the limitations of behaviorism theory:

  • Ignores cognitive processes: Behaviorism focuses solely on observable behaviors, neglecting internal mental processes that play a crucial role in shaping behavior.
  • Lack of individuality: It tends to generalize behaviors across individuals, disregarding individual differences and uniqueness.
  • Limited in explaining complex behaviors: Behaviorism is limited in explaining complex human behaviors that may involve cognitive, emotional, and social factors.
  • Doesn’t account for creativity: The theory does not adequately address creativity and originality in behavior, as it heavily relies on conditioned responses.
  • Overemphasis on external influences: Behaviorism places a strong emphasis on environmental influences, sometimes downplaying the role of innate factors or genetics in behavior.
  • Ethical concerns with punishment: The use of punishment as a behavior modification technique raises ethical concerns, as it may cause harm or lead to undesirable side effects.
  • Ignores internal motivation: Behaviorism overlooks internal motivations and intrinsic factors that drive behavior, focusing primarily on external reinforcement and punishment.

Cognitive theory:

Cognitive theory is a psychological framework, proposed by Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist. This theory focuses on understanding mental processes like perception, memory, problem solving, and decision making. It suggests that human behavior is influenced by how individuals interpret and process information, rather than solely by external factors. The theory has been widely used in various fields, including education, psychology, and artificial intelligence, to study and explain human thinking and behavior.

Key principles:

Following are the key principles of cognitive theory.

  • Mental processes: Cognitive theory highlights the seriousness of mental processes like perception, memory, attention, and problem solving.
  • Information processing: The mind processes incoming information, transforming it into meaningful mental representations.
  • Schema: Individuals organize knowledge into mental frameworks called schemas, which help interpret and categorize new experiences.
  • Adaptation: Cognitive development occurs through a process of assimilation and accommodation.
  • Stages of development: Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational, each marked by distinct cognitive abilities.
  • Equilibrium: Cognitive development is driven by the need for balance or equilibrium between existing knowledge and new experiences.
  • Zone of proximal development: This concept, introduced by Vygotsky, refers to the difference between what a learner can do alone and what they can do with the assistance of a more knowledgeable individual.
  • Cognitive constructivism: Cognitive theory supports the idea that learners actively construct knowledge based on their experiences and understanding.
  • Metacognition: Cognitive theory highlights the importance of metacognition, which involves self awareness and self regulation of one’s thinking processes.
  • Social Interaction: Cognitive development is influenced by social interactions, collaborative learning, and cultural factors.


Here are some major advantages of cognitive theory.

  • Comprehensive understanding: Cognitive theory provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how individuals process information, perceive the world, and acquire knowledge. It allows researchers and educators to gain insights into the intricacies of human thinking and behavior.
  • Educational implications: The theory has significant implications for education, helping educators design effective instrumental methods that align with learner’s cognitive abilities and developmental stages.
  • Clinical applications: Cognitive theory has been successfully applied in clinical psychology to treat various mental health issues.
  • Problem solving skills: By understanding cognitive processes, individuals can improve their problem solving skills and decision making abilities.
  • Cognitive development research: The theory has inspired extensive research in the field of cognitive development, especially in children.


Following are some major limitations of cognitive theory.

  • Neglect of emotional and social Factors: Cognitive theory tends to overlook the role of emotions and social interactions in shaping behavior. Human behavior is often influenced by emotional responses and social context, which cognitive theory doesn’t fully address.
  • Simplification of cognitive processes: The theory’s emphasis on mental processes may oversimplify the complexities of human cognition.
  • Lack of individual differences: Cognitive theory may not adequately account for individual differences in cognitive abilities and learning styles.
  • Static developmental stages: The theory’s stages of cognitive development, proposed by Piaget, are often seen as rigid and linear. In reality, cognitive development can be more fluid and continuous.
  • Limited insights into unconscious: Cognitive theory focuses on conscious mental processes, leaving out insights into unconscious cognition and its influence on behavior.

Humanistic theory:

Humanistic theory is a psychological perspective that emphasizes individuals’ unique qualities and potential. It focuses on understanding humans behavior through personal experiences, feelings, and self awareness. This theory highlights the importance of personal growth, self actualization, and the pursuit of fulfilling one’s potential. Prominent figures associated with humanistic theory include Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

Key principles:

Here are the key principles highlighted in humanistic theory.

  • Self-actualization: Individuals have an inherent drive to fulfill their potential and strive for personal growth and self improvement.
  • Holistic perspective: Humanistic theory takes a holistic view of human beings, considering their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects as interconnected and essential to understanding behavior.
  • Personal agency: Humans are seen as active agents in shaping their lives and making choices based on their unique experiences and values.
  • Unconditional positive regard: Humanistic theorists emphasize the importance of acceptance, empathy, and nonjudgmental understanding in facilitating personal growth and self acceptance.
  • Focus on the “here and now”: Humanistic therapy often concentrates on present experiences and current issues rather than delving into past events to promote self awareness and change.


Here are some major advantages of humanistic theory.

  • Personal empowerment: Humanistic theory encourages individuals to take leadership for their actions and decisions, fostering a sense of empowerment and control over their lives.
  • Positive outlook: The emphasis on self actualization and personal growth promotes a positive outlook on life, encouraging individuals to target on their strengths and potentials rather than dwelling on limitations.
  • Client centered approach: In therapeutic settings, humanistic therapy’s client-centered approach creates a supportive and nonjudgmental environment, allowing individuals to explore their feelings and experiences openly.
  • Holistic understanding: Humanistic theory takes into account various aspects of an individual’s life promoting a comprehensive understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Emotional well being: By prioritizing empathy and unconditional positive regard, humanistic theory contributes to emotional well being, helping individuals build self esteem and cope with life’s challenges more effectively.


Here are some limitations of humanistic theory.

  • Lack of scientific Rigor: Humanistic theory can be criticized for its subjective nature and lack of empirical evidence, making it challenging to test and validate its concepts through traditional scientific methods.
  • Individual variability: The theory’s focus on individual experiences and uniqueness makes it difficult to establish universal principles, as people’s motivations and behaviors can vary significantly.
  • Overemphasis on positive aspects: Humanistic theory may overlook negative aspects or psychological issues, leading to potential neglect of underlying mental health problems that require attention and treatment.
  • Unrealistic assumptions: Critics argue that the theory’s assumption of inherent self actualization and positive growth for all individuals may not be universally applicable.
  • Limited applicability: Humanistic theory may not be as effective in addressing severe psychological disorders or complex clinical conditions, where other therapeutic approaches might be more suitable.

Socio-Cultural theory:

Socio-cultural theory is a psychological and educational framework developed by Lev Vygotsky. It emphasizes the importance of social interactions and cultural context in shaping an individual’s cognitive development. According to this theory, learning is a collaborative process, and a person’s mental development is influenced by their interactions with others and the culture they belong to.

Key principles:

Following are the key principles highlighted in socio-cultural theory:

  • Zone of proximal development: It refers to the bridge between what a learner can achieve independently and what they can achieve with the help of a more knowledgeable person.
  • Social interaction: Learning is not just an individual process but heavily influenced by social interactions with peers, parents, teachers, and others. These interactions provide opportunities for learning and development.
  • Cultural tools: Societies possess a set of cultural tools, such as language, symbols, and artifacts, which are essential for cognitive development. These tools mediate the way individuals think and solve problems.
  • More knowledgeable: An individual who has a higher level of knowledge or expertise, such as a teacher or a peer, can assist in guiding and supporting the learner.
  • Internalization: As individuals engage in social interactions and use cultural tools, they internalize the knowledge and skills from their social environment, transforming them into their own mental abilities.


Here are advantages of using socio-cultural theory in education and understanding human development.

  • Promotes collaborative learning: Socio-cultural theory encourages collaborative learning environments, fostering interactions between learners and more knowledgeable individuals.
  • Cultural sensitivity: By acknowledging the effect of culture on learning and development, socio-cultural theory helps educators tailor instruction to meet the cultural needs.
  • Zone of proximal development application: Understanding the ZPD enables educators to identify each student’s learning potential and provide appropriate challenges.
  • Real world relevance: Socio-cultural theory emphasizes learning within meaningful contexts, connecting new information to student’s everyday experiences and cultural backgrounds.
  • Development of critical thinking: Social interactions and cultural tools encourage learners to think critically, question assumptions, and actively engage in problem solving.


Here are the limitations of using socio-cultural theory.

  • Cultural variability: The theory’s application might be limited in cultures where the emphasis on social interaction and collaboration in learning differs from the western context in which it is developed.
  • Individual differences: Socio-cultural theory doesn’t fully address individual variations in learning styles, abilities, and preferences.
  • Inadequate attention to cognitive processes: Critics argue that the theory’s focus on external factors, such as social interactions and cultural context, might overlook the importance of intrinsic cognitive processes that contribute to learning.
  • Practical implementation challenges: Implementing socio-cultural principles in large, diverse classrooms with limited resources can be challenging for educators, making it difficult to provide personalized attention to each student.
  • Lack of predictive power: While socio-cultural theory is valuable for understanding the learning process retrospectively, it might lack strong predictive power in determining future learning outcomes for specific individuals.

Evolutionary theory:

Evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and how species change over time. It proposes that species evolve through natural selection, where individuals with advantageous attributes are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing those traits to the next generation. Over long periods, these accumulated changes lead to the formation of new species and the adaptation of organisms to their environments. Charles Darwin famously proposed the theory in the mid-19th century and has since become a fundamental concept.

Key principles:

Here are some major key principles of this evolutionary theory.

  • Variation: surrounded by population, there is genetic variation, leading to differences in traits among individuals.
  • Heredity: Offspring inherit traits from their parents, passing on genetic information from one generation to the next.
  • Natural selection: The environment poses challenges, and individuals with advantageous attributes are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing those traits to the next generation.
  • Adaptation: Over time, successful traits become more common in the population, leading to better adaptation to the environment.
  • Speciation: Accumulation of genetic changes over many generations can lead to the evolution of new species, resulting in the diversity of life we see today.


Following are advantages surrounding evolutionary theory.

  • Explains biodiversity: Evolutionary theory provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the vast diversity of life on earth, from tiniest microorganisms to complex organisms.
  • Predictive power: The principles of natural selection and adaptation allow scientists to make predictions about how species might respond to environmental changes.
  • Medical insights: Understanding evolution helps in analyzing the spread of diseases, the development of drug resistance, and the identification of genetic risk factors.
  • Agriculture and conservation: Applying evolutionary principles aids in developing strategies for crop improvement, disease resistance in livestock, and conversation of endangered species.
  • Unity of life: Evolutionary theory unites all branches of biology by providing a common framework for understanding the connections between different organisms and their shared ancestry.


Here are the limitations of evolutionary theory:

  • Incomplete fossil Record: Gaps in the fossil record make it challenging to trace the entire evolutionary history of species, and some traditional forms may not be preserved.
  • Rate of evolution: The speed at which evolution occurs can vary greatly, and certain rapid evolutionary events may be challenging to explain with traditional gradualism.
  • Complex traits: Explaining the origins of complex traits, such as the development of certain organs or behaviors, can be challenging due to the intricacy of the underlying genetic and environmental interactions.
  • Convergent evolution: Similar traits evolving independently in unrelated species can lead to difficulties in establishing precise evolutionary relationships.
  • Non adaptive traits: Not all traits are the result of adaptation, some may arise due to random genetic drift or historical constraints, which can be challenging to differentiate from adaptive traits.

How have psychological theories helped us understand our world?

Psychological theories have played a crucial role in helping us understand the complexities of the human mind, behavior, and emotions. These theories provide frameworks and explanations that enable researchers and individuals to gain insights into various psychological phenomena. These theories have expanded our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Let’s discover the ways psychological theories helped us to understand our world.

  • Understanding human behavior
  • Insights into cognitive processes
  • Unraveling emotions and motivations
  • Shaping personalities and development
  • Enhancing psychological interventions

Understanding human behavior:

Psychological theories have provided valuable frameworks to comprehend human behavior, ranging from simple actions to complex decision making processes. Behaviorist theories, for example, emphasize the influence of environmental stimuli and reinforcement in shaping behavior, while cognitive theories shed light on how mental processes like perception and memory contribute to human actions.

Insights into cognitive processes:

Cognitive theories have significantly deepened our understanding of mental processes, such as attention, learning, problem solving, and decision making. Through research and application of cognitive models, we have gained insights into how individuals process information, make judgments and form beliefs.

Unraveling emotions and motivations:

Psychological theories have provided frameworks for understanding the complexities of human emotions and motivations. For instance, psychoanalytic theories highlight the role of unconscious desires and emotions in shaping behavior, while humanistic theories emphasize the pursuit of self actualization and fulfillment.

Shaping personalities and development:

Psychological theories provide valuable insights into the factors that contribute to the development of unique personalities. They also help us understand how early experiences, societal influences, and genetic predispositions interact to shape an individual’s character and behavior over time.

Enhancing psychological interventions:

Psychological theories serve as the foundation for various therapeutic approaches and interventions. Whether it’s cognitive therapy, humanistic therapy, or psychodynamic therapy, these theories guide practitioners in understanding the root causes of psychological issues and developing effective treatment plans.


The field of psychology has been significantly enriched by major psychological theories that have provided profound insights into the intricacies of human behavior, cognition, emotions, and development. These theories have acted as guiding frameworks, enabling researchers and individuals to better understand themselves and the world around them.

The application of psychological theories has also extended theoretical exploration, shaping practical interventions and therapeutic practices. By understanding behavior, emotions, and cognitive processes, psychological interventions have become more targeted and effective in addressing mental health.

As the study of psychology continues to evolve, the ongoing development and application of these theories will further deepen our comprehension of the human experience and pave the way for a more fulfilling and empathetic world.