10 of the Most Influential Psychologists

Some of the most famous psychologists in history have contributed to our understanding of human thought and behavior. The breadth and diversity of psychology can be seen by looking at some of its best-known thinkers. While each theorist may have been part of an overriding school of thought, each brought a unique perspective to the field of psychology.

The list below provides a snapshot of the careers of 10 famous psychologists and their most important contributions to the field. Developed using the rigorously generated study of "The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century" as a guide, this list is by no means exhaustive. Instead, the purpose of this list is to offer a glimpse into some of the major theoretical outlooks that have influenced not only psychology but also the larger culture.


B. F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner in 1948
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

B.F. Skinner is one of history's most famous psychologists. He was a staunch advocate for behaviorism, which made him a dominating force in psychology. Many therapy techniques based on his theories are still used extensively today, including behavior modification and token economies. Skinner is remembered for his concepts of operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was the psychologist who was most influential in shaping our understanding of cognitive development. His theory of cognitive development made him one of the most famous psychologists in history.

His work had a particularly significant impact on the understanding of children's intellectual growth. His research contributed to the growth of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, genetic epistemology, and education reform.

Albert Einstein once described Piaget's observations on children's intellectual growth and thought processes as a discovery "so simple only a genius could have thought of it."


Sigmund Freud

When people think of famous psychologists, their minds immediately go to Sigmund Freud. While many of his theories were controversial, his work supported the belief that not all mental illnesses have physiological causes.

Freud also offered evidence that cultural differences have an impact on psychology and behavior. His work contributed to our understanding of human development, personality, clinical psychology, and abnormal psychology.


Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura's work is considered part of the cognitive revolution in psychology that began in the late 1960s. Bandura's social learning theory stresses the importance of observational learning, imitation, and modeling.

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book ​"Social Learning Theory."


Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger developed the theories of cognitive dissonance and social comparison to explain the ways in which social conditions influence human behavior. Cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort you feel when you hold two conflicting beliefs. For example, you may smoke even though you know it is bad for your health.

His social comparison theory says that you evaluate your ideas by comparing them with what other people believe. You are also more likely to seek out other people who share your beliefs and values.


William James

Psychologist and philosopher William James is often referred to as the father of American psychology. His teachings and writings helped establish psychology as a science. Among his many accomplishments was the publication of the 1,200-page text, "The Principles of Psychology," which quickly became a classic in the field.

In addition, James contributed to functionalism, pragmatism, and influenced many students of psychology during his 35-year teaching career.


Ivan Pavlov

One of the individuals who is often regarded as one of the most famous psychologists wasn't actually a psychologist at all. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose research on conditioned reflexes and classical conditioning influenced the rise of behaviorism in psychology.

Pavlov's experimental methods helped move psychology away from introspection and subjective assessments to the objective measurement of behavior.


Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers placed emphasis on human potential, which had an enormous influence on both psychology and education. He became one of the major humanist thinkers and a significant influence in therapy with his client-centered therapy

His daughter, Natalie Rogers, described him as "a model for compassion and democratic ideals in his own life, and in his work as an educator, writer, and therapist."


Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson's stage theory of psychosocial development helped create interest and research on human development through the lifespan, which also help make him one of the most famous psychologists in history. An ego psychologist who studied with Anna Freud, Erikson expanded psychoanalytic theory by exploring development throughout life, including events of childhood, adulthood, and old age.


Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky was a contemporary of some more famous psychologists including Piaget, Freud, Skinner, and Pavlov, yet his work never achieved the same eminence during his lifetime. This is largely because much of his writing remained inaccessible to the Western world until quite recently.

Starting in the 1960s and through the 1990s, many of his writings were translated from Russian. As a result, his work has become enormously influential in recent decades, particularly in the fields of educational psychology and child development.

While his premature death at age 38 put a halt to his work, he went on to become one of the most frequently cited psychologists of the 20th century.

A Word From Verywell

Psychology has been shaped and influenced by a number of eminent thinkers, including famous psychologists such as Freud, Skinner, and Piaget. Each thinker has left their mark and helped shape how we think about the mind and behavior. Even as their contributions continue to shape present psychology, researchers and clinicians continue to work to add more to our understanding of human psychology.

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  1. Haggbloom SJ. The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the Twentieth Century. PsycEXTRA Dataset. 2001. doi:10.1037/e413802005-787

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.