The following is a summary of some of the beliefs of the three major theoretical perspectives in psychology.  These three perspectives include the behaviorist, psychoanalytic, and humanistic perspectives.  This overview should help you understand the key differences between these theoretical views which psychologists have used to interpret behavior for over a hundred years.



Basic Behaviorist Principles:

    • Psychology should only attempt to study observable and measurable behavior.
    • Mental processes (thoughts, emotions) cannot be studied scientifically.

    • Place great importance on studying observable behavior using rigorous scientific methods rather than simply theorizing.
    • One of the behaviorist credos is "if you can't see it and can't measure it, it doesn't exist."
    • All behaviors in humans (and most in animals) are learned.
    • No behavior in human beings is innate (meaning inborn or hardwired)
    • Tabula Rasa: humans born as a 'blank slate' -- but ready to be taught by forces in the environment.
    • The adult personality can change but only as a result of changes in environmental influences.
    • John B. Watson's famous quote regarding environmental influences on behavior:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one of them at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select -- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and the race of his ancestors.

Motivational Theory:

    • Behaviorist believe that humans (and animals) are motivated primarily to receive rewards and to avoid punishments. Another behaviorist credo is that "if a behavior is not reinforced, it will not continue."

View on Control of Human Behavior:

    • Behaviorists view humans as being controlled by their environments. In fact, many behaviorists see humans as being total slaves to their environments. They strongly reject the ideas of free will and internal unconscious drives.

View of Human Nature:

    • Behaviorists view humans as being born neither good nor bad by nature, but rather as being neutral by nature.

Significant Names:

                    *B.F. Skinner
                    *John B. Watson
                    *Ivan Pavlov


Basic Psychoanalytic Principles:

    • Psychology should focus on understanding mental processes, especially the unconscious level of the mind.
    • There are three levels of consciousness -- the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels.
    • Only the unconscious mind is thought to be of importance.
    • Conscious thought processes are seen as mostly unimportant.
    • Humans are born with powerful sexual and aggressive drives that are housed in the unconscious mind and make basic survival possible both for the individual and species.
    • The adult personality is unchanging. Deep core personality traits are set by age five or six and virtually impossible to change after that.
    • The psychoanalytic theory was borne primarily out of Freud's study of individuals with various mental disorders, as well as his own life experiences. Freud essentially created a comprehensive theory, but did no formal experimentation to validate this theory.

Motivational Theory:

    • The psychoanalytic theory stresses that all human behaviors are ultimately motivated by one of two instinctual drives -- the sexual and aggressive drives. Freud's concept of the sexual drive extended beyond sexual to include anything that was pleasurable to an individual. So according to Freud, when you have a daydream, take a bath, eat food, see a movie, smoke a cigarette, chew gum (or anything mentally or physically pleasurable) you are ultimately gratifying a deep, unconscious sexual need.  According to Freud, we are born with and yet generally unaware of these innate sexual drives.

View on Control of Human Behavior:

    • According to the psychoanalytic theory, humans are controlled by their unconscious drives. Psychoanalytic theorists reject ideas of free will and environmental control of behavior.

View of Human Nature:

    • According to the psychoanalytic theory, humans are born "bad." That is, humans are seen as being selfish, self-centered and egocentric by nature. According to Freud, all behaviors that humans do ultimately have a selfish motive underlying them.
Significant Name: Neo-Freudians:

* Sigmund Freud

* Carl Jung
* Alfred Adler
* Erik Erikson


Basic Humanistic Principles:

    • The humanistic perspective evolved out of many psychologists' growing dissatisfaction with the behaviorist and psychoanalytic theories.  Humanistic theorists began to criticize behaviorists as being too focused on animals on observable behavior and criticized the Freudians for being too focused on the unconscious mind and mentally disturbed persons.
    • Humanistic perspective asserts that psychology should focus on both behavior and mental processes, not just one or the other.
    • The goal of the humanistic psychology is to understand the human potential for growth and development.
    • Humanistic theorists view each human being as having unlimited potential for growth and development.
    • Humanistic theorists stress that human beings are complex and unique organisms and that they cannot be understood by simple, one dimensional analysis.
    • While humanistic theorists do not necessarily deny the existence of an unconscious mind, they tend to stress that humans are, by nature, rational beings and therefore place more emphasis on conscious thought.
    • The adult personality constantly changes and develops across the entire human life-span. Change is always possible.

Motivational Theory:

    • The humanistic motivational theory is based on the idea of self actualization. The self actualization notion is that all humans (with normal mental capabilities) possess an inborn tendency to grow and develop in a positive direction.  Therefore, humans are motivated to educate themselves, marry and raise children, and develop careers primarily due to this life-long, natural desire to improve ourselves and our lives.  Humanistic theorists see this tendency toward constant self-improvement as being a uniquely human characteristic.

View on Control of Human Behavior:

    • The humanistic theory stresses that humans are ultimately free to choose their behaviors and their emotional responses to events around them. That is, humanistic theorists reject the ideas that humans are controlled by unconscious drives or by environmental forces.
    • In addition, they see humans as rational beings who are free to choose and therefore we are ultimately responsible for our actions and for our emotional responses to life events.

View of Human Nature:

    • Because of their belief in self-actualization, humanistic theorists tend to view humans as being good by nature. They are not suggesting that humans only do good things, but rather that, overall, humans have a tendency to want to improve themselves and their surroundings, and therefore are 'good' by nature.

Important Names:  

* Abraham Maslow 
* Carl Rogers 
* Viktor Frankl