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Theoretical Approaches In Psychology

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This essay will explore three psychological approaches. Further comparison and contrast made from assumptions about human behaviour from the selected three approaches will be deeply discussed throughout the whole essay. Modern psychology branches out into several approaches that are currently used nowadays.

In psychology, an approach is a point of view that includes different kinds of beliefs carried out by the most famous psychologists towards human behaviour. This also discusses the way they function, what areas of them are worthy of study, and what research methods will be considered appropriate for undertaking this study.

An approach will have different theories within, but mostly all these (theories) will have common assumptions. Each approach has its strength and weaknesses, and to those who may wonder why these approaches in psychology may be so different from each other, it is to bring a different point of view on human behaviour.

There are mainly five psychological approaches. But this essay will only treat three approaches.


When speaking about this perspective there are a few psychologists who gave a major help to found what is behaviourism today. The main founders were John B. Watson and B.F Skinner, there are also other few remarkable behaviourist psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov, Clark Hull, etc.

The behaviourist approach which is also known as behaviourism relies on the theory that all behaviours are acquired and maintained through conditioning, these following are categorised in Classical and Operant conditioning. Behaviourism is based on the fact that conditioning only manifests throughout interaction within a specific environment; as individuals, our responses to a certain environment will have an impact on our behaviour causing to change the shape of it.

From a behaviourist point of view, all learning method used in experiments can be proved on animals and humans. Therefore, animals can replace humans in circumstances where experimenting is needed, and there’s also a clearer understanding that this approach doesn’t rely on internal emotions such as moods and emotions because they are considered subjective and unobservable from a behaviourist perspective.

Classical Conditioning: The principles of classical conditioning have been applied by many therapists this it’s a method of learning that happens through association where the occurring stimulus is paired with a response. After conditioning, the neutral stimulus (NS) transits from being neutral to the conditioned stimulus producing a conditioned response. One of the most remarkable psychologists who is set to believe he is the one who discovered classical conditioning is Ivan Pavlov.

Although Pavlov had inspiration from Thorndyke’s foundings, The Animal Intelligence (1898) where animals were kept in boxes and food were placed outside of the boxes which were visible to the animals. Thorndyke’s proceeded with different experiments where he concluded that an association was formed between the visual and tactile stimuli plus the automatic mechanism from the animals. Pavlov came with the classical conditioning through an experiment carried out on his dogs. He demonstrated that dogs could be conditioned to salivate upon hearing a bell. Before conditioning, the unconditioned stimuli (food) automatically produces an unconditioned response (salivation), while during conditioning the unconditioned stimuli were constantly paired with a neutral stimulus (bell) to produce an identical unconditioned response which is salvation. After conditioning, an association was made between the unconditioned stimulus and the neutral stimulus, the process after this association was the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus, producing a conditioned response of salivation. Pavlov tried using different pitches for the bells in his experiments but no change occurred in a matter of conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning: This is a method of learning where behaviour is developed and also maintained relying on consequences. The operant conditioning adopts reinforcement where this increases its chance of the behaviour to be repeated, where punishment (unpleasant consequence based on behaviour) decreases the chances of it. Reinforcement can be categorised in two ways.

  • Positive reinforcement: This happens when good behaviour it is being repeated, which also leads to rewarding it if this happens again.
  • Negative reinforcement: This happens when observed behaviour chooses to avoid negative consequences causing it to improve.

B.F Skinner believed human behaviour could have been explained by their motives and how environmental factors and stimuli could have affected the human behaviour, reaction and response. Skinner carried out a lot of experiments trying to demonstrate his theory. Skinner proved, using a rat plus positive and negative reinforcement (Skinner’s Box) that when positive reinforcement was used when the rat pressed down the lever to received food (reward), unconsciously the rat learned to repeat this action to receive more rewards. When negative reinforcement was used, the rat to avoid unpleasant consequences (electric shock) learnt to press down the lever.

Strengths and limitations of behaviourism

Behaviourism makes use of scientific data and research methods, especially laboratory experiments. Scientific experiments are strictly-controlled to reduce and control the volume of misunderstanding and unnecessary information. There is also an increase in reliability and validity when it comes down to findings as these are most likely to be replicated in the same circumstances. Behaviour can be observed and measured, increasing the scientific credibility of psychology. In a matter of limitations, behaviourism sees all behaviours as a product of past reinforcement, without considering the aspect of free will or voluntary choices. Behaviourism seems more appropriate towards animals, as it does not recognise human emotions nor consider them as essential.

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The psychodynamic approach consists of all theories developed in modern psychology that are currently used nowadays. This approach is based on the interaction of drives and forces within a human, especially the unconscious side, this also focuses on the differences between structures of a personality. Sigmund Freud is the main psychologist who formed this approach, his psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory. Freud’s theories are the foundation of the psychodynamic approach, his followers have similar theories that add up to this approach. Freud identified three levels of consciousness which were: The conscious, preconscious and unconscious. The human mind is only aware of the conscious, whereas forms of the preconscious are revealed from sudden moments of slips or dreaming, the human mind has no control over the unconscious side and this stores our biological instincts or drives (e.g. hunger or sadness) plus unpleasant thoughts which are repressed by our conscious mind.

Freud saw personality as three components (i.e tripartite) these are identified as Id, ego and superego. The id is the core part of the personality which is an altogether of traces of personality found at birth, this operates on biological instincts (e.g. hunger) and instant gratification of it, The ego is developed in the first 3 years of life, where this helps to resolve conflicts between the superego and the id, this is considered the decision-maker part of a personality. Lastly, the superego is developed between 3 to 6 years of life (phallic stage) this is based on the morals and values of an individual, children at this age tend to recognise the sense from right and wrong which are learned from one’s parents. The id and superego are always in constant conflict.

Freud (1905) believed that life was built around instincts and pleasure, he also believed that all tension was due to the build-up libido (sexual energy) where all pleasure derived from. For this reason, he identified that psychological development in childhood takes place in five psychosexual stages which are: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Freud hardly believed that the first five years of an individual were crucial to the development of an adult personality. Each stage characteristic is affected by a conflict which is needed to be resolved to step into the next stage, failure to achieve so results into ‘fixation’ which leads into dysfunctional behaviour that can be carried into adulthood. Oedipus and Electra Complexes were developed by Freud based on the case studies of Little Hans, where phobia of horses stopped from fear towards his father, due to having sexual desires towards his mother.

Strengths and limitations of psychodynamics

The psychodynamic approach is still used in modern psychology, this is used especially on a client-therapist relationship. This approach is really promising as it improves the outcomes of each client-therapist session, Freud contribution to psychology also plays a big role in mental disorders such as depression, anxiety etc.

In terms of limitations, the psychodynamic approach places a lot of emphasis on psychological factors without considering the biological standpoint of view, the following factors which influence and contribute to mental health issues. This approach reduces free-will, not allowing human behaviour to express its opinion in addition to that categorising the human mind into categories and stages show how limited the approach is.


The humanistic approach based itself on the concept that all human beings have access to their free-will and they are in control of their own development, this also ignores internal or external influence on factors concerning our behaviour. The humanistic approach underlines the importance of the personal worth of an individual, this mainly focuses on human values and its creative nature. Self-actualisation targets psychological growth (e.g. fulfilment) as a motive to reach the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy. Since human beings possess free will, this enhances the chances of striving and progressing through this hierarchy.

Self-actualisation is when an individual comes a realisation (full understanding) of its potential and full development of its abilities. The humanistic approach has three individuals who had a massive impact on understanding self-actualisation, these are Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

Goldstein perceived self-actualisation as a final goal for every creature, he believed that man’s desire for self-fulfilment will encourage an individual to reach its potential, Goldstein (1940) perspective on self-actualisation was that individuals not reaching their goals in future was not needed because he believed that every creature was able to reach its full potential at any given time.

Rogers perceived self-actualisation as a constant lifelong process where an individual concept of itself is maintained and improved through reflection, this enables the individual to develop, recover and grow. From Rogers perspective each person who wants to achieve self-actualisation must be in a state of congruence, this happens when an individual ‘ideal-self’ matches their actual behaviour ‘self-image’. Those who are not able to reach or achieve self-actualisation are deemed of not being able to achieve their full potential, those who can reach their full potential are described as ‘fully functioning’, to become a fully functioning individual, unconditional positive regards from other must be detected. This is an attitude of acceptance of others despite their feelings.

Maslow instead had the same view on self-actualisation as Goldstein, However, Maslow (1943) found out that human beings have lower needs before reaching higher needs, he classified them as basic needs which can be subcategorised in physiological needs ( e.g. water, food and rest) and safety needs. Psychological needs which were also subcategorised in belongingness needs (e.g. close relationships) and esteem needs (ex feeling of accomplishment). Lastly, an individual needs to realise its full potential (self-actualisation).

Maslow believed that not a lot of individuals would have reached the final stage of his hierarchy, further ahead he acknowledge a few individuals who he believed they were self-actualised, and argued that most individuals are suffering from the psychopathology of normality. Maslow’s perspective towards human is indeed optimistic which sees individuals striving to reach their full potential.

Strengths and limitations of humanism

The humanistic approach focuses specifically on the individual rather than other aspects such as unconscious, observable behaviour of DNA. Roger’s therapy which was client-centred played a key role in today’s counselling psychology. This therapy recognises an individual free will and their room of improvement to reach full potential by focusing on the patient’s actual problems. Humanism values personal and self-fulfilment which meet most individuals way of thinking. On the other hand, humanism does not rely on biology, this approach is entirely focused on humans ( unlike behaviourism which relies on animals and human comparisons) which means there is no comparison between animals. Lastly, this approach is culturally biased because humanism is more likely to be accepted by western culture.

Each psychological perspectives are surely different and have contrasting theories, however, some of these perspectives are still used in modern psychology. It is undeniable that certain perspectives are considered to be unethical nowadays because of their way of experimenting and theories which are based on. Behaviourism seems to be the most outdated one compared to the other two psychological approaches which have been treated on this essay while humanism and psychodynamic approaches have massively contributed to today’s’ psychology.


  1. Freud, S., 1949. Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality. 7th ed. London: Imago Pub. Co., pp.123-246.
  2. Goldstein, K., 1940. Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.
  3. Maslow, A., 1943. A Theory Of Human Motivation. 5th ed. [Place of publication not identified]: Wilder Publications, Inc., pp.96-370.
  4. Mcleod, S., 2020. Psychosexual Stages | Simply Psychology. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 November 2020].
  5. 2020. Approaches In Psychology. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 November 2020].
  6. Pavlov, I., 1940. Conditioned Reflexes. 1st ed. New York.
  7. Prera, A., 2020. Self-Actualisation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 November 2020].
  8. 2020. Psychodynamic Approach. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2020].

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“Theoretical Approaches In Psychology.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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