The 10 Most Important People In The History Of Psychology

historical figures in psychology

Posted September 2019 by M.S. Broudy, B.A. English, B.A. Psychology; M.A. Social Psychology; Ph.D. Psychology; 9 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on important people in psychology history? Email Toni at:

Psychology is a relatively young science, especially when compared to subjects such as physics and biology. Despite its youth, it has many facets and differing areas of study. This list is a compilation of psychologists who made tremendous contributions to the study of psychology that are still relevant today. Here are the 10 most important people in the history of psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

Wilhelm Wundt is largely credited with making psychology a separate science. The German psychologist wrote the first psychology textbook in 1874, Principles of Physiological Psychology. In 1879, Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig. In doing so, he created the first laboratory to investigate solely psychological phenomena. Previous to his creation, psychology had been subsumed under the subjects of philosophy and biology. Wundt was the first to operationalize the process of self-examination, also known as introspection, for experimental use. He is often referred to as the father of experimental psychology and many see him as the father of psychology as a whole.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

No single figure in psychology is as famous as the Austrian Sigmund Freud. He is the father of psychoanalytic psychology and was the first to investigate the processes of the unconscious mind. He is thought to have invented talk therapy. He hypothesized that the mind’s structure was made up of the id, ego, and superego. He also elucidated the process of transference and introduced the concept of defense mechanisms. He was the first to theorize on human development with his postulation of the psychosexual stages. Although much of his relevancy has been reduced by the wave of cognitive-behavioral techniques, his work set the stage for all of psychotherapy.

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)

It is no secret that women make up the majority of psychologists. The women in the early days of psychology paved the way for the women of today. Although there were several women pioneers none was more fundamental than Mary Whiton Calkins. She was the second woman to complete the work necessary for a PH.D. in psychology but was not awarded the degree because Harvard did not formally admit women at the time. She later became the first woman to serve as the president of the American Psychological Association. Besides being a trailblazer, her scientific contributions were robust. She invented the paired association technique of memory. In addition, she was one of the first to believe that the study of psychology should be based on the conscious self, seen in relation to its environment.

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)

Lewin is known as the father of modern social psychology largely because of his use of experimentation to study human behavior. He took a novel stance in the nature vs. nurture debate. His field theory posited that it is an interaction between a person and their environment that forms a human’s personality. He was one of the first to study organizational leadership styles and group interactions. Indeed, he coined the phrase “group dynamics”. The field of Industrial/Organization psychology largely came out of his theories. Maybe most importantly, his “sensitivity training” was used to combat racial and religious prejudice far before the civil rights movement.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Piaget developed the first theory of child cognitive development. At the time it was groundbreaking. Before his work, children were believed to share the cognitive processes of adults. His theory directly led to the emergence of cognitive and developmental psychology. He believed cognitive development was an active process, not something that children passively acquired. Piaget coined the popular psychological phrases schema, accommodation, and assimilation. In addition, he was a fierce child advocate and fought for the education of children as vital to a society’s success.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

Rogers’ client-centered therapy ushered in a new way of looking at the therapist-client relationship. He argued against the boundaries of psychoanalysis and behaviorism and instead trumpeted the importance of the interaction between therapist and client. Rogers believed in having unconditional positive regard for clients which foreshadowed the rise of positive psychology.  He was one of the pioneers of the humanistic psychology movement and believed, like Abraham Maslow, that people strive toward self-actualization. Rogers’ work set the stage for a more supportive therapeutic relationship and ushered in the development of most modern approaches to psychotherapy.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Although a Neo-Freudian, Erikson was the first psychologist to postulate that personality developed over a lifetime, eschewing Freud’s psychosexual theory of development. His eight-stage theory posited a conflict each person must overcome in order to continue the developmental process. He had a keen interest in identity formation and coined the term “identity crisis”. Unlike Freud, Erikson emphasized adolescence and adulthood. It is thought that the notion of a mid-life crisis developed from the conflict of Erikson’s seventh stage: generativity vs. stagnation.

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

The American psychologist B.F. Skinner built upon the work of John Watson and Edward Thorndike in popularizing behavioral psychology and operant conditioning. Behaviorism postulates that human actions are a response to environmental cues. It does not take into account individual cognition and feelings. Indeed, Skinner did not believe in free will. For a large chunk of the 20th century, behaviorism was the most influential school of thought in psychology and Skinner was at its forefront. His work familiarized the general public with positive and negative reinforcement. He created the Skinner box to study operant conditioning in animals. Although behaviorism is not as popular as it was 50 years ago, operant conditioning still influences everything from parental discipline to work incentives.

Aaron Beck (1921-present)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most popular and well-researched form of psychological treatment today. Although it can be argued that Albert Ellis was the first to introduce CBT concepts, it was the work of Aaron Beck that formed the practice of CBT as we know it today. He popularized the link between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, especially as they pertained to the study of depression. Besides cognitive concepts, he also emphasized the therapeutic relationship and created one of the most popular depression assessment instruments, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).

Albert Bandura (1925-present)

Bandura’s work was one of the first to bridge behaviorism with cognitive psychology. His social cognitive theory posits that we can learn by watching other people’s behavior, not just by responding to external stimuli. His famous Bobo doll experiments exhibited how aggression could be learned simply through modeling. He is a leading voice in the study of self-regulation, marking a person’s ability to mediate their behavior in different situations. In addition, he coined the term self-efficacy, which is an essential concept in the study of motivation and achievement.

Other famous psychologists important to modern psychology and worth mentioning:
Ivan Pavlov
G. Stanley Hall
Carl Jung
John B. Watson
William James

People Also Ask

Who was the first psychologist?
Arguably, the first psychologist was Wilhelm Wundt, an German psychologist who established the first true psychology lab. This event is considered the very beginning of psychology as its own scientific discipline.

Who is the most famous child psychologist?
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was the first to develop and present a theory of child cognitive development. Prior to Piaget’s research, it was believed that children possessed the same cognitive processes as adults.

Who are the most influential psychologists alive today? 
Albert Bandura, Steven Pinker, Susan Fiske, and Christopher French are just a few of the most influential psychologists alive today.

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