Major Movements in Psychology

Psychoanalytic Theory

What is psychoanalytic theory?

While behaviorism dominated American academic psychology throughout the first half of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis dominated clinical psychology—the study of abnormal psychology—during the same period both in Europe and the United States. Psychoanalysis was so prominent because it provided a comprehensive theory of psychopathology and a psychological method of treating mental distress. It is fair to say that most, if not all, subsequent theories of psychopathology and psychotherapy owe an enormous debt to psychoanalysis.

Although many schools of psychotherapy were formed in reaction against psychoanalysis, they were still defined in response to it and therefore must be seen as its descendants. Psychoanalytic theory actually includes a broad range of theoretical writing, starting with Sigmund Freud’s original contributions in the late nineteenth century. Since Freud, psychoanalysis has broken into numerous schools including ego psychology, interpersonal psychoanalysis and the object relations school, all of which developed in the mid-twentieth century. More recent schools include self psychology and relational theory.


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