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The 7 main currents of Psychology

The 7 main currents of Psychology

April 4, 2024

Psychology is a young science, but in spite of its short life trajectory it has given time to create several psychological currents that establish the way in which it is investigated, the concepts and methods that are used to work, and the objective pursued .

In fact, the variety of theoretical and practical proposals about the direction that psychology can take has been surprisingly large, which does not mean that they can not be summarized.

Next we will see what are those main streams of psychology and what are or have been its characteristics.

The currents of Psychology most relevant

Psychology as a separate discipline of philosophy appeared during the second half of the nineteenth century. Normally it is considered that its birth coincided with the inauguration of the laboratory of investigations in psychology created by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879.


From that moment, different approaches to psychology began to emerge, many of which appeared as a reaction to the rest. They are the following.

1. Structuralism

This current appeared around 1890 includes members of the tradition of psychological research inaugurated by Wilhelm Wundt. Edward Titchener was his main representative , and defended the idea that the goal of psychology should be to discover the basic elements of consciousness and the way in which they interact with each other to create mental processes.

Is about a reductionist perspective , since it pretended to investigate from the most basic elements to understand the most complex, and mechanistic, since it was based on the idea that a system as complex as that which composes our mind can be reduced to isolated parts, as if it were an engine .


Precisely because of its more academic than pragmatic approach, another trend soon emerged that came to compete with it: functionalism.

2. Functionalism

One of the main streams of psychology of those that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. Functionalism, which was born in the first decade of the 20th century, supposes a rejection to the structuralist approach ; Instead of focusing on studying the components of the mind, it aimed to understand mental processes. It did not focus on the "pieces", but on the functioning, that is to say the psychological functions that are carried out inside our head (and, by extension, inside our body).

In addition, while the approaches of structuralism had to do with very abstract and general questions, functionalism aspired to offer useful tools . The idea was to know how we function to be able to use that knowledge in everyday and specific problems.


Although he dissociated himself from functionalism, it is considered that William James was one of the great historical figures of the development of psychology who best embodied the approaches and concerns of this current.

3. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamics

The psychodynamic current appeared for the first time through the work of Sigmund Freud, in the last years of the 19th century. It was based on the idea that human co-behavior, in its movements, thoughts and emotions, is the product of a struggle of opposing forces that try to impose themselves on the other. This fight is unconscious , but according to the followers of this current it can be recognized through the interpretation of its symbolic manifestations.

Although the work of Sigmund Freud has led to the creation of many psychological theories and different schools of therapy, the truth is that currently have no scientific endorsement , among other things by the criticism that the philosopher of science Karl Popper made about this way of investigating.

  • Related article: "The id, the self and the superego, according to Sigmund Freud"

4. Behaviorism

Behaviorism was consolidated shortly after psychoanalysis, and appeared to be a current of psychology that opposed Freud and his followers, but also many other researchers with a tendency towards mentalism. Unlike the latter, the behaviorists Emphasized the importance of basing research on observable elements of the behavior, avoiding to the maximum the speculation not justified and fleeing from the interpretation of the acts in symbolic key.

Fundamentally, behaviorists were characterized as considering that the object of study of psychology should be behavior, and not what is usually understood by "mental processes" or, of course, any kind of speculation about the soul (although at a certain point mental processes were also studied, although understood as behavior, as well as motor behavior).

But even though behaviorists wanted to base their work on the study of matter and not on the soul, that does not mean that they were dedicated to studying the brain, as a neurologist would.

Unlike biopsychologists, to do their job the behaviorists They did not need to know details about what happens in our nervous system when performing certain tasks. Instead, they focused on studying the relationships that are created between stimuli and responses. For example, to know if a reward system works or not in a company, it is not necessary to know which circuits of neurons are intervening in this process.

In this way, in this current of psychology, the unit of analysis is contingency: the relationship between stimuli and their responses (both being observable and measurable). However, how to measure certain reactions to stimuli was considered immoral using human beings, based on animal experimentation, which gave a lot of strength to comparative psychology.

Two of the most famous representatives of this stream of psychology were John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.

  • Related article: "Behaviorism: history, concepts and main authors"

5. Gestalt

This current, which should not be confused with Gestalt therapy, was born in Germany to study psychological processes related to perception and with the way in which solutions are reached in the face of new problems.

For these researchers, both to see an image and to have an idea we are able to create a global image about the environment and its potential, instead of

to limit ourselves to accumulate information piece by piece about what surrounds us and

Then make these elements fit.

For example, when solving a puzzle or we try until we happen by chance, but we see an image of the resolution of the problem spontaneously. Wolfgang Köhler, for example, studied how chimpanzees arrive

to conclusions about possible ways to modify the environment to obtain food.

This group of researchers developed a series of rules, called "Laws of Gestalt", through which they described the processes by which our brain creates units of information qualitatively different from the data that arrives through the senses.

6. Humanism

Technically, humanistic psychology is not characterized by proposing specific research or intervention tools, nor is it based on differentiated scientific presuppositions. What distinguishes it is the way in which psychology is linked to ethics and a concept of the human being.

In this current it is believed that the function of psychology should not be simply to obtain information and analyze it coldly, but rather you have to make people happy .

In practice, this has meant that humanistic psychologists have relied heavily on phenomenology and have considered that the subjective and the not directly measurable should also have value for psychotherapy and research. This has earned them many criticisms, since it can be understood as a symptom that their orientation is dualistic.

One of the most well known representatives of this current was Abraham Maslow , which theorized about the hierarchy of human needs.

  • Maybe you are interested: Humanistic Psychology: history, theory and basic principles

7. Cognitivism

Cognitivism was consolidated as a current of psychology at the end of the 60s, and it was a reaction to the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner . It meant a return to the study of mental processes that were not taken too much into account by behaviorists, and this led to a new concern for beliefs, emotions, decision making, etc.

However, methodologically this new current was strongly influenced by behaviorism, and he used many of his intervention and research tools . Currently, cognitivism is the dominant perspective.


The Big 7 Perspectives of Psychology (April 2024).


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