Get help now

A Comparison and Distinction of Major Theories in Psychology

  • Pages 12
  • Words 2980
  • Views 822
  • dovnload



  • Pages 12
  • Words 2980
  • Views 822
  • Academic anxiety?

    Get original paper in 3 hours and nail the task

    Get your paper price

    124 experts online


    “My friends…care for your psyche, and… make it as good as possible… Know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves, but otherwise we never shall…” Socrates

    Man had always demonstrated an interest and often wondered about human behavior, including the process of cognitive thinking — an interest which dates back even to the times of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. These other Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) urged us to use logic to make inferences about mind, and to observe behavior systematically. Aristotle argued that an empirical approach (direct observation), rather than dialogue, was the best route to knowledge. Direct observation remains an important dimension of psychology today.

    In the process of knowing themselves, some Western men from the times of the ancient Greek philosophers have divided each person into elements of “min” (or “soul”) and “body”. About 1594-96, Otho Casmannus formalized this doctrine by coining words from Greek roots: anthropology (the study of man), psychology (the study of mind), and somatology (the study of body). Casmannus discussed psychology in his work and made distinction between mind and body, which now seems capricious and unnecessary to many modern scholars.

    Such curiosity is not even strictly contained in Western culture, although psychology has been predominantly been an enterprise among Westerners. In China for example, the emperor Ta Yu (2000 B.C.) developed methods of testing the competence of government officials before making promotion decisions. Emphatic interest in others, another characteristic of many applications of psychology, is noteworthy in many religious traditions around the world. The Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 B.C.) expounded the principle of jen, which means to love all people. The Confucian tenet that benevolence and concern for others are the most important aspects of human behavior is evident in many Asian cultures.

    In the sixteenth century, Francis Bacon introduced the scientific method, arguing that direct observation alone is not adequate for understanding nature. According to Bacon, all assumptions about nature should be questioned and tested whenever possible. He promoted the need to reproduce observation. His ideas earned him the designation “the father of science”. It was not until centuries later that the traditions of philosophy and science converged in the systematic examination of behavior (JS Halonen and JW Santrock. “Historical Overview of Psychology”).

    Indeed, it was not until the late 1800s that scientific methods were began to be applied to questions that had puzzled philosophers for centuries. Only then did psychology become accepted as a scientific discipline, evolved out and separated form philosophy. That is why it has been said that psychology has a long past but a short history (C.G. Morris, and AA Maisto. “Growth of Psychology”).

    This query about who they are and what they are all about, although many centuries had past, has not diminished but rather intensified.

    An Overview of the Different Major Theories

    Psychoanalytic Theory

    Stemming from the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who formulated that man’s personality consists of three major systems. The id, the most primitive and least accessible part, is entirely unconscious and includes instinctive sexual urges and repressed motives that seek immediate satisfaction (tension reduction) without regard to the circumstances. The superego, representing conscience and what is sometimes called “the higher side of human life”, is composed of ethical and moral principles that the individual acquires early in life. The id and superego are frequently in direct conflict, and the ego, the third major system, representing reason, attempts to reconcile these conflicting forces (“Freud’s Structural and Topographical Models of Personality”).

    The theory emphasizes the unconscious aspects of the mind, conflict between these biological instincts and society’s demands, and early family experiences. The psychoanalytic perspective stresses that unlearned biological instincts, especially sexual and aggressive impulses, influence the way people think, feel, and act. These instincts, buried deep within the unconscious mind, are often at odds with society’s demands. Society’s job is to keep these instincts in check. For example, in Freud’s view, a child who once ran wildly through a neighbor’s flower garden but who grows up to be a successful surgeon or comedian has learned to channel her aggressive instincts in positive ways. Although Freud saw much of psychological development as instinctually based, he argued that our early relationships with our parents are the chief environmental contribution that shapes our personality.

    Although other theories might have been able to better explain particular aspects of human behavior, none approached the tremendous scope and brilliance of psychoanalysis, particularly that of the suggestion of the unconscious, which permeated all aspects of intellectual and cultural life (B.R. Hergenhahn, & M.H. Olson. An Introduction to Theories of Personality).


    Its basic assumption is based on the belief that all behaviors, “normal or deviant” are governed by the same learning principles. Behaviorism originated with John B. Watson around 1913 and was carried on later by such well-known psychologists as Clark Hull and B.F. Skinner. Watson argued that it is impossible to study in scientific way phenomena that can be known only through subjective reports. If psychology was to be a science, he said, psychologists would have to concentrate on objective analysis of observable behavior, such as movements and speech; they would have to stop attempting the study of such as mental phenomena as consciousness and thought, except insofar as these phenomena were reveled in behavior.

    It was not that Watson had no interest in so-called mental phenomena. In fact, during the early days of behaviorism, he formulated a theory that explained thinking as subvocalization — as movements of the vocal chords that were so light as to produce no sound. This theory, if it had been correct, would have allowed behaviorists to study thinking by analyzing the movements of the vocal cords. It was soon pointed out, however, that some thinking occurs so rapidly that the subvocalized sounds would have to be made at frequencies well beyond the physical capacity of the vocal cords, and so the effort to treat thinking as subvocalization has largely been abandoned.

    Other theories apply learning principles only to the acquisition of knowledge and have a specific explanation for the development of each type of personality deviation. For a behaviorist, problem behavior is simply seen as learned responses that have harmful consequences for the client or for his environment. Behaviorists interpret problem behaviors not as symptoms of unconscious conflicts that must be uncovered but as the primary and legitimate targets of therapy. In clinical practice, individual problems are not given diagnostic labels such as “neurotic” or to presumed personality traits such as “passive-aggressive”.

    The environment is believed to play a crucial role in determining behavior and that problem behavior are specific to given types of situations. Behavior change or modification is achieved by changing the environmental condition that currently controls them. It is therefore an important goal of behaviorism to have a precise description of observable behavior and to have precise description of simple experimental techniques to control behavior.

    An outgrowth of behaviorism is the social-learning theory. While behaviorists usually study learning in animals, they emphasize conditioning as the basic learning process, social-learning theorists attempts to apply behaviorist principles to human learning, particularly personality and social development; thus, it emphasizes not only conditioning but modeling.


    If Freud believed that personality grows out of the resolution of unconscious conflicts and developmental crises. Many of his followers — including some who modified his theory and others who broke away from his circle —also embraced this basic point of view. But Alfred Adler sees a different perspective of human nature. Adler believes that there are forces that contribute to positive growth and a move toward personal perfection, he is sometimes called the first humanistic personality theorist.

    Humanistic personality theory emphasizes that we are particularly motivated and progress toward higher levels of functioning — in other words, that there is more to human existence than dealing with hidden conflicts. Humanists stress people’s potential for growth and charge — as well as the ways they subjectively experience their lives right now — rather than dwelling on how they felt or acted in the past. As a result, this approach holds all of us personally responsible for our lives and their outcome.

    Finally, humanists also believe that given reasonable life conditions, people will develop in desirable directions (S.C. Cloninger. “Theories of Personality”). Adler’s concept of striving for perfection laid the groundwork for later humanistic personality theorists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

    Humanistic psychologists believe that life is a process of striving to achieve our potential, of opening ourselves to the world around us and expressing joy in living. Carl Rogers was one of the most prominent humanistic theorists who contended that men and women develop their personalities in the service of positive goals. According to Rogers, every organism is born with certain innate capacities, capabilities, or potentialities “a sort of genetic blueprint, to which substance is added as life progresses” (S.R. Maddi. “Personality Theories: A Comparative Approach”). The goal of life, Rogers believed, is to fulfill this genetic blueprint, to become the best of whatever each of us is inherently capable of becoming. Rogers called this push toward fulfillment the actualizing tendency. A fully functioning person is someone whose self-concept is closely matched with his inborn capabilities (J. Rowan. “Theory in Humanistic Psychology”).


    Cognitive psychology began to grow in the 1960’s, has also been one of the most influential. In contrast to the behaviorists, cognitive psychologists believe that mental processes can and should be studied scientifically. Although we cannot observe cognitive processes directly, we can observe behavior and make inferences about the kinds of cognitive processes that underlie that behavior.

    It studies mental processes in the broadest sense: thinking, feeling, learning, remembering, and making decisions and judgments, and so on. Thus cognitive psychologists are especially interested in the ways in which people “process” — that is perceive, interpret, store, and retrieve — information (K.V. Wagner. “Cognitive Theories of Development”).

    For example, we can read a lengthy story to people and then observe the kinds of things that they remember from that story, the ways in which their recollections change over time, and the sorts of errors in recall they are prone to make. On the basis of systematic research of this kind, it is possible to gain insight into the cognitive processes underlying human memory.

    Comparison and Distinction

    A major difference among theories is that each emphasizes a different aspect of the person. Behavioral (social-learning) theory stresses behavior; psycho-analytic theory stresses feelings; cognitive theory stresses mental operations or thoughts. Although each approach takes some account of all three aspects, it is only a slight exaggeration to state that social-learning theory suggests that a person is what he does; psychoanalytic theory, that he is what he feels; and cognitive theory, that he is what he thinks.

    Another important contrast between the three approaches is that each implies a different answer to the question: what (or who) controls a person’s behavior? According to social-learning theory, human behavior is shaped and controlled primarily by outside agents, such as the parents who administer rewards and punishment to a child and provide him with models to imitate. According to psychoanalytic theory, behavior is determined chiefly by interplay of unconscious psychological forces. That is, the crucial processes go on inside the person, but they are not, for the most part, under his conscious control. Cognitive theory postulates an interaction between the environment and the person. It falls between the other two approaches on the matter of external versus internal control, and it awards the person a more active role in his development than does either of the other two approaches.

    These three approaches tend to dominate the areas of psychology concerned with development, personality, social psychology, and disorder. On the other hand, the humanistic approach applies chiefly to adult personality functioning rather than to childhood development.

    Humanistic psychologists have something in common with cognitive psychologists, because they are interested mainly in psychological characteristics that set humans apart from other animals rather than in the behavior that humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Humanists emphasize the human being’s self-concept, his capacity for constructive and creative behavior, and his desire for personal fulfillment and a meaningful life. They object to the social-learning approach on the grounds that it is too deterministic: that is, according to the social-learning approach, humans are acted upon by forces in their environment; such environmental factors determine what a person is and does. Humanists object to the psychoanalytic approach because it, too, is deterministic (although the forces in this case are processes of the unconscious rather than environmental ones) and because it emphasizes people’s destructive capacities and irrational impulses.


    Different approaches in psychology to some extent compete with and to some extent complement each other. It has been suggested, for instance, that behaviorists see learning as a trial-and-error process, whereas cognitive-social psychologists emphasize organized perception and insight. Some people consider these two views incompatible and want to know which one is right; others consider the two views complementary and want to know which process operates when, and why.

    These differences, like the old story about the blind men and the elephant. Each man groped his way toward the elephant and encountered a different part of the animal. The one who found the tall announced the elephant was like a rope. The one who touched its side pronounced it wall-like. The one who found its trunk thought the animal was obviously a snake, and the one who had grasped a tusk shouted, “A spear!” The world looks different, depending on which part of it we choose to examine.

    The same thing happens in psychology. There are various ways of viewing such psychological processes as sex-role development, motivation, and learning, each of them supported to some extent by research findings; attending to one view tends to crowd out an appreciation of the others. A psychologist who finds the psychoanalytic approach to sex-role development truly convincing may have trouble seeing the roles that social learning and cognitive organization play in the process; a psychologist who studies motivation from the standpoint of physiological need or learning from a behaviorist viewpoint may find it hard to see much validity in the cognitive approach to either topic.

    It is therefore important, to keep in mind, that the approaches are often incompatible in small or large ways. Psychologists, like other people, have different interests; they have different ideas about which psychological processes are basic and which are peripheral; they have different convictions about the nature of psychology, science, and of human beings. All these differences are reflected in the ways they formulate and answer psychological questions.

    The field is continually growing in size and complexity; in practice, no single psychologist could cover all aspects of the field. One historian pointed out that psychologists explain and interpret behavior in such diverse ways. Other mature sciences (such as physics) is dominated by what he calls a paradigm; an approach so comprehensive and so powerful that it determines the field of that science — both what subjects scientists in the field will study and what methods they will use. As Einstein’s theory of relativity provides the paradigm for contemporary physics, so does Darwin’s theory provides the paradigm for evolutionary biology. Compared with the other sciences, it is rather archaic largely because of the bewildering complexity of behavior.

    However, psychology and the other social sciences, appear to be in a preparadigmatic stage of development. Instead of a single approach that dominates psychology as Einstein’s dominates physics, there are a number of competing approaches, each of which aspires to become the paradigm. Some still believe that it is possible that one of them may win out (that is, it may come to seem better than its competitors to most of the men and women in the field), or some other approach may be developed and adopted as a paradigm.

    Although psychology is still waiting for its first true paradigm, some approaches have for a time served as what might be called mini-paradigms in certain areas. But the trend now in psychology is away from the grand theory that explains everything and toward small-scale theories that relate to a limited area of behavior and generate precise and testable hypotheses.

    Psychoanalytic theory seems unlikely ever to attain paradigmatic status for the field of psychology as a whole. Humanistic psychology must be regarded as a dark horse. Although coming out much later, their movement includes some well-known and highly respected psychologists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. But it has yet to acquire the scope of influence that psychoanalysis did.

    Behaviorism (which has been extended by social-learning theorists into human development and other areas) and cognitive psychology are stronger contenders, but neither approach seems comprehensive enough to pull together the field of psychology as it exists today. Strict behaviorists have little interest in or respect for the subjective aspects of thoughts, feelings, memory, or states of consciousness, although they are willing to study the objective manifestations of these processes.

    Cognitive psychologists, since they are most interested in higher mental processes, give little attention to the behavior of animals near the bottom of the evolutionary scale— small loss, you may think, but such organisms as fruit flies and flatworms have, from time to time, made substantial contributions to our understanding of such matters as genetics and learning (R Smith, I Sarason, and B Sarason. “Scientific Principles in Psychology”).

    As our society continues to change, such as the dramatic increase in ethnic minority populations, increased interaction with cultures around the world, and expanded women’s roles in society since it is influenced by social and even historical contexts —- contemporary psychologists need to continue to address these new concerns.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

    Need a custom essay sample written specially to meet your requirements?

    Choose skilled expert on your subject and get original paper with free plagiarism report

    Order custom paper Without paying upfront

    A Comparison and Distinction of Major Theories in Psychology. (2017, Mar 27). Retrieved from

    Hi, my name is Amy 👋

    In case you can't find a relevant example, our professional writers are ready to help you write a unique paper. Just talk to our smart assistant Amy and she'll connect you with the best match.

    Get help with your paper
    We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy