Schools of Thought

Pavlov's dog. Id, ego, and superego. Classical conditioning. Chances are you've heard of, and may even be familiar with, one of these. But what do all of these theories (and references to case studies) have in common? They are all to be found within the major schools of thought in the field of psychology. Let's explore them in more detail.

Schools of Thought Schools of Thought

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Table of contents
    • What are the major schools of thought in psychology?
    • What is behaviorism?
    • What is psychoanalysis?
    • Are psychological schools of thought still relevant?

    What is a School of Thought?

    In psychology, a school of thought is a group that has similar opinions on philosophy, movements and intellect. It unifies and identifies those with common beliefs, traditions, or practices concerning a field of study or subject.

    There are five primary schools of thought in psychology.

    The Five Major Schools of Thought in Psychology

    Let's dive straight into these.


    Structuralism was the first school of thought in psychology. It was founded by Wilhelm Wundt, a German professor, philosopher, and physiologist. Although it was Wundt's work that built the foundation of structuralism, the school of thought was formally established by his student, Edward B. Titchener in the 1890s.

    Structuralism gets its name from its objective, which is to explore the structure of the mind. Wundt sought to understand the structure of the mind by using introspection as his primary tool. Events or experiences were broken down into the smallest possible elements to be assessed, so the researcher could better understand the contents of consciousness.

    If this is hard to understand, here's another example. Take a table: To a structuralist, a table isn't a place to work or a surface to put things on. It is wood, metal bars, bolts, and screws.

    Though this school of thought pushed the field of psychology forward during its time, it was ultimately critiqued for the subjective nature of introspection. Stimulus is rarely perceived the same way from one person to the next.


    The American psychologist, historian, and philosopher William James developed the school of functionalism in the late 19th/early 20th century, after strong criticism of the structuralist approach. Unlike structuralism, which broke experiences down into small elements, the functionalist approach focused on the whole of an experience. Functionalists define a mental state not by what it is made of, but by what it does. A particular mental state depends on its function to be understood.

    Schools of Thought (Psychology) mousetrap StudySmarterMousetrap with cheese,

    The example of a mousetrap is famously used to explain the functionalist theory. While not all mouse traps are made equally - some are large and elaborate, some are a simple spring hinge on a board - they all serve the same purpose, which is to kill mice. Regardless of what it is made of, how many parts it possesses, or even the supposed quality of the material, it is a mousetrap if its function is to kill mice.


    Psychoanalysis was founded by the Austrian scholar Sigmund Freud. It focused on the workings of the unconscious mind to explain human behavior. This school of thought holds that all people have unconscious desires, memories, and thoughts, resulting in repressed emotions. Psychoanalysis aims to make these unconscious elements conscious to find catharsis.

    Freud developed a three-part structure of the human mind. These were the id, ego, and superego. Psychoanalysis maintains that the interaction of these three parts explains personality and human behavior. Freud stressed the importance of the proper development of id, ego, and superego across his five Psychosexual Stages of Development. Unresolved conflicts during any stage of development can cause one to become fixated in that stage, emphasizing or repressing certain behaviors or personality traits.


    Behaviorism was founded by John B. Watson in 1924. It emphasizes experience and one's environment over internal or subconscious forces. Behaviorism believes that human psychology is better understood through a subject's behavior, rather than their personal beliefs or thoughts.

    According to this school of thought, behavior is learned through two types of conditioning, classical and operant. In classical conditioning, an association is forged between two stimuli; a conditioned stimulus, and an unrelated unconditioned stimulus, to create a behavior. A classic (and famous) example of this is Pavlov's dog.

    In operant conditioning, behaviors are created or enforced through reward or punishment. Here the association is made between behavior and consequence.

    Gestalt Psychology

    While some schools of thought emphasized the structure of the mind or the expression of behavior to understand our world and human nature, Gestalt psychology believed it took both of these things to gain a true understanding of the whole of our world. Indeed, a central tenet of Gestalt psychology is holism, which emphasizes the whole over the sum of its parts. The term Gestalt itself is a German word loosely meaning "configuration". It is the configuration of multiple things that give us true meaning, and this true meaning sits apart from its parts.

    Think of your experience of a song. Our minds perceive a song as a meaningful whole. Every song is made up of individual notes; however, it is the configuration of the notes that creates a meaningful experience. Upsetting or altering one small component can result in a completely different experience.

    Why are Schools of Thought in Psychology Less Important Today?

    In the past, it was more common for psychologists to house their practice and treatment under one particular school of thought. Today, this has changed considerably and psychologists are much less likely to align themselves with one exclusive school of thought.

    Our understanding of personality and behavior is much more nuanced. Professionals will utilize elements and ideas from multiple theories and schools.

    Schools of Thought - Key takeaways

    • Structuralism was the first school of thought in psychology. It concerned itself with exploring the structure of the mind through introspection.
    • Functionalism defined mental states by their function, or what they do.
    • Psychoanalysis emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind in understanding perception and behavior.
    • Behaviorism emphasized the importance of experience and environment to understand behavior. This school believed behavior was learned through classical or operant conditioning.
    • Gestalt psychology emphasized the configuration of parts to reveal an independent and meaningful whole.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Schools of Thought

    What does school of thought mean?

    school of thought refers to a group of people who share similar viewpoints and opinions about a particular subject.

    What was the first school of thought in psychology?

    Structuralism was the first school of thought in psychology. 

    Why are schools of thought in psychology less important today?

    Our understanding of personality and behavior is much more nuanced. Today, professionals will utilize elements and ideas from multiple theories and schools of thought. 

    What are the 5 major schools of thought in psychology?

    The five major schools of thought in psychology are Structuralism, Functionalism, Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and Gestalt Psychology. 

    What is functionalism school of thought in psychology?

    Functionalists define a mental state not by what it is made of, but by what it does. A particular mental state depends on its function to be understood. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the first school of thought in psychology?

    Pavlov's dog is an example of which type of conditioning?

    Who founded the psychoanalysis school of thought?

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