Top 10 Psychological Theories

What are the most influential theories in behavioral science?

Psychology has been built on  decades of research on behavior and mental processes, with which it is easy to get lost among so many approaches and concepts that cannot be understood without understanding the theories in which they are framed. 

The main theories in Psychology

The different psychological theories try to describe different important aspects about our personality, our behavior, our cognitive development and our motivations, among many other questions. Below you can see some brushstrokes on the main psychological theories that have been sculpting what we know about the human mind.

Cartesian dualist theory

The dualistic theory of RenĂ© Descartes states that the mind and body are two entities of a different nature, the former has the power to control the second and interact with each other somewhere in the brain. 

It is, basically, the transformation into theory of a type of philosophical position of dualism, one of whose main representatives is  Plato. Although the Cartesian dualism theory has been formally discarded for decades, it continues to take on new forms and remain implicit in the way much research in psychology and neuroscience is approached. Somehow, it “infiltrates” the mindset of many research teams without their realizing it, so it remains relevant despite not being valid.

Gestalt theory

The psychological theory of Gestalt is the way we perceive the outside world through our senses. Through the Gestalt laws, developed basically by German psychologists in the first half of the 20th century, the way in which perception is realized is reflected at the same time that we give meaning to what is perceived, and not a thing after the other. You can read more about this theory in this article.

Behavioral stimulus-response theory

Researchers of behavioral psychology that relied on operant conditioning of BF Skinner defended the idea that the learning we do depend on the way in which certain behaviors are more or less reinforced by pleasant stimuli or just unpleasant after this behavior has been done. 

This theory was challenged by  Edward Tolman, who in the mid-twentieth century demonstrated that learning could be done even if certain behaviors were not immediately rewarded, thus paving the way for the cognitive psychology that was to come in the 1960s.

Jean Piaget’s theory of learning

One of the most important psychological theories about learning is the one that starts from the constructivist approach of Jean Piaget. This Swiss researcher believed that the way in which we learn consists of the construction of our own experiences, that is, that what we live is seen in the light of what we have previously experienced. 

But learning does not depend only on our past experiences, but also on biological factors marked among other things by the life stage in which we find ourselves. That is why he established a model of stages of cognitive development, about which you can read more here.

Sociocultural Theory of Lev Vygotsky

While at the beginning of the 20th century many psychologists studied learning by focusing on the way in which individuals interact with the environment, the Soviet researcher Lev Vygotsky took a social approach to the same object of study. 

For him, society as a whole (although especially through parents and guardians) is a means and at the same time a learning tool thanks to which we can develop ourselves intellectually. You can learn more about this psychological theory in this article.

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Throughout his research, Albert Bandura showed to what extent learning is not something that occurs from facing challenges alone, but also takes place by being immersed in an environment in which we can see what people do. others and the results that others have when following certain strategies. To learn more about this psychological theory, click here.

Theory of cognitive dissonance

One of the most relevant psychological theories regarding the formation of identities and ideologies. The concept of cognitive dissonance, formulated by the psychologist Leon Festinger, serves to explain the state of stress and discomfort that occurs when two or more beliefs that are perceived as contradictory to each other are held at the same time. To learn more about the subject, you can see these two articles:

  • Cognitive dissonance: the theory that explains self-deception
  • How do cults react when prophecies are not fulfilled?

Theory of information processing

This theory starts from the idea that the mind works as a set of mechanisms that process sensory information (input data) to store part of it in “memory deposits” and, at the same time, transform the combination of this information about the present and information about the past in chains of actions, just as a robot would.

In this way,  our perceptions go through a series of filters until the most relevant data become involved in complex mental operations and, therefore, have an impact on the behavior that occurs in response to these stimuli. It is one of the most relevant psychological theories in cognitive psychology.

Theory of embodied cognition

The idea of embodied cognition, initially proposed by psychologist George Lakoff, can be classified both as a psychological theory and as a philosophical approach that affects the neurosciences. This theory breaks with the idea that cognition is based on brain activity and extends the matrix of thought to the entire body as a whole. You can read more about her  here.

Rational choice theory

It is part of both the field of economics and cognitive psychology, so it can be considered an important representative of psychological theories. According to this idea, each individual makes decisions according to their own interests and chooses the options that they perceive as more advantageous (or less harmful) for themselves from a rational criterion. 

The theory of rational choice has had a tremendous relevance in the social sciences, but it is increasingly questioned by new paradigms from which it is shown how frequent the behavior classically considered “irrational” is in us.

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