Skip to Content Request Info

What is a Psychology Theory?

What is a Psychology Theory?

Having been around for thousands of years, philosophy is the study of knowledge, existence, and reality. Most of us have heard of Aristotle, Socrates, Epicurus, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their quest to answer life’s most basic questions.

Psychology, on the other hand, has only been around since the late 1800s and was developed as a research science, differentiating itself from philosophy, which is relegated to observation and logic. The first buds of psychology as a scientific branch can be traced back to the French philosopher Rene Descartes, who introduced the theory of dualism, the claim that the mind and body are two separate entities that together form the human experience. So, what is psychology about?

What is Psychology About?

From those early beginnings, psychology has evolved into today’s use of scientific methodologies to study and draw conclusions about human thought and behavior. The human mind is extremely complex, with both conscious and sub-conscious thoughts and feelings that drive a person’s actions. Psychology strives to understand the human mind, both its functions and dysfunctions, along with outside forces that shape an individual’s choices and actions, in an effort to help them overcome mental and behavioral issues that impact their quality of life.

A wide range of psychology theories have been developed, and continue to be developed, that explain the impact that both internal and external influences have in shaping a person’s behavior, usually as a result of the flawed mental processing of those influences. Internal factors can be such things as genetic make-up, temperament, belief systems, values, memories, feelings, and physiological features. External factors that impact behavior usually revolve around past and present relationships, personal experiences and a person’s surroundings or environment.

Because human behavior is so varied and experiences so diverse, psychology theory touches on nearly every aspect of the human condition. But, what is a psychology theory, exactly?

What is a Psychology Theory?

Psychology theories are not laws, but they aren’t hunches or guesses, either. Through the scientific method of making an observation, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, conducting experimentation, doing analysis, and drawing a conclusion, psychologists develop research-based theories that explain diverse phenomena of human behavior and predict future behaviors.

These theories are often fluid, being refined, revised or even dismissed as more research is conducted and new evidence comes to light. With that in mind, let’s look at some psychology theory examples.

Psychology Theory Examples

A number of the psychology theories used today have been around since the beginning of the field of psychology. Most have evolved over time, while some have been generally discarded. Many new theories have also arisen that are used alternatively or in conjunction with the original theories.


Often considered the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud proposed a personality theory that emphasized the unconscious mind, particularly experiences from early childhood and childhood impulses that shaped the adult psyche and behavior. By talking about these experiences and impulses, along with dreams, Freud postulated that a person’s unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories would be exposed, or brought into the conscious mind, and would lead to an understanding of their behavior that resulted in healing from psychological distress. He believed when conflicts within the unconscious mind - which he theorized consisted of the id, the ego and the superego - became extreme or unbalanced, they led to mental disorders.

Traditional Freudian psychoanalysis has generally been discarded as a singular therapy methodology; however, modern approaches to the therapy continue to be used.


Behaviorism was introduced by Ivan Pavlov and was a strong deviation from psychoanalysis. Rather than emphasizing the conscious and unconscious mind, behaviorism assumed that all learning occurs through interactions with the environment and that environment shapes behavior. To use Pavlov’s famous experiment on dogs, this shaping of behavior comes through classical conditioning, which takes an unconditioned stimulus, like food, that produces an unconditional response, such as salivating, and manipulates behavior to produce a conditioned response (salivating) when provoked by a neutral stimulus (like a bell). So, a conditioned response is learned response that become automatic when previously no response existed.

Behaviorism is another psychology theory that is no longer used as a singular basis for therapy; however, its basic principles are often used for behavior analysis and behavior modification. The techniques are also used widely in the educational setting to help children learn new skills and overcome maladaptive behaviors using a rewards and/or punishment system.

Humanistic Psychology

Another major theory of psychology was introduced by Carl Rogers in the second half of the 20th century and bolstered by Abraham Maslow. Rogers’ humanistic psychology theory stressed conscious experiences over the unconscious impulses in psychoanalysis and the environmental conditioning of behaviorism. Humanistic psychology focuses less on dysfunction and more on maximizing an individual’s potential and mental health. By looking at the whole person, humanistic theory strives to identify how free will, self-actualization and self-efficacy impact an individual’s behavior. Maslow later introduced his famous hierarchy of needs to complement the humanistic psychology theory, indicating that people are motivated by increasingly complex needs, starting with physiological needs and moving upward to safety and security, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs. According to the hierarchy, each level of need must be met before being motivated to move on to the next. 

Cognitive Psychology

Since it first developed in the 1950s and 1960s, cognitive psychology has become a prominent psychology theory that revolves around what people think and how they process information. Mental processes that are researched in the theory range from making judgments, reasoning, attention, language, and mental imagery to perception, creativity, problem solving, decision making, drawing conclusions, and memory. In short, anything related to what goes on in the mind is studied in cognitive psychology. Beyond the study of how the brain works, however, is how a person’s thoughts impact his or her behavior. When imaging technology was introduced, it helped researchers in the field of cognitive psychology by providing a window into the brain through MRI and PET scans. All of these tools help psychologists create new ways to help those experiencing mental issues of various kinds.

Cognitive therapy is often combined with behavioral therapy in an approach called CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, introduced by Dr. Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. It is often used to treat such problems as depression and anxiety by analyzing patients’ negative or unhealthy “automatic thoughts” about themselves, what the impact on them is, and working to alter patterns of thinking.

Today’s Psychology Theory

These early psychology theory examples showcase the foundations of the evolving field of psychology, where research and debates about behavioral causes and methods continue to take place. Since its origins in the 1800s, psychology has emerged as a science that no longer hangs its hat on a single theory or school of thought. Instead, most psychologists today focus on a specialty area within the field and draw on concepts from the wide range of psychology theory to diagnose and treat those with psychological issues or disorders. In addition to the ones already mentioned, psychologists may draw from evolutionary, biological, cross-cultural, cognitive dissonance, hedonism, attachment, reactance, and many other psychology theories that help explain the root of human behavior.

Is Psychology a Good Degree?

Psychology is a fascinating field that is broad in its career application. Some psychologists work independently to conduct research, consult with clients or work with patients. Others work collaboratively as part of a health care team, with social workers, in an educational setting, with youth, or in a governmental agency. Some psychology roles will require a doctorate degree, while others will need only a master’s degree.

There are many types of psychologists, depending on the area of focus and level of education. For example, research psychologists study the many operations of the mind, whereas clinical psychologists personally treat the client’s dysfunctions. Developmental psychologists study how and why human beings change over the course of their lifetime, whereas gerontology psychologists apply the information and techniques of general psychology to understanding and supporting older persons and their families. Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to criminal investigations and the legal system, whereas industrial-organizational psychologists provide organizations with scientifically based ideas for improving workplace environments and organizational effectiveness. Other experts in psychology apply their knowledge of human behavior in fields ranging from economics to sports to hospital design.

The median salary for psychologists was $81,040 in May of 2021, and the job outlook for psychologists is 6 percent through 2031, or 14,100 jobs per year1.

Start Your Career in Psychology

The path to a career in psychology begins with a bachelor’s degree, like Ottawa University’s fully online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. The degree gives you a foundation in human physiological, mental, intellectual, personal, and social development. You will develop critical-thinking skills and the ability to analyze and integrate information from other disciplines and apply it to the field of psychology.

Specific coursework within this accelerated, online psychology program is focused on research, theories and processes useful for understanding oneself and others, both as individuals and as members of various societies, groups, cultures, and organizations. Graduates are prepared for advanced study leading to professions in counseling and psychotherapy, teaching, church ministry, youth work, research, and organizational development. A communication concentration for the psychology degree program is also available.

Our enrollment advisors are ready to help you chart your trajectory into the intriguing field of psychology. Call us today to get started!

See Also:
Master of Arts in Counseling | Counseling Degree
Master of Arts in Education | School Counseling
Bachelor of Arts in Human and Social Services
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology | Online Psychology Degree

Posted: 12/06/2022
Updated: 12/06/2022 by OU Online
Back to top