Major Psychological Theories

Major Psychological Theories

Understanding the theoretical foundations, influential theorists, and demarcation of the three major movements of psychology is essential to having a fundamental knowledge of the discipline. Psychoanalysis; behaviorism; and humanistic, transpersonal, and existential psychology (HTE) are recognized as the three primary movements of psychology.  As such, they provide a rich history of human science and form the basis for understanding human experience and the human condition as a whole. In this assignment, you will address this history, synthesize the theories, and consider applications of the theories.


General Requirements:

  • To foster retention of foundational theories in psychology, this assignment requires the incorporation of information from this course and previous courses regarding psychological theories and their applications. Refer to PSY-802, Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Theory and PSY-803, Behaviorism to assist with this assignment.
  • This assignment uses a rubric. Please review the rubric prior to beginning the assignment to become familiar with the expectations for successful completion.
  • Doctoral learners are required to use APA style for their writing assignments. The APA Style Guide is located in the Student Success Center.
  • This assignment requires that at least ten scholarly research sources related to this topic, and at least one in-text citation from each source be included. Scholarly works encountered in prior doctoral courses may be used in this assignment

Major Psychological Theories


Write a paper (2,250-2,500 words) that demonstrates your understanding of the primary movements in psychology – psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic, transpersonal, and existential psychology (HTE). Your paper should provide a historical perspective for each of the movements, showcase your understanding of the key components of each, and suggest a synthesis and application of the theories. Include the following in your paper:

  1. An overall historical context of all three movements. (Benchmarks C.1.1:  Discuss the history and development of the theories of Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and   Humanistic/Transpersonal/Existential (HTE) Psychology)
  2. A rationale for why each movement is/was considered essential to understanding human behavior and experiences.
  3. An analysis of psychoanalysis/psychodynamic theory. What were the primary tenets and perspectives of the theories? Who were the key theorists? How did their work lead them to new ideas including Neo-Freudianism?
  4. An analysis of behaviorism. What were the theoretical underpinnings of the movement? What were the primary tenets and concepts of the movement? Why were these tenets and concepts important? Who were the key theorists?
  5. An analysis of humanistic, transpersonal, and existential psychology (HTE). From what cultural and historical contexts did the movement emerge? What were the primary tenets and concepts of the movement? Why were these tenets and concepts important? How do these tenets and concepts differ across the movement? Who were the key theorists?
  6. A synthesis of these movements. How did these movements enhance the understanding of human behavior, growth, and potential? (Benchmarks C.1.2:  Synthesize the theories of Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and HTE Psychology)
  7. An evaluation of the applications of the theories that were the basis for each of these movements. To what extent has the application of these theories enhanced treatments in mental health and the helping professions? (Benchmarks C.1.3:  Evaluate the common applications of Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and HTE Psychology)
  8. A statement of next steps. What comes next in the development of psychological approaches to understanding human behavior and experience



Major Psychological Movements


When psychology initially emerged as a separate science from philosophy and biology, a debate emerged over how to analyze and explain the human mind and behavior. Prior to the 19th century, anyone interested in analyzing the human mind would do so in a philosophical context. However, two men, Wilhelm Wundt and William James, working at this time defied the rules of human physiology to introduce a new field of science referred to as psychology. Over the years, psychology has evolved into several approaches and theories. There may be multiple theories within a specific approach but all share common assumptions and beliefs about human behavior (McLeod, 2014). There are several different psychological perspectives that introduce something different to the understanding of the human mind and behavior. Among the many psychological approaches there are three primary movements in psychology. They include; the theories of psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic, transpersonal theory and existential psychology. This paper will provide a historical analysis of psychology and its approaches, it will also synthesize the three primary movements in psychology and lastly, the paper will present the applications of the theories.

Historical Context of the Primary Movements in Psychology

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Humanistic

Behaviorism is a psychological approach that uses scientific methods to investigate stimulus-response behaviors. According to behaviorism, behaviors are acquired through a series of interactions with the environment (Krapfl, 2016).  Early work in behavior psychology begun in 1913 and was championed by John Watson and his article ‘Psychology as the behaviorist views it’. In the article, Watson presented several basic assumptions about behaviorism. Watson claimed that the environment plays a major role in influencing behavior. Additionally, behaviorism focuses on observable behavior and not on internal events. A few years before Watson’s article, Ivan Pavlov carried out an experiment on conditioning after studying digestion in dogs. In 1897, Pavlov published his findings. A few years after Watson’s article, B.F Skinner founded radical behaviorism which claimed that psychology should neither predict nor control behavior (McLeod, 2017). Skinner, like Watson, recognized that internal mental events can be explained in the analysis of behavior. Skinner in 1948 published ‘Walden Two’ where he proposes the development of a Utopian society rooted in the principles of behaviorism. Later on in 1971, Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity where he notes that free will is an illusion. In addition to the work done by Pavlov, Watson and Skinner, other behavioral psychologists have expounded on the idea of behaviorism by publishing books and writing articles. Clark Hull published the principles of Behavior in 1943 (McLeod, 2017). Overall behaviorism states that behavior is simply a stimulus-response feature.

Major Psychological Theories

Owing its origin to the works and theories of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis is a set of therapeutic techniques and psychological theories whose core idea is the belief that human beings have feelings, desires, thoughts and memories (Wachtel, 2014). By introducing the contents of the unconscious mind into the consciousness, individuals are able to experience catharsis and thus become aware of their current state of mind. Therefore, people find relief from distress and any form of psychological disturbance (Wachtel, 2014). Freud (1856-1939) an Australian neurologist was fascinated by patients with hysteria and neurosis. After observing these patients, Freud theorized that the hysteria arose from the patient’s conscious mind. Based on his observations, he developed psychoanalytical therapy and published his findings in his book A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1922 (Lees, 2008). Gestalt psychology principles were introduced in the United States by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler who were German psychologists immigrating into the United States. According to Gestalt principles, sensory experiences can be broken down into different parts where the parts relate to each other forming a whole. Unlike behaviorism, psychoanalysis is more concerned with understanding inner experiences and how these experiences affect the individual.

Major Psychological Theories

While behaviorism focuses on stimulus-response interactions and psychoanalysis on the effects of the unconscious mind on the conscious mind, humanistic psychology emphasizes on looking at an individual as a free and self-efficient being. Additionally, humanistic psychology helps people maximize their potential and their well-being (Serlin, 2014). This approach emerged in the 1950s as a response to behaviorism and psychoanalysis which had dominated the field of psychology at the time. Carl Rogers, a psychologist was interested in understanding everything that helped humans grow, improve and thrive. According to Rogers, psychology was designed to help people live their best lives and achieve happiness (Serlin, 2014). It was this belief that motivated psychologist Abraham Maslow to develop the hierarchy of human needs. In the late 1950s, Maslow and other humanistic psychologists begun to grow the humanistic approach which focused on creativity, individualism, self actualization and personal fulfillment. In line with these objectives, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology was developed in 1961. The following year, Maslow published Toward a Psychology of Being which highlights the third force in psychology. In 1971, humanistic psychology was introduced as a unique division of the American Psychological Association (Serlin, 2014). The humanistic approach has provided unique perspectives on the way human behavior is understood.

Major Psychological Theories

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychology is a field in psychology focused on the spiritual aspects of human life. Transpersonal psychology was initially introduced in 1960 by Abraham Maslow and Victor Frankl. In 1969, the journal of transpersonal psychology was published. Two years later, the association for transpersonal psychology was founded. Additionally, in 1978 the international transpersonal association was created to promote education and research in the field of transpersonal psychology (Stanislav, 2008).  While transpersonal psychology did not formally begin until the 1960s, it owes its roots to the works of psychologists William James and Carl Jung. In addition to applying the principles of psychology to understand spiritual matters, transpersonal psychology provides a richer appreciation and understanding of human beings and strives to help them attain their maximum potential.

Major Psychological Theories

Existential psychology

Existential psychology is a branch of psychology that analyses the way in which people understand the basic concepts of human existence (Koole, 2011). Existential psychology was developed in the early 20th century to reflect on the principles of philosophical anthropology and psychoanalysis. Existential psychology is mainly based on the works of Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time”. Since its introduction, existential psychology has been closely linked to philosophy since it is majorly based on some aspects of psychological theory of personality and the philosophical understanding of human beings (Tan & Wong, 2012). This form of therapy was developed from the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. Philosopher Kierkegaard theorized that human internal wisdom can overcome human discontent. Nietzsche on the other hand, developed the principles of existentialism by introducing the concepts of personal responsibility and free will. In the early 1990s, Jean-Paul Sartre explored the role of interpretation in the healing process. Otto Rank actively pursued this filed and was latter joined by Paul Tillich and Rollo May who introduced existential therapy in their writings (“History of Existential Therapy”, 2015). Later on, Viktor Frankl developed logotherapy while other psychologists ventured into humanistic psychology (Koole, 2011). Existential psychology focuses on the underlying factors associated with behavior while also addressing mental health concerns.

Major Psychological Theories

Analysis of Psychoanalysis Theory

Psychoanalytic psychologists believe that psychological problems are located in the mind. Thus, when these symptoms manifest, they are often caused by hidden disturbances. Some of the hidden disturbances include unresolved issues that mainly occur during the development stage or as a result of repressed trauma (Sousa, 2011). According to psychoanalysis, treatment should focus on bringing forward repressed trauma to the conscious mind so that the individual can deal with it. Psychologists use psychoanalysis to treat anxiety disorders and depression. Due to the intricate defense mechanisms and the inaccessibility of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis is a lengthy process. The theory assumes that when symptoms are reduced they make little to no difference in the wellness of the patient as long as the underlying conflicts are not resolved (Sousa, 2011). Some of the techniques used in psychoanalysis include Rorschach ink blots, Freudian slip and free association. Sigmund Freud had many ideas that were controversial. However, Freud attracted several followers who adopted many of his views but changed several aspects of the theory by incorporating their own ideas, opinions and beliefs. Neo-Freudian psychologist Carl Jung developed the theory of personality and introduced the concept of collective unconscious. Alfred Adler heavily disagreed with Freud’s statement that sex was the primary motivator of human behavior. As such he designed his own approach that placed greater emphasis on interpersonal and social influences. Erik Erikson disagreed with Freud’s beliefs that personality was cemented in early childhood. Erikson believed that development was a life-long journey (Sousa, 2011). Additionally, Erikson noted that not all conflicts were unconscious. Karen Horney was the first woman to receive training in psychoanalysis. She was also the first one to criticize Freud for presenting women as lesser beings to men. Both Freudian and neo-Freudian principles played an intricate role in shaping the field of psychology.


Analysis of Behaviorism

Behavior analysis is a science-based approach that utilizes the principles of behaviorism. Behavior analysis is a behaviorist tradition that utilizes learning principles and investigates how they are used to bring about change in behavior. Behavioral psychology does not focus on mentalistic causes of behavior but analyzes the behavior itself (O’Neil, 2008). Behavior analysis builds the abilities in children and adults increasing their academic performance or employee performance. According to division 25 of the American Psychological Division, behavior analysis occurs through experiments and investigations of behavior and through applied behavior analysis. Behaviorism was established by Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner (O’Neil, 2008). While conducting investigations on dogs, Pavlov noticed the occurrence of conditioning reflex. He used his findings to establish classical conditioning. According to classical conditioning, environmental stimuli can stimulate a conditioned response. Watson expounded on Pavlov’s theory and applied it to understanding human behavior. Skinner further expounded on these concepts and introduced operant conditioning. According to Skinner, reinforcements result in desired behavior. There are several techniques and strategies used by behavior analysts (O’Neil, 2008). They include; chaining, prompting and shaping. Chaining is a behavior technique that involves breaking down a task into smaller parts. The simplest tasks are then selected and are taught first. Prompting is the use of prompts to trigger desired responses. Lastly, shaping strategies involve the process of gradually altering behavior. Behavior analysis has been used to help children with autism or children with developmental delays better control their behavior.

Major Psychological Theories

Analysis of Humanistic, transpersonal and Existential (HTE) Psychology

Transpersonal psychology has implicit metaphysical assumptions that there are experiences that transcend human experiences. This concept has been backed by transpersonal theorists like Abraham Maslow, Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn and Stansilov Krippner. Both existential and transpersonal psychology share one thing in common; both of them believe in the human potential and are committed to upholding human dignity. In the 1950s, the two most dominant schools of thought were behaviorist and psychoanalytic. Many psychologists criticized these beliefs and in response, embraced the humanistic approach. Humanistic psychology theorizes that a person’s subjective experience is crucial in behavior (Bland & Derobertis, 2007). Additionally, humanistic psychology believes that every person has free will and people naturally strive to maintain a state of self actualization (Bland & Derobertis, 2007). Transpersonal psychology introduces new concepts in the field of psychology. Transpersonal psychology includes the influences of spiritual experiences and acknowledges that they is a higher purpose. Transpersonal psychology highly emphasizes on relationships and strives to understand how the mind works based on the person’s relationships with others (Friedman, 2014). Existential psychology believes that man has free will and is self aware, human beings are self-actualizing and have a great capacity to grow, and lastly, individuals and their self-identity. Existential psychology is unique in that it has acknowledged that humans have limitations. Existential psychology analyzes human condition but takes a positive approach towards it.

Major Psychological Theories

In conclusion, there is no right way to study the way people think or act. However, there are several schools of thought that have evolved in the development of psychology and have advised psychologist on the human behavior investigated. Some of the main schools include; psychoanalysis, behaviorism and humanist, transpersonal and existential psychology. Some psychologists focus on specific schools of thought including the biological perspective while other psychologists take a different approach where they incorporate new approaches. Overall, as the paper has shown, no perspective is better than the other; each perspective simply highlights different aspects of human behavior.



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Friedman, H., (2014). Finding Meaning Through Transpersonal Approaches in Clinical Psychology: Assessments and Psychotherapies. International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 5(1), 45-49.

“History of Existential Therapy”. (2015). East European Association for Existential Therapy. Retrieved from

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Tan, S. & Wong, T.K. (2012). Existential Therapy: Empirical Evidence and Clinical Applications from a Christian Perspective. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31(3).

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