5 Major Theoretical Perspectives of Psychology Explained | psysci.co

5 Major Theoretical Perspectives of Psychology Explained

Psychology is the study of the mind, and of necessity, a complex subject.

It is generally agreed that there are five main theories of psychology:

  • Biological
  • Psychodynamic
  • Behavioural
  • Cognitive
  • Humanistic

Though older perspectives such as psychodynamic theory have largely been superseded by newer thinking, there is overlap between the different aspects, and it is largely agreed by psychologists that no one perspective is entirely correct or the only explanation.

So what are these 5 perspectives of psychology, and how do they help us gain an understanding of the human psyche?

Biological Perspective

Also known as behavioural neuroscience, the biological perspective examines how our physiology (body) ultimately shapes our psychology (mind).

It is concerned with the structure and function of the brain, nervous system and hormones and the role they play in determining our thoughts, feelings and subsequent behaviours.

For psychologists, the biological perspective means looking for treatments that alter the hormonal or biochemical status quo to try and redress an imbalance, such as in treatments for clinical depression.

A second important aspect of biological psychology is the heritability of cognitive factors, including intelligence and personality traits. Before the advent of genome sequencing, such investigations into inherited traits were often conducted using twin studies.

Identical twins allow a unique perspective of being genetically identical, so in the simplest terms, high correlation of a trait between twins that are raised apart (therefore excluding environmental factors) indicates a strong genetic component to the trait, such as intelligence.

Low correlation indicates that the learning and development environment that the child is placed in is a stronger determining factor. In reality, most traits are developed as a combination of both nature and nurture.

Psychodynamic Theory

Arguably the most famous psychologist of all time, Sigmund Freud was the primary exponent of the psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory.

It attempts to explain personality and behaviour in terms of subconscious processes such as desires and fears, which we are not consciously aware of.

It has wide-reaching influence still in many areas, particularly developmental psychology, though some of its tenets have been all but dismissed over a century later. Freud spoke of three states of the mind that work in harmony: unconscious, preconscious and conscious (also known as the id, ego and superego).

The id constitutes all of an individual’s base instincts and is present from birth as a collection of biological urges and desires to eat, sleep and function as well as aggression and sexual urges. It is without morality and works according to the pleasure principle, seeking instant gratification.

The id is explored heavily in Freud’s psychosexual development work, where he believed that repression of certain urges caused fixations that later led to psychological abnormalities.

The ego is the reality-centred, logical aspect of the mind, that allows humans to function effectively individually and as part of society. It helps us maintain our responsibilities to ensure longer-term benefits to ourselves and others.

The superego is our sense of morality, our conscience. It is part of what makes us human and is culturally influenced, varying from person to person and society to society.

For example, the superego prevents us from taking actions (e.g. marrying children, cannibalising human flesh) that are simply part of society in some cultures.

It furnishes us with the concept of guilt, and culturally acceptable morals. More progressive psychologists do believe that there is a place for Freud’s model, but that the mind is more than just a repression of urges and that the ego and superego can exist alone.

That the mind is not experiencing a constant battle between good and evil, but a steady state of neutrality.


Behaviourists were the first psychologists to really see their work as science.

They introduced the concepts of empirical data and reproducibility to their experiments, which were primarily concerned with observation of behaviours.

Unlike the psychoanalysts, they were less concerned with the thoughts and feelings behind the behaviours. They believed that free will does not exist, and that all behaviours were determined by the environment, by conditioning.

Pavlov was a very early exponent of behaviourism, which was not considered significant until the 1920s.

His famous experiments causing dogs to salivate by ringing a bell is an example of classical conditioning, involving a simple stimulus-response reaction.

Bandura’s famous Bobo doll study found behaviour could simply be copied through observation, without provocation, as children who observed aggression became more aggressive. Operant conditioning differs from classical in the use of a reward or punishment to enforce positive or negative behaviour.

This is used in many aspects of life without much thought for its psychological origins, from dog obedience to school detentions.

Cognitive Theory

The cognitive approach was largely borne out of dissatisfaction with behaviourist theories.

Cognitive psychologists returned to looking introspectively again into the mind to study the origins of behaviour, rather than just observing the behaviours themselves. Ulric Neisser, in his book Cognitive Psychology, likened the human brain to a computer, that our thought processes are logical and that thoughts determine feelings and behaviours.

We have free will to determine our behaviour, and behaving in a way that does not support our thought processes and feelings can lead to cognitive dissonance. Similarly, changing our thought processes consciously, such as in cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)  can lead to changes in feelings and behaviour that can help treat and manage psychological disorders.

Cognitive theory teaches that our behaviour starts with an event or stimulus: something happens. We interpret that stimulus using our thought processes.

Then we react to it, first emotionally and then behaviourally. This is a continual set of processes that happens largely unconsciously as we go about our daily lives.

It is only when a stimulus provokes a strong emotional response and we may have to use or suppress a strong behavioural response, that we really even notice our feelings.


Unlike the behavioural and cognitive approaches, Humanistic theory moved back towards an individualistic concept of psychology.

Humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers preferred tailored therapies to scientific experimentation, stating that the latter created an artificial environment and could not be used to investigate the individual mind.

Instead of asking the objective question ‘What is this person like?’, humanism takes the subjective line of ‘what is it like to be this person?’, which can be used to formulate very specific psychotherapies.

Individual needs form the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid-structure of conditions that must be fulfilled to achieve levels of satisfaction.

While the conditions at the base of the hierarchy, such as food, shelter and safety are ubiquitous, as one climbs the pyramid, belongingness and esteem needs vary from person to person and can be fulfilled in different ways.

At the top of the pyramid is self-actualisation, or self-fulfillment: the achievement of absolute full potential, unique to an individual, whether that be professionally, academically or creatively.

These top-of-the-pyramid moments are only occasional in life for most people, and day-to-day contentment is met generally by the basic and psychological needs.

Summary of the 5 perspectives of psychology

All of the main perspectives are still used in the practice of psychology today.

Each has their strengths and weaknesses, theories that have been subsequently quashed and ideas that have never been bettered.

A combination of approaches appears to be most effective: nature and nurture must both be considered, and the internal cognitive processes are as important as the behaviours they produce.

While therapy needs can usually be best met with an individual approach, more scientific studies still have much to tell us about trends in human behaviour.

All have their place and their function in giving us valuable insight into the human mind.