The Purpose of Psychology Theories

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There are numerous psychological theories that are used to explain and predict a wide variety of behaviors. One of the first things that a new psychology student might notice is that there are a lot of theories to learn. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Erikson’s psychosocial theory, the Big Five theory, and Bandura’s social learning theory are just a few examples that might spring to mind.

What exactly is the purpose of having so many psychological theories?

Why Psychological Theories Exist

These theories serve a number of important purposes. Let’s look at three key reasons why psychological theories exist.

They Provide a Basis for Understanding the Mind and Behavior

Theories provide a framework for understanding human behavior, thought, and development. By having a broad base of understanding about the how's and why's of human behavior, we can better understand ourselves and others.

Each theory provides a context for understanding a certain aspect of human behavior. Behavioral theories, for example, provide a basis for understanding how people learn new things. Through the lens of these theories, we can take a closer look at some of the different ways that learning occurs as well as the factors that influence this type of learning.

They Inspire Future Research

Theories create a basis for future research. Researchers use theories to form hypotheses that can then be tested. As new discoveries are made and incorporated into the original theory, new questions and ideas can then be explored.

They Can Adapt and Evolve

Theories are dynamic and always changing. As new discoveries are made, theories are modified and adapted to account for new information. While theories are sometimes presented as static and fixed, they tend to evolve over time as new research is explored.

Attachment theory, for example, began with the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has expanded and grown to include new descriptions of different attachment styles.

Examples of Major Theoretical Perspectives

There have been a number of key theoretical perspectives that have had an influence throughout psychology’s history. Even today, many psychologists tend to focus their research through the lens of a certain theoretical perspective.

Theories tend to fall into one of a few different types.

  • Grand theories attempt to describe many aspects of the human experience. Examples include Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Erikson’s psychosocial theory.
  • Mini-theories, on the other hand, focus on describing just a narrow range of behaviors.
  • Emergent theories are those that are newer and often involve combining different aspects of various mini-theories. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory is an example of an emergent theory.

Some examples of these theories include:

  • Psychoanalytic Theory: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory suggests that unconscious urges and desires drive human behavior. This perspective suggests that understanding these underlying and hidden thoughts can help alleviate different types of psychological discomfort and distress.
  • Behavioral Theory: The behavioral theories suggest that all human behavior can be explained by the learning processes. This approach to psychology emerged with the work of John B. Watson, who was interested in making psychology a more scientific discipline that focused exclusively on observable and measurable behaviors. Inspired by the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who had discovered and described the process of classical conditioning, Watson demonstrated how different behaviors could be conditioned. The later work of B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning, which looked at how reinforcement and punishment led to learning.
  • Cognitive Development Theory: Jean Piaget introduced another well-known grand theory. His theory of cognitive development described the intellectual growth of children from birth and into childhood. This theory suggests that children act much like little scientists as they actively construct their knowledge of the world.
  • Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed a sociocultural theory of development that is a good example of how new theories often build on older theories. Piaget influenced Vygotsky, but his theory suggested that much of learning results from the dynamic interaction between individuals and their culture.
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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.