Discover 5 Basic Approaches to Psychology

Discover 5 Basic Approaches to Psychology

Review the origins of the discipline and different approaches to psychology.

Why do people say the things that they say and do the things that they do? Why is your toddler so endlessly entertained by peek-a-boo? Why did you eat that third slice of cake even though you know you shouldn’t have? Why did that other driver cut you off so aggressively? Why did your coworker lie to you about the progress he made on the project? Why did that customer leave such a huge tip on their tiny food bill?

People have been thinking about the causes and mechanisms behind human cognition and behavior for millennia. Hippocrates developed his theory of the four humors over 2500 years ago. Briefly, this ancient theory claims, among other things, that personality and temperament are determined by the relative levels of four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. People with a lot of blood were said to be courageous and playful, those with high levels of yellow bile were said to be ambitious and restless, people high in black bile were said to be quiet and serious, and those with high levels of phlegm were said to be calm and thoughtful (Kalachanis & Michailidis, 2015).

In the current day, we think of psychology is the systematic study of the mind and behavior (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2011). Although this definition is simple, it covers a lot. Psychology studies the mental processes implicated in mental illness and the mental processes responsible for normal functioning. Psychology studies sensation, for example in finding the smallest detectable difference between two colors. Psychology also studies perception, for example explaining how optical and other sensory illusions are created.

Psychology studies memory, motivation, learning, and cognition. Psychology studies social processes, for example by explaining how complex decisions can be influenced by groups. Psychology covers developmental processes, studying how thinking and behavior change throughout the life cycle. Psychology studies how the brain, the body, and the genome are involved in all of these aspects of the mind and behavior. And of course, psychology studies how each of the above-listed factors influence and interact with one another.

Given such a broad domain, no single psychologist can be an expert in all of psychology. Psychologists specialize in different areas of study and in different approaches to the mind and behavior. Some psychologists take a biological approach to the discipline, seeking explanations for the mind and behavior in brain structures, neurochemicals, hormones, and the genome. Other psychologists take an approach more akin to computer science, describing the logical rules and algorithms that define thought and behavior. Yet others look to the environment to explain behavior, either in the consequences that follow responses or in the social and familial structures that shape schemas and worldviews.

“One can’t live mindfully without being enmeshed in psychological processes that are around us.”
― Philip Zimbardo

What Are the 5 Most Common Approaches to Psychology?

Psychology tries to explain mental events and observable behavior. Explanations can exist at several levels of understanding and these levels of understanding are sometimes called approaches, perspectives, or concepts. There are at least five approaches (Plotnick & Kouyoumdjian, 2011).

The Biological Approach: This perspective focuses on how genes, neurochemicals, hormones, and the nervous system interact with the environment to create what we call the mind and behavior. How do physiology and genetics influence learning, memory, emotions, drives, motivations, and personality as well as other traits and tendencies?

The Cognitive Approach: This approach to psychology focuses on the processes by which a person acquires, stores, and then uses information. How does the information come to influence mental and behavioral events? How are your perceptions, attention, memory, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors all affected by the information that you have stored and the ways that this information is processed? The cognitive approach to mental health may consider the dysfunctional thought patterns that contribute to a mental illness.

The Behavioral Approach: This approach to psychology considers how the environment, in the form of antecedents (signals) and consequences (rewards and punishments), influences behavior. How do the consequences of a behavior influence both the learning and the expression of that behavior?

The Psychoanalytic Approach: This conception of Psychology, which is also sometimes called the psychodynamic approach, focuses on childhood experiences. How do the experiences and relationships of your childhood influence your behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and personality in adulthood?

The Humanistic Approach: This approach to psychology focuses on the potential that each person has to grow, develop, and determine his or her own future. The humanistic approach considers personal growth, intrinsic worth, and self-fulfillment. Humanistic psychology recognizes that people may need to struggle to reach their potential but that each individual has a high degree of control over his or her own future.

In Sum

For most of human history, ideas about the mind and behavior, when they existed, were rooted in religion and philosophy and were not supported by scientific or empirical evidence. Psychology emerged as the systematic, evidence-based study of mind and behavior over 100 years ago. Since then it has exploded into several specialties and subdisciplines, uncovering causes of human behavior in biology, the environment, the social world, and logical rules of reasoning and cognition.

In a comparatively short time, the science of psychology has made huge strides in explaining everyday behavior and cognition as well as the troubling mental and behavioral events that characterize mental illness. The field continues to grow and develop and psychologists continue to make discoveries and connections and find new ways to help and support people who find themselves facing psychological distress.


● Kalachanis, K., & Michailidis, I. E. (2015). The Hippocratic view on humors and human temperament. European Journal of Social Behaviour, 2(2), 1-5.

● Plotnik, R. & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2011). Introduction to Psychology (ninth edition). Wadsworth Cenage Learning