There are many psychological theories and these theories collectively reflect psychologists’ understanding of how people behave and why they behave that way. But what is a psychological theory?

What is a Psychological Theory?

A psychological theory is simply an explanation of psychological phenomenon.

Sample Psychological Phenomenon

Infants quickly grow attached to their mother.

Sample Theory

Infants quickly grow attached to their mothers because their mother is typically their first source of food.

Are Psychological Theories Factual or Just Hunches?

Most psychological theories are neither factual certainties nor wild guesses. Rather, they are somewhere in between. Theories, such as the one above, can start as an educated guess using observation and logic. It seems reasonable that infants grow attached to their mothers because their mums are frequently their first source of food.

However, such logical explanations are then subject to research. This research can:

  • Offer support for the theory
  • Challenge the psychological theory
  • Lead to the theory being revised or
  • Result in a theory being debunked and replaced by a new theory

The above theory that infants become attached to their mothers because their mum is typically their first source of food, was proposed by Harry Harlow and Robert Zimmerman.

Ironically, they debunked their own theory and proposed an alternative theory. This new theory proposed that infants form attachments to their mothers due to the physical and emotional comfort they get from being in close physical contact with their mum. Research supports this alternative theory.

This simple example reflects the interplay between logical ideas and evidence in theory development. The scientific process leaves the best theories standing. Yet, future research can enrich or alter this understanding.

Psychological theories are tentative explanations of psychological phenomenon. As psychological researchers test these theories, the theories can become less tentative and more certain. Alternatively, research may not end up supporting the theories at all.

How Broad or Narrow are Psychological Theories?

Theories can be very broad or quite narrow.

Example of a Broad Theory: Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamics

Sigmund Freud theorised that a lot of human behaviour is driven by unconscious forces, such as primal drives and our desire to fit into the society in which we live. These forces interact and often oppose each other, with our behaviour being a result of this interplay.

It may help your understanding to picture an angel and a devil on your shoulder arguing over what you should do. However, according to Freud’s theory, you are not consciously aware of such arguments but they still drive much of your behaviour.

This theory is very broad and seeks to explain a wide range of behaviour including why we sometimes:

  • Watch reality TV shows that degrade participants while publicly proclaiming such shows would be better without the drama
  • Slow down and gawk at accidents when driving past
  • Claim that we don’t care that our boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with us

Example of a Narrow Theory