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What Are The Schools of Thought in Psychology: An Over-Simplified Guide

Photo a brain in pink color.
Photo by DS stories:

Imagine you’re on the road and you see a couple fighting. The couple is at it, yelling at each other, calling names, and basically airing each other’s dirty laundry.  

Now, a few feet away, you spot three psychologists talking to each other. Their voices rise and fall and their bodies move as if under a rhythm. So, you move near them and overhear their conversation.

“It is a clear manifestation of repressed unconscious desires,” says one of them.

“No, it is clearly a pattern learned within the relationship, reinforced over time,” replies the second.

“You both are wrong. It is clearly a natural conflict that arose from their drive towards a meaningful relationship,” adds the third.

So, you stand there and wonder, “What the fuck is wrong with these people? They’re all psychologists. Shouldn’t they all be on the same page?”

Well, if you think your local kindergarten is filled with multiple factions, you have to take a look at psychologists. They have factions of their own; they just call them ‘schools of thought.’

Basically, in psychology, a school of thought is a lens through which psychologists frame the human mind and behavior. Each lens is different and views things from a different vantage point. Hence, the explanations given for the same things are different from one branch of thought to another (like in the above scenario.)

There’s not a lot of awareness around the different psychological schools of thought. So, now let me introduce you to them in an oversimplified manner.

5 Different Schools of Thought in Psychology 

1. Psycho-Analysis

Ever heard the term ‘psycho-analyzing?’ If you have, then congratulations; you have heard about THE most famous school of thought in psychology: psycho-analysis

You cannot talk about psychoanalysis, without talking about its founder Sigmund Freud. Freud was a physician with a long list of patients suffering from mental ailments. 

His observation of them led him to theorize that our mind is split into two main parts: the conscious and the unconscious. To better understand, think of the mind like an iceberg; the part visible to us is the conscious mind and the part down in the depths is the unconscious.

Freud believed mental illnesses are the result of a conflict - between the desires of the conscious and the unconscious. To combat the conflict, you develop defense mechanisms; such as excessive drinking, gambling, and people-pleasing.

So, for Freud, the role of therapy was to make the unconscious desires of the mind conscious to the patient. Logic goes that if you gain awareness of your defense mechanisms you can then start to exert your control over them.

Besides the unconscious and conscious, he also split the mind to further three parts: the id, the super-ego, and the ego

The id is the part of you that wants immediate pleasure. Like, your desire to boink that person you should stay a mile away from or your desire to order food at 3 AM with your near-maxed-out credit card. 

The id does not concern itself with consequences or long-term goals. Instead, like a shitty kid, it’s a fucking nuisance at times. But life would also be unthinkable without it.

Meanwhile, the superego is concerned with morality. It operates from the values and cultural standards you have acquired through your experiences. Think of it like your uncle who is honest to a fault (which you like) but also won’t shut up about how immoral it is to smoke weed (which you don’t like.) Also, it does not really get along with the id (duh!). 

Trapped between these two, is our poor ego. Unlike its name, it is the sensible part of your mind that is concerned with reality. It plays the role of the mediator in the tug-of-war between your id and your superego. Poor thing!

2. Functionalism

Functionalism focuses on how your mental processes and behavior are adaptive to our environments.

Let’s take fear as an example. Imagine you’re walking in the wilderness at night and you come across a tiger. Your heart races as fear builds up and you bolt the shit out of there. Never to return.

Now, imagine if you hadn’t experienced fear; you would’ve become the tiger’s dinner. In this scenario, fear played the function of saving you from certain death.

This idea of adaptive function is influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Darwin proved how all life on earth evolved through natural selection. And life did it by adapting to the surrounding environments.

Hence, functionalism has a lot in common with evolutionary psychology. The difference is that evolutionary psychology studies the functions of our mind and behavior on a larger time scale. Meanwhile, functionalism is concerned about these in your immediate environment.

3. Behaviorism

Behaviorism focuses on how your environment and experiences shape your behavior. Behaviorists theorize that you learn your behavior through conditioning. Of which there are two types: classical and operant.

You can better understand classical conditioning through one of the most famous experiments in psychology: Ivan Pavlov and his dogs.  

Pavlov observed that his dogs salivated at the sight of food. So, every time he fed the dogs he started to ring a bell. He then noticed that after a while, his dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell - even if he didn’t serve them food. 

In this example, the unconditioned stimulus (ringing a bell) and unconditioned response (salivating) turned into conditional stimulus and conditioned response.

Operant conditioning is simpler: if your action receives a reward you are likely to repeat it and if your action receives a punishment you are likely to avoid doing the same in the future. 

For instance, imagine you take the initiative on a crucial work project. If your manager praises you, you are likely to repeat taking initiative. However, if your manager reprimands you, you are likely to avoid taking initiative at all costs.

4. Humanistic

Humanistic psychologists turn their attention to an entirely different domain: improving your well-being and helping you realize your potential. 

Members of this psychological school of thought theorized that humans have an innate need for personal fulfillment and growth i.e., to become better. Towards this, it focuses on concepts such as agency, meaning, choice, and transcendence.

The school of thought also put forth the idea of client-centric therapy. In this mode of therapy, you as a client become an equal partner in the therapeutic process with your therapist. Your therapist would also practice unconditional positive regard - meaning they don’t get all judgey when you text your ex despite knowing how toxic they are.

In addition, it also influenced the birth of positive psychology. Positive psychology is similar to humanistic psychology and focuses on enhancing your positive emotions and strengths. 

5. Cognitivism

Cognitivism is the school of thought in psychology that focuses on how the brain processes information and how it affects your behavior. Kind of like a computer.

For instance, let’s take memories. Imagine your friend betrays your trust; your brain labels it as being painful, stores it in your short-term memory, and later transfers it to your long-term memory. Now, if you meet the same friend three months later your brain retrieves the same memory and the painful emotion. This helps you avoid going all gaga over your friend again.

In addition to the processing of information, cognitivism also focuses on how your brain develops over the course of your life; You start with limited brain capacity as a toddler, see an increase as an adult, and later a decrease as you reach old age.

Like the other schools of thought in psychology, cognitivism has influenced a lot of developments in the field.

Chief among them is the birth of CBT. CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on how your thoughts, emotions, and behavior influence each other.  

For example, imagine receiving the thought that your entire family hates you, leading you to become distant from them. CBT helps you identify and counter your illogical thoughts with evidence. You recall a time when your Dad waited for 4 hours at the airport for your flight to arrive at 2 in the morning. Countering such thoughts leads you to act in ways that make you feel closer to your family.

Besides CBT, the cognitivistic school of thought has also influenced the development of artificial intelligence. Cognitivist theories about learning, memory, attention, etc., have helped AI researchers to create better AI systems that mimic human intelligence to a certain point.

So, Which School of Thought in Psychology is The Best?

All schools of thought listed here have made tremendous contributions to the field of psychology.

And today, psychologists usually don’t follow a single school of thought. Instead, they follow an integrative approach - they take aspects from different schools of thought and combine them.

Because psychology is a complex field. It has been the arguments between them that have brought productive changes and discoveries.

Maybe the fighting couple can learn something from them.


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