What Are the Major Schools of Thought in Psychology?


Psychology is the study of the human mind. Although the major schools of thought in psychology are all interested in how the human mind works, they approach this topic in different ways. Some psychologists are concerned with behavior; others focus on the internal struggles that go on inside people's minds, while other psychologists study people's environment.


  • Structuralism, the first psychological school of thought, is credited to psychologists Wilhelm Wundt, who is known as the father of psychology, and Edward Titchner. The structuralist perspective says that psychology should examine the consciousness of people. To get to this consciousness, people engage in self-observation, also known as introspection. By doing this, structuralists believe that people's conscious experiences can be boiled down to structures, or small components of feelings and sensations.


  • Functionalism was founded by William James in reaction to structuralism. Functionalism asserts that psychology should be concerned with the functions, or purposes, of human behavior. This school of thought expanded upon structuralism by encouraging psychologists not to limit their study to introspection. Instead, functionalists believed that behavior can also be attributed to child rearing, education, work environment and behavior.


  • Behaviorism, which was pioneered by psychologist Ivan Pavlov, is the psychological school of thought that says psychology should study external actions that can be observed, rather than people's mental state. Pavlov based this theory on the experiments he did with dogs where he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. As a result, the dogs associated the ringing of the bell (which is a neutral stimulus) with being fed so that every time they heard the bell ring, they began to salivate. Pavlov concluded that behavior is the result of conditioning, rather than any internal motives of an individual.


  • Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud. This school of thought says that human behavior is caused by the unconscious mind. Freud believed that unconscious mind is made up of three components: the id, the ego and the superego. The id, which people are born with, is only interested in satisfying desires and receiving pleasure. The ego is also interested in gaining pleasure, but it's the part of the unconscious mind that can reason and decide which desires are appropriate to act upon. The superego, the moral center of the unconscious mind, is concerned about right and wrong.

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