What Are Psychological Theories?

What Constitutes a Psych Theory?

Verywell / Colleen Tighe 

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Psychological theories are fact-based ideas that describe a phenomenon of human behavior. These theories are based on a hypothesis, which is backed by evidence. Thus, the two key components of a psychological theory are:

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

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."

But in the realm of science, a theory is not merely a guess. A theory presents a concept or idea that is testable. Scientists can test a theory through empirical research and gather evidence that supports or refutes it.

As new evidence surfaces and more research is done, a theory may 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.

5 Major Psychological Theories

Some of the best-known psychological theories stem from the perspectives of various branches within psychology. There are five major types of psychological theories.

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 and how our thoughts lead to certain emotions and behaviors.

Humanistic Theories

Humanistic psychology theories began to grow in popularity during the 1950s. Some of the major humanist theorists included Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

While earlier theories often focused on abnormal behavior and psychological problems, humanist theories about behavior instead emphasized the basic goodness of human beings.

Psychodynamic Theories

Psychodynamic theories examine the unconscious concepts that shape our emotions, attitudes, and personalities. Psychodynamic approaches seek to understand the root causes of unconscious behavior.

These theories are strongly linked with Sigmund Freud and his followers. The psychodynamic approach is seen in many Freudian claims—for instance, that our adult behaviors have their roots in our childhood experiences and that the personality is made up of three parts: the ID, the ego, and the superego.

Biological Theories

Biological theories in psychology attribute human emotion and behavior to biological causes. For instance, in the nature versus nurture debate on human behavior, the biological perspective would side with nature.

Biological theories are rooted in the ideas of Charles Darwin, who is famous for theorizing about the roles that evolution and genetics play in psychology.

Someone examining a psychological issue from a biological lens might investigate whether there are bodily injuries causing a specific type of behavior or whether the behavior was inherited.

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 Freud, Erik 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 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. They 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.

The Purpose of Psychological Theories

You may find yourself questioning how necessary it is to learn about different psychology theories, especially those that are considered inaccurate or outdated.

However, theories provide valuable information about the history of psychology and the progression of thought on a particular topic. They also allow a deeper understanding of current theories. Each one helps contribute to our knowledge of the human mind and behavior.

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 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 psychological 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 wrote, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

Examples of Psychological Theories

These are a few examples of psychological theories that have maintained relevance, even today.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory is commonly represented by a pyramid, with five different types of human needs listed. From bottom to top, these needs are:

  • Physiological: Food, water, shelter
  • Safety needs: Security, resources
  • Belongingness and love: Intimate relationships
  • Esteem needs: Feeling accomplished
  • Self-actualization: Living your full potential creatively and spiritually

According to Maslow, these needs represent what humans require to feel fulfilled and lead productive lives. However, one must satisfy these needs from the bottom up, according to Maslow.

For instance, the most basic and most immediate needs are physiological. Once those are met, you can focus on subsequent needs like relationships and self-esteem.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget's theory of cognitive development focuses on how children learn and evolve in their understanding of the world around them. According to his theory, there are four stages children go through during cognitive development:

  • Sensorimotor stage: This stage lasts from birth to age two. Infants and toddlers learn about the world around them through reflexes, their five senses, and motor responses.
  • Preoperational stage: This stage occurs from two to seven years old. Kids start to learn how to think symbolically, but they struggle to understand the perspectives of others.
  • Concrete operational stage: This stage lasts from seven to 11 years old. Kids begin to think logically and are capable of reasoning from specific information to form a general principle.
  • Formal operational stage: This stage starts at age 12 and continues from there. This is when we begin to think in abstract terms, such as contemplating moral, philosophical, and political issues.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

Still widely discussed today is Freud's famous psychoanalytic theory. In his theory, Freud proposed that a human personality is made up of the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id, according to Freud, is a primal component of personality. It is unconscious and desires pleasure and immediate gratification. For instance, an infant crying because they're hungry is an example of the id at work. In order to get their needs met, they respond to hunger by crying.

The ego is responsible for managing the impulses of the id so they conform to the norms of the outside world. As you age, your ego develops.

For instance, as an adult, you know that crying doesn't get you the same type of attention and care that it did as an infant. So the ego manages the id's primal impulses, while making sure your responses are appropriate for the time and place.

The superego is made up of what we internalize to be right and wrong based on what we've been taught (our conscience is part of the superego). The superego works to make our behavior acceptable and it urges the ego to make decisions based on what's idealistic (not realistic).

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.

15 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Borghi AM, Fini C. Theories and explanations in psychology. Front Psychol. 2019;10:958. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00958

  2. Schwarzer R, Frensch P, eds. Personality, Human Development, and Culture: International Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 2. Psychology Press.

  3. American Psychological Association. Cognitive theories.

  4. Brady-Amoon P, Keefe-Cooperman K. Psychology, counseling psychology, and professional counseling: Shared roots, challenges, and opportunities. Eur J Couns Psychol. 2017;6(1). doi:10.5964/ejcop.v6i1.105

  5. American Psychological Association. Psychodynamic approach.

  6. Giacolini T, Sabatello U. Psychoanalysis and affective neuroscience. The motivational/emotional system of aggression in human relations. Front Psychol. 2019;9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02475

  7. D’Hooge R, Balschun D. Biological psychology. In: Runehov ALC, Oviedo L, eds. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. 2013:231-239. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8265-8_240

  8. Walrath R. Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development In: Goldstein S, Naglieri JA, eds. Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer.

  9. Gilleard C, Higgs P. Connecting life span development with the sociology of the life course: A new direction. Sociology. 2016;50(2):301-315. doi:10.1177/0038038515577906

  10. Cvencek D, Greenwald A, Meltzoff A. Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity. J Exp Psychol. 2016(62):50-57. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2015.09.015

  11. Benson J, Haith M, eds. Social and Emotional Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. Elsevier.

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

  13. Taormina RJ, Gao JH. Maslow and the motivation hierarchy: Measuring satisfaction of the needs. American J Psychol. 2013;126(2):155-177. doi:10.5406/amerjpsyc.126.2.0155

  14. Rabindran, Madanagopal D. Piaget’s theory and stages of cognitive development- An overview. SJAMS. 2020;8(9):2152-2157. doi:10.36347/sjams.2020.v08i09.034

  15. Boag S. Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objects. Front Psychol. 2014;5:666. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666

Additional Reading
  • McComas WF. The Language of Science Education. Springer Science & Business Media.

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.