Types of Psychological Theories

What Constitutes a Psych Theory?

Verywell / Colleen Tighe 

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The term theory is used with surprising frequency in everyday language. It is often used to mean a guess, hunch, or supposition. You may even hear people dismiss certain information because it is "only a theory." As you study psychology and other scientific topics, it is important to note that a theory in science is not the same as the colloquial use of the term.

To the average layperson, a theory might be true, or it might not. But in the realm of science, a theory presents a concept or idea that is testable. Scientists can test the theory through empirical research and gather evidence that supports or refutes it.

In science, a theory is not merely a guess. A theory is based on a hypothesis that is backed by evidence. A theory is a fact-based framework for describing a phenomenon.

Scientific American listed "theory" as one of their seven most misused scientific terms. It is these misconceptions about the term's meaning that lead people to dismiss topics such as evolution and climate change as "merely theories" despite an abundance of overwhelming scientific evidence.

A scientific theory presents an explanation about some aspect of human behavior or the natural world which is supported through repeated testing and experiments. This means that scientists have collected evidence that supports the theory. Many different researchers have gathered the evidence that supports the theory.

As new evidence and research are added, a theory may then be refined, modified, or even rejected if it does not fit with the latest scientific findings. The overall strength of a scientific theory hinges on its ability to explain diverse phenomena.

Purpose of a Psychology Theory

In psychology, theories are used to provide a model for understanding human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Throughout psychology's history, a number of theories have been proposed to explain and predict various aspects of human behavior.

A psychological theory has two key components:

  1. It must describe a behavior.
  2. It must make predictions about future behaviors.

Each theory has helped contribute to our knowledge of the human mind and behavior. Some theories, such as classical conditioning, are still well accepted today. Others, like Freud's theories, have not held up so well and have been mostly been replaced by new theories that better explain human development.

Different Types of Psychological Theories

There are many psychology theories, but most can be categorized as one of four key types.

Developmental Theories

Theories of development provide a framework for thinking about human growth, development, and learning. If you have ever wondered about what motivates human thought and behavior, understanding these theories can provide useful insight into individuals and society.

Developmental theories provide a set of guiding principles and concepts that describe and explain human development. Some developmental theories focus on the formation of a particular quality, such as Kohlberg's theory of moral development. Other developmental theories focus on growth that happens throughout the lifespan, such as Erikson's theory of psychosocial development.

Grand Theories

Grand theories are those comprehensive ideas often proposed by major thinkers such as Sigmund FreudErik Erikson, and Jean Piaget. Grand theories of development include psychoanalytic theory, learning theory, and cognitive theory.

These theories seek to explain much of human behavior, but are often considered outdated and incomplete in the face of modern research. Psychologists and researchers often use grand theories as a basis for exploration, but consider smaller theories and recent research as well.

Mini-Theories

Mini-theories describe a small, very particular aspect of development. A mini-theory might explain relatively narrow behaviors, such as how self-esteem is formed or early childhood socialization. These theories are often rooted in the ideas established by grand theories, but they do not seek to describe and explain the whole of human behavior and growth.

Emergent Theories

Emergent theories are those that have been created relatively recently and are often formed by systematically combining various mini-theories. These theories draw on research and ideas from different disciplines but are not yet as broad or far-reaching as grand theories. The sociocultural theory proposed by Lev Vygotsky is a good example of an emergent theory of development.

Examples of Psychology Theories

Some of the best-known theories of psychology focus on specific branches within psychology. Some of these include:

Behavioral Theories

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Advocated by famous psychologists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, behavioral theories dominated psychology during the early half of the twentieth century. Today, behavioral techniques are still widely used by therapists to help clients learn new skills and behaviors.

Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theories of psychology are focused on internal states, such as motivation, problem-solving, decision-making, thinking, and attention. Such theories strive to explain different mental processes including how the mind processes information.

Humanistic Theories

Humanistic psychology theories began to grow in popularity during the 1950s. While earlier theories often focused on abnormal behavior and psychological problems, humanist theories instead emphasized the basic goodness of human beings. Some of the major humanist theorists included Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

Personality Theories

Personality psychology looks at the patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that make a person unique. Some of the best-known theories in psychology are devoted to the subject of personality, including the trait theory of personality, the "big 5" theory of personality, and Erikson's theory of psychosocial development.

Social Psychology Theories

Social psychology is focused on helping us understand and explain social behavior. Social theories are generally centered on specific social phenomena, including group behavior, prosocial behavior, social influence, love and much more.

Why Theories Matter

In your psychology courses, you may find yourself questioning how necessary it is to learn about different psychology theories, especially those that are considered inaccurate or outdated. However, all of these theories provide valuable information about the history of psychology, the progression of thought on a particular topic, and a deeper understanding of current theories.

By understanding how thinking has progressed, you can get a better idea not only of where psychology has been, but where it might be going in the future.

Studying scientific theories can help you make better sense of what researchers mean when they talk about scientific study. It can improve your understanding of how scientific explanations for behavior and other phenomena in the natural world are formed, investigated, and accepted by the scientific community.

While debates continues to rage over hot topics, it is worthwhile to study science and the theories that have emerged from such research, even when what is often revealed might come as a harsh or inconvenient truth. As Carl Sagan once explained, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

A Word From Verywell

Much of what we know about human thought and behavior has emerged thanks to various psychology theories. For example, behavioral theories demonstrated how conditioning can be used to promote learning. By learning more about these theories, you can gain a deeper and richer understanding of psychology's past, present, and future.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • McComas WF. The Language of Science Education. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

  • Sagan C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House, 2011.