10 Famous Psychologists and Their Contributions


Psychology as a field tries to understand how the ‘mind’ works. Over the years, many psychologists have given various theories to understand this unknown realm better. In the true spirit of Sigmund Freud, my selection process for the 10 most famous psychologists lacks any scientific method. These are just some of the most interesting theories that shape how we see the world and understand human psychology.

  1. Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6th, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, Austrian Empire. He was invited to attend the University of Vienna at the mere age of 17 and graduated with a PhD in neurology. Sigmund Freud gave many theories which triggered a lot of research and have since been widely debated, refuted and some even completely discredited. He gave the theory of Psychoanalysis as a solution to mental problems. He gave therapeutic concepts like free association, transference and human unconscious. He theorised that the root cause of mental illnesses lies in past experiences. He divided the human consciousness into 3 parts, Id which is the uncontrolled human desire in their rawest form, Ego which is the part of the consciousness that presents Id in socially acceptable ways and Superego which operates on the morality principle and motivates us to behave in socially appreciable ways. He stated that mental illnesses arise either due to a conflict between Id, Ego and Superego or because of being stuck in a developmental stage. He gave the Psychosexual Model of Development which gives 5 stages of human development which are Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency and Genital. It is Freud’s idea of psychosexual development and Oedipus/Electra Complex which is the most controversial part of Freud’s work. He is criticized for giving excessive importance to sexual and aggressive drives in the development of individuals. A lot of his theories are criticised from a feminist point of view as they treat women as subhuman for as an ‘imperfect men’. Nevertheless, Freud founded the psychoanalytical school in Psychology which is a major branch of psychology even today. His key writings are

  1. Studies on Hysteria with J. Breuer (1895)
  2. The Interpretation of Dreams (1990)
  3. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904)
  4. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)

2. Ivan Pavlov 

Ivan Pavlov was born on September 26th 1849 in Ryzan, Russian Empire. He was a physiologist and the first Russian Nobel laureate. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1904 for his work on digestive secretions. His most important contribution is the Theory of Classical Conditioning which is famous through the Pavlov’s dog experiment. It studied conditioned reflex. A buzzer was rung every time before giving food to a hungry dog. The dog came to associate the sound of the buzzer with food and would salivate on the sound of the buzzer even if no food appeared. Through this experiment, he explained the relationship between human behaviour and the nervous system and how human physiology can be conditioned to give responses generally unassociated with a particular stimulus. Pavlov observed that certain behaviours are unconsciously learnt based on their connection to expected awards. His major work is “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex”.

3. BF Skinner 

Burrhus Frederick Skinner was born on 20th March 1904 in Pennsylvania. He researched with Harvard until 1936 and then taught as a professor in various universities. He identified his school of thought as radical behaviourism and believed that human behaviour is driven by consequences rather than free will. He is best known for his work on Operant Conditioning, where he gave the idea that human behaviour can be modified through positive or negative reinforcement. He created the Skinner box where he subjected animals to various positive and negative stimuli. He identified three kinds of stimuli-

neutral opponents: neither increased nor decreased the probability of a behaviour repeating

reinforcers: increase the probability of a behaviour repeating

punishers: decrease the probability of a behaviour repeating

Thus the frequency of the action is determined by the consequence of the action. He developed a set of behaviour modification techniques based on operant conditioning. This led to the concept of a token economy where target behaviours are reinforced through tokens which can be exchanged for rewards. Operant conditioning is today used to explain a wide variety of behaviour from the process of learning to addiction and language acquisition. His major works are “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971) and “The Behaviour of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis” (1938).

4. Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30th, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut. She did her PhD at Harvard under William James but Harvard refused to give her a degree based on her sex. However, she went on to become the first female President of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Calkins majorly contributed to the Paired Associations Technique (then called that Right Associates Method). She presented subjects a series of cards paired with numbers and noted that subjects recalled the number faster when shown the colour card associated with it. This study helped psychologists understand how humans make unconscious associations every day. For example, in the acquisition of language, new words get associated with certain object or ideas. She along with her colleague Edmund Stanford also did ground-breaking work in ‘dream studies’ as they tried to understand the relationship between dreams, identity, consciousness and sense of self. This was called self-psychology. She went on to set up the first women’s psychology lab at Wellesley College. Her notable works are

  1. An Introduction to Psychology (1901)
  2. The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907)
  3. The Good Man and The Good (1918)

5. Carl Jung 

Carl Jung was born on 26th July 1875 in Kesswil, Switzerland. In his early years, Jung worked with fellow psychologist Sigmund Freud but later they had significant differences so they parted ways. Jung is well known for his work in Analytical Psychology. Unlike Freud who emphasized on the influence of biological factors such as libido on behaviour and personality, Jung focussed on the psyche. He distinguished between Persona, which is the image of oneself that one project to the world and; Shadow, which comprises of hidden anxieties and depressed thoughts. His other major contribution is in the development of the concept of Archetype. Archetypes are a form of the collective unconscious which is a set of memories and ideas shared by all of humanity. Such archetypes are not individually developed but rather permeate the collective conscious and emerge as themes and characters in our culture- in myths, books, art, etc. He felt that incongruence in the personal subconscious and collective conscious would create internal conflicts which lead to mental disorders. His works are compiled in the “Collected Works of C G Jung”.

6. Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was born on August 9th, 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland. He was a psychologist and a genetic epistemologist. He is the second most cited psychologist of the 20th century after BF Skinner. He is best known for his Theory of Cognitive Development. Piaget focused his work on the cognitive development of children. Before his studies, children were thought to be mini-adults. However, he demonstrated that children think and behave in fundamentally different ways than adults do. He gave for stages of development for children which include-

  1. Sensorimotor– from birth to approximately 2 years of age where the child learns about the world primarily through senses and motor movements.
  2. Preoperational stage– from two to seven years of age which is characterized by the development of language and emergence of symbolic play.
  3. Concrete operational stage– from 7 to 11 years of age where the child engages in logical reasoning but still struggles with abstract and theoretical reasoning.
  4. Formal operational stage– from age 12 to adulthood is the final stage of cognitive development where the child becomes adept at abstract thought and deductive reasoning.

Thus he had a tremendous impact on the emergence of developmental psychology as a separate subfield within psychology. His theories inform progressive and child-centric education strategies even today. He also pioneered the idea of Genetic Epistemology which is a way of understanding the validity of our knowledge based on the strength of the construct informing that knowledge. He created the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in 1955 and served as its director till 1980. His important writings are

– Early Growth of Logic in the Child

– Structuralism

– Genetic Epistemology

– “Piaget’s Theory” in Handbook of Child Psychology, History, Theory and Methods (Volume 1).

7. Carl Rogers 

Carl Rogers was born on 8th January 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois. He was one of the founders of the humanist school of psychology. His work in psychotherapy research had a person-centred and client-centred approach. He agreed with Maslow’s need for self-actualization. However for a person to grow to their fullest potential, they need an environment which fosters genuineness, trust, empathy and acceptance. He gave the idea of Unconditional Positive Regard which is the full acceptance of an individual without any judgement despite all their flaws. By promoting a more empathetic way of counselling, he also gave a new way of approaching rhetoric dialogue by revising the Aristotelian framework. According to his method of debate, each side has to restate the other side’s points before making their arguments. This ensures that both sides understand each other arguments well. This format is used in academic persuasive writing as well. Some of his key writings are-

– Counselling and Psychotherapy

– Client Centred Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory

– On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy

8. Erik Erikson 

Erik Erikson was born on 15th June 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany. He is a German- American psychoanalyst. He was a child psychologist who gave the Psychosocial Theory of Human Development. He expanded on Freud’s original five stages to give the eight-stage theory of development. He is best known for coining the condition “identity crisis” which describes an individual who has failed to achieve ego identity during adolescence. Erikson himself struggled in forming his identity which perhaps later aided him in developing his theory. In each of the eight stages, there are challenges that an individual must face and overcoming these challenges allows the individual to move on to the next stage, otherwise they remain stagnant. He prominently focused on “prolonged adolescence” which has led to greater developmental awareness of the “emerging adulthood” stage. His three major works are “Insight and Responsibility” (1964), ”Identity, Youth and Crisis” (1968), and “Gandhi’s Truth” (1969). Gandhi’s Truth won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

9. Abraham Maslow 

Abraham Harold Maslow was born on 1st April 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. He was a humanist theorist best known for his Theory of Self Actualization and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which holds that are psychological health is dependent on the fulfilment of certain needs which follow a hierarchy so the lower needs need to be fulfilled before someone moves to the higher needs. These needs are physiological needs (food, clothing, shelter), security needs, need for love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. His major works are “Motivation and Personality” (1954) and “Towards a Psychology of Being” (1962).

10. Albert Bandura 

Albert Bandura was born on 4th December 1925 in Mudare, Alberta, Canada. He is the most cited living psychologist. He is known for his work in social cognitive theory and social learning theory which is the idea that humans learn behaviour from their social surroundings. He took forward Skinner’s behaviourist model to his cognitive model through his Bobo doll experiment. He exposed a group of children to a group of adults behaving in aggressive ways towards a Bobo doll and later being punished or rewarded for it. Children who saw aggressive behaviour being awarded were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour. He also introduced important concepts related to personality psychology and the idea of self-efficacy which is the amount of human belief in their own ability to achieve something. Self-efficacy can shape human personality is significant ways. His important works are-

– Adolescent Aggression with RH Walters

– Social Learning through Imitation

– Social Learning and Personality Development with RH Walter

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Astha is an opinionated Gen Z and a dedicated bibliophile who is currently pursuing Political Science and Economics at Miranda House. She is an ambivert and finds discussions on politics and international affairs to be her favorite icebreakers. She is a proud feminist.