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 that is pursued.

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

Next we’ll see what those main currents of psychology are and what their characteristics are or have been.

The most relevant currents of Psychology

Psychology as a discipline separate from philosophy appeared during the second half of the 19th century. It is usually considered that its birth coincided with the inauguration of the research laboratory in psychology created by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879.

From that moment on, 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 that appeared around 1890 includes members of the tradition of psychological research inaugurated by Wilhelm Wundt. Edward Titchener was its main representative , and defended the idea that the objective 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.

This is a reductionist perspective , since it intended to investigate from the most basic elements to understand the most complex ones, and mechanistic, since it was based on the idea that a system as complex as the one that 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 current soon appeared that began to compete with it: functionalism.

2. Functionalism

One of the main currents of the psychology of those that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.Functionalism, which was born in the first decade of the 20th century, implies a rejection of the structuralist approach ; instead of focusing on the study of the components of the mind, it aimed at understanding mental processes. It did not focus on the “pieces”, but on the functioning, that is, the psychological functions that take place within our head (and, by extension, within our body).

Moreover, 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 in order to be able to use that knowledge in everyday and specific problems.

Although he dissociated himself from functionalism, William James is considered to have been one of the great historical figures in 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 behavior, both in its movements, thoughts and emotions, is the product of a struggle of opposing forces that try to impose themselves on the other. This struggle is unconscious , but according to the followers of this current can be recognized through the interpretation of its symbolic manifestations.

Although Sigmund Freud’s work has given rise to the creation of many different psychological theories and schools of therapy, the truth is that currently have no scientific support , among other things because of the criticism that the philosopher of science Karl Popper made about this way of researching.

4. Behaviorism

Behaviorism was consolidated soon after psychoanalysis, and appeared as a current of psychology that opposed Freud and his followers, but also many other researchers with a tendency towards mentalism. Unlike the latter, behaviorists emphasized the importance of basing research on observable elements of behavior, avoiding as much as possible unjustified speculation and fleeing from the interpretation of acts in a symbolic key.

Basically, behaviorists were characterized by 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 the behaviorists wanted to base their work on the study of matter and not the soul, that doesn’t mean they were dedicated to studying the brain, as a neurologist would.

Unlike biopsychologists, in order to do their job, behaviourists 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, in order to know whether or not a reward system works in a company, it is not necessary to know which neuron circuits are intervening in this process.

Thus, in this stream of psychology the unit of analysis is contingency: the relationship between stimuli and their responses (both being observable and measurable). However, as measuring certain reactions to stimuli was considered immoral using human beings, they were based on experimentation with animals, which gave much strength to comparative psychology.

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

5. Gestalt

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

For these researchers, both seeing an image and having an idea we are able to create a global image about the environment and its potentialities, instead of

to just accumulate information piece by piece about what surrounds us and

then make these elements fit.

For example, when we solve a puzzle or we try until we happen to get it, but a picture of the problem resolution appears spontaneously. Wolfgang Köhler, for example, studied how chimpanzees arrive

to conclusions about possible ways of modifying the environment to obtain food.

This group of researchers developed a series of rules, the so-called “laws of Gestalt”, through which they described the processes by which our brain creates qualitatively different units of information from the data that reach it through the senses.

6. Humanism

Technically, humanist 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 to a concept of the human being.

In this trend it is believed that the function of psychology should not be simply to obtain information and analyse it coldly, but that people should be made happy .

In practice, this has meant that humanist 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 much criticism, as it can be understood as a symptom of their dualistic orientation.

One of the best known representatives of this current was Abraham Maslow , who theorized about the hierarchy of human needs.

  • You might be interested:Humanist Psychology: history, theory and basic principles

7. Cognitivism

Cognitivism was consolidated as a current of psychology at the end of the 1960s, and was a reaction to the behaviourism of B. F. Skinner . It implied a return to the study of mental processes that were not too much taken into account by behaviorists, and this led to the appearance of a new concern for beliefs, emotions, decision making, etc.

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