Perspectives in Modern Psychology

Seven major perspectives of modern psychology

Verywell / Emily Roberts

There are different ways of thinking about human behavior. Psychologists utilize a variety of perspectives when studying how people think, feel, and behave.

Some researchers focus on one specific school of thought, such as the biological perspective, while others take a more eclectic approach that incorporates multiple points of view. There is no single perspective that is "better" than another; each simply emphasizes different aspects of human behavior.

Major Perspectives in Modern Psychology

The early years of psychology were dominated by a succession of these different schools of thought. If you have taken a psychology course, you might remember learning about structuralism, functionalism, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism—all of which are different schools of psychological thought.

As psychology has grown, the number and variety of topics that psychologists investigate have also expanded. Since the early 1960s, the field of psychology has flourished. It continues to grow at a rapid pace, as has the depth and breadth of subjects studied by psychologists.

Few psychologists identify their outlook according to a particular school of thought. While there are still some pure behaviorists or psychoanalysts, the majority of psychologists today categorize their work according to their specialty area and perspective.

Different Approaches to the Same Topic

Every topic in psychology can be looked at in a number of ways. For example, let's consider the subject of aggression.

  • A professional who emphasizes a biological perspective would look at how the brain and nervous system impact aggressive behavior.
  • A professional who stresses a behavioral perspective would look at how environmental variables reinforce aggressive actions.
  • A professional who utilizes a cross-cultural approach might consider how cultural and social influences contribute to aggressive or violent behavior.

Here are seven of the major perspectives in modern psychology.

1. The Psychodynamic Perspective

The psychodynamic perspective originated with the work of Sigmund Freud. This view of psychology and human behavior emphasizes the role of the unconscious mind, early childhood experiences, and interpersonal relationships to explain human behavior, as well as to treat mental illnesses.

Much thanks to Freud's work and influence, psychoanalysis became one of the earliest major forces within psychology. Freud conceived of the mind as being composed of three key elements: the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • The id is the part of the psyche that includes all the primal and unconscious desires.
  • The ego is the aspect of the psyche that must deal with the demands of the real world.
  • The superego is the last part of the psyche to develop and is tasked with managing all of our internalized morals, standards, and ideals.

While the psychodynamic perspective is not as dominant today, it continues to be a useful psychotherapeutic tool.

2. The Behavioral Perspective

Behavioral psychology focuses on learned behaviors. It was founded on the work of psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and John B. Watson. Behaviorism dominated psychology in the early twentieth century but began to lose its hold during the 1950s.

Behaviorism differs from other perspectives because it focuses solely on observable behaviors rather than on emphasizing internal states.

Today, the behavioral perspective is still concerned with how behaviors are learned and reinforced. Behavioral principles are often applied in mental health settings, where therapists and counselors use these techniques to explain and treat a variety of illnesses.

3. The Cognitive Perspective

During the 1960s, a new perspective known as cognitive psychology emerged. This area of psychology focuses on mental processes like memory, thinking, problem-solving, language, and decision-making.

Influenced by psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Albert Bandura, the cognitive perspective has grown tremendously in recent decades.

Cognitive psychologists often utilize an information-processing model (comparing the human mind to a computer) to conceptualize how information is acquired, processed, stored, and utilized.

4. The Biological Perspective

The study of physiology played a major role in the development of psychology as a separate science. Today, the perspective is known as biological psychology (also called biopsychology or physiological psychology). The point of view emphasizes the physical and biological bases of behavior.

Researchers with a biological perspective on psychology might look at how genetics influence behavior or how damage to specific areas of the brain affect personality.

The nervous system, genetics, the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system are just a few subjects of interest to biological psychologists. Over the last few decades, the perspective has grown significantly with advances in our ability to explore and understand the human brain and nervous system.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans give researchers tools to observe the brain under a variety of conditions. Scientists can now look at the effects of brain damage, drugs, and disease in ways that were not possible in the past.

5. The Cross-Cultural Perspective

Cross-cultural psychology is a fairly new perspective that has grown significantly in the last twenty years. Psychologists and researchers in this school of thought look at human behavior across different cultures.

By looking at these differences, we can learn more about how culture influences our thinking and behavior. For example, researchers have looked at how social behaviors differ in individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

  • In individualistic cultures (such as the United States) people tend to exert less effort when they are part of a group—a phenomenon known as social loafing.
  • In collectivistic cultures (such as China), people tend to work harder when they are part of a group.

6. The Evolutionary Perspective

Evolutionary psychology focuses on the study of how the theory of evolution can explain physiological processes. Psychologists who take this perspective apply the basic principles of evolution (like natural selection) to psychological phenomena.

The evolutionary perspective suggests that these mental processes exist because they serve an evolutionary purpose—meaning that they aid in human survival and reproduction.​​​

7. The Humanistic Perspective

In the 1950s, a school of thought known as humanistic psychology arrived. It was greatly influenced by the work of prominent humanists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

The humanistic perspective emphasizes the role of motivation in thought and behavior. Concepts such as self-actualization are essential. Psychologists with a humanist perspective focus on what drives humans to grow, change, and develop their personal potential.

Positive psychology (which focuses on helping people live happier, healthier lives) is a recent movement in psychology with roots in the humanist perspective.

A Word From Verywell

There are many ways to think about human thought and behavior. The different perspectives in modern psychology give researchers and students tools to approach problems and answer questions. They also guide psychologists in finding new ways to explain and predict human behavior. This exploration and deeper understanding can even lead to the development of new treatment approaches.

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