Applied Psychology

Influential Theories of Human Behaviour

Nov 22, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor

Human behaviour is complex, and grasping what makes us tick can be challenging. However, if we want to understand more about why we think, feel and act the way we do, learning about influential theories of human behaviour can provide a firm foundation for a better understanding of ourselves and others.

In this post, we’ll outline what these theories are, share a handful of the most influential ones and describe how these have shaped our current understanding of how we think, feel and behave. We’ll also share some SACAP Global short courses you can take to expand your knowledge in this area.

What are human behaviour theories?

Human behaviour theories are testable hypotheses that researchers have come up with to explain and understand certain types of behaviour. Over time, these theories have evolved as research and society have evolved. 

While researchers will acknowledge specific theories for their pivotal role in psychology, many challenge them too, which has led subsequent theorists to develop their own ideas as a response. However, this doesn’t mean examining historical theories isn’t helpful, as they have laid the foundation for further application and development.

Influential theories of human behaviour

Many different theories explain and predict human behaviour. However, some have stood out over the last century. This section will outline some of the most well-known psychologists and their respective theories, which have carved out a trajectory for contemporary theoretical approaches.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is a famous historical figure. Much of his work is referred to in popular culture today, for example, the Freudian slip. His work was expansive and very influential, but many of his theories were, and still are, controversial. 

Freud’s work was mainly concerned with the unconscious mind and how childhood experiences can shape behaviour in adulthood. The controversy around his work centres mainly around his ideas about psychosexual development and that sex is the driving force behind human behaviour, which many disagree with.

However, his focus on uncovering what lies in the subconscious mind led to the practice of psychoanalysis. In this way, Freud paved the way for the development of psychology as we know it today and revolutionised how we approach mental health issues. 

Carl Jung

Carl Jung collaborated with Freud for many years, as his research aligned with and gave substance to many of Freud’s theories. Jung also focused on the role of the unconscious mind, but he diverged from Freud and developed his own version known as Jungiananalysis. 

Jung’s theories expanded from the idea of the unconscious mind in individuals to the collective unconscious. Jung believed that the collective unconscious comprises knowledge and ancestral experience that all humans share. 

Although this theory is difficult to quantify, Jung’s exploration of archetypes can help us to understand the psychological and behavioural patterns explored in storytelling.

Jung, like Freud, also worked with dreams, which both believed were a pathway to the unconscious. As part of Jung’s collective unconscious theory, he also developed ideas around archetypes and introduced the concept of extroverts and introverts.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson is famous for developing a theory of psychosocial development, which follows eight stages. His approach was influenced by Freud and his theory of psychosexual development, but Erikson’s theory focused on the social instead of the sexual aspect. 

Erikson’s theory is based on epigenetics, meaning the greater social context is considered. Each stage of development is characterised by how the individual manages conflict between different polarities at each stage. If this conflict is resolved, it will lead to a positive developmental outcome. 

For example, the first stage of development happens during the first year of a child’s life, when they depend on their caregivers. If caregivers respond to a child’s needs and are emotionally available, the theory states that a child will develop a solid sense of trust. However, if a child does not get their needs met, they will develop a sense of mistrust. 

Realistically no child will develop 100% trust or mistrust. The ideal is to become competent in managing both and achieving the outcome of the stage, , as in all stages of development. The outcome of the trust vs mistrust stage is hope.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology. Piaget also proposed a development theory with cumulative stages like Freud and Erikson but focused on children’s intellectual development instead. 

Therefore, instead of examining psychosexual or psychosocial aspects of development, Piaget focused on cognitive processes. These processes include developing awareness of others, building relationships, language ability and rational thinking. 

Piaget’s work has been influential because it shows how differently children develop from adults, which provides a more constructive way to teach and engage with them at critical stages of their development.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow is famous for developing his hierarchy of needs theory, a humanistic theory that explores core human needs in order of priority. These needs are visually represented in a pyramid shape. The bottom includes the most fundamental needs, working towards the least urgent but still essential needs at the top.

For example, physical needs like food, security and shelter are at the pyramid’s base. Needs like self-actualisation are at the top, meaning people must progress to the top of the “ladder” by meeting other needs first. 

As a humanist, Maslow believed in seeing people holistically and finding ways to achieve their potential. In response to capitalism and focusing on meeting physical needs, Maslow wanted to bring attention to people’s more complex emotional and spiritual needs, which form part of our overall health and wellbeing.

Why are these theories important?

The influential theories above show how theorists have developed and expanded on existing knowledge. We can appreciate how contemporary psychology has evolved. This cumulative process provides us with more constructive and contemporary psychological frameworks, which can apply in many situations.

Understand yourself better

Human behaviour theories are valuable because they can help us to understand ourselves and others better and guide us to be more effective in our personal and professional lives. When we know ourselves well, we understand our wants and needs better. This helps us to make better choices and craft the lives we want to live. We can live happier and more satisfied lives as a result.

Understand others better

Understanding human behaviour can help build better interpersonal skills, which can be pivotal to your personal and professional growth. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to psychoanalyse everyone or understand every stage of a person’s development. However, this knowledge will equip you with the tools to appreciate the complexity of human nature, which can be helpful in any industry.

Suppose you’re interested in becoming a counsellor or mental health practitioner. In that case, you will find that these theories are fundamental to learning how to help build helping relationships with clients.

Learn about human behaviour theories with SACAP Global

It can be daunting to try and unpack the many available theories of human behaviour. Still, exploring this complex topic with the right tools and educators is possible.

At SACAP Global, we offer various online micro-credentials to expand your knowledge in this field. Two focused courses include: Intro to Human Behaviour and Factors Influencing Human Behaviour.

Our many other short online courses offer practical and in-depth insight into applying psychological theories and knowledge in the real world. Browse our list of courses to find out more.

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