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  • Valentina Solci

Breakdown on the Different Psychological Schools of Thought

Description of the 6 Schools of Thought in Psychology

Like any other academic field, psychology, the study of the mind, has hundreds of schools of thought (or theories). These schools of thought offer different perspectives at which to study the subject and, in turn, can influence the way you perceive a given topic.

Since the early Egyptians to the ancient Greek philosophers, people have always been fascinated to understand human thought and behavior (WIP). Stemming from biology and philosophy, psychology officially grew into its own science when Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Because of this, Wundt is widely regarded as the founder of psychology and initiated the first school of thought known as structuralism.

From there, many different scholars and academics argued and critiqued each other for their work, which inevitably led to founding other theories. As of now, there are six main schools of thought that are referenced and studied the most.


As previously mentioned, structuralism is the first official psychological school of thought. Wundt receives most of the credit for having founded this school, however, much thought and inquiry actually derived from his student, Edward B. Titchener (WIP). Structuralism aimed to investigate the structure of the mind. Psychologists under this school wanted to determine and understand the basic elements of the conscious mind and do so scientifically. Wundt approached this goal by utilizing the tool of introspection, which "involves looking inwards; reflecting on, analyzing and trying to make sense of our own internal experiences as they occur" (WIP). Although introspection has its perks, many critics mentioned how this scientific tool is less ideal as "no two persons perceive the same thing in exactly the same way" (WIP). As a result of this, experimental reports from subjects oftentimes were subjective and conflicting.


The leading scholar in this school of thought was William James, an American psychologist and academic who believed in studying the function of the mind as opposed to the structure. For this theory, function refers to how the mind operates and how mental processes promote adaptation (WIP). Functionalists were focused on why certain mental process occur, leading them to study adaptation, motivation, animals, and children. These psychologists approached their experiments by using introspection in conjunction with mental tests, questionnaires, and physiological measures. (WIP)


To fully understand the individual, psychologists under the psychoanalytic school of thought believed in studying the unconscious. The leader of this school of thought was Sigmund Freud. One of the most referenced psychologists, Freud definitely left his footprint in psychology as he unapologetically dove into studying all the elements of the unconscious, which contrasted to the work that the structuralists and functionalists did for the conscious part of the mind. Freud believed that most "factors that influence our thoughts and actions lie outside of conscious awareness and operate entirely in our unconscious" (WIP). He compared the human mind to that of an iceberg, where only part of it is seen by others while the rest lives and thrives beneath the surface of awareness.

It is important to recall that not all psychologists follow Freud's discoveries and focus on the unconscious, however, most professionals in psychology acknowledge his large scale impact on the field. His work on the unconscious and early personality development led to later psychoanalysts using psychotherapy, for example. Although Freud's endeavors into the unconscious paved way to modern psychology, many were skeptical about his work as his concepts weren't always testable. Additionally, he failed to recognize how life after childhood influenced personality and he focused mostly on psychological disorders. (WIP)


Moving away from the emphasis on mental processes, John B. Watson innovated psychology by founding behaviourism, a school of thought concentrated on studying the mind objectively through the examination of stimuli (events in the environment) and responses (observable behavior) (WIP). In its simplest form, behaviourism is the study of observable behaviour.

Adding on to Watson's work, behaviorist B.F. Skinner promoted the idea of human behavior being examined through "reinforcement and punishment – observable, environmental factors – with no need to consider inner mental processes" (WIP). Later, cognitive behaviourists emerged by congregating the studies of overt and covert behaviors.

Watson's desire to study the mind under an objective lens assisted psychology in becoming a more "scientific" field as opposed to a body of philosophy. Like all theories, however, critics of this school believed that most mental influences occured intrinsically, thus, studying objective behavior is not sufficient in understanding the mind as a whole.


The term "gestalt" signifies "form, pattern, or whole." These psychologists believed in studying the mind and human experiences as a whole rather than breaking down elements. Gestalt psychologists are known for their saying: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. This emphasizes their view on how meaning is lost when ideas are broken down; it's only when pieces are analyzed as a whole body that one can understand the true meaning of human experiences. Max Wertheimer is an example of a gestalt psychologist who studied cognition, perception, problem-solving, and thinking. (WIP)


Stemming from dissatisfaction of the perceptions and work of the previously mentioned schools of thought, humanistic psychology emerged. Humanists viewed humans as "free agents capable of controlling their own lives (as opposed to being controlled), making their own choices, setting goals and working to achieve them" (WIP). In visualizing humanity this way, these psychologists took on a more positive approach to human nature and believed that humans are inherently good.

Carl Rogers is one of the most notable humanist psychologists who disagreed with the deterministic (the idea that our actions are controlled by forces beyond our control) approach which guided psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Another humanist is Abraham Maslow who is most famous for creating his Hierarchy of Needs and also taught at my university's graduate school, the New School for Social Research, among others. This school led to a specific form of therapy, which aimed at helping people achieve their full potential.

Psychologists today are choosing to integrate several schools of thought into their work to obtain the most complete analysis possible. Due to the complexity of the mind and human experiences, psychology will never be a static field of science. In time, new theories will emerge revealing new aspects of our elaborate mind.


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