The most Influential Psychologists in History


The most influential psychologists in history are Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson, Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, B. F. Skinner, Frederick S. Perls, and Albert Ellis. These are the more modern day psychologists.

Before these psychologists came into being there were other psychologists who laid the groundwork for Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner to develop their respective theories of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. They were Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler, Edward Lee Thorndike, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, John B. Watson, Edward Bradford Titchner, and Wilhem Wundt.

Those thinkers that had a great impact on the future of psychology were Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer, William James, John Dewey, Rene’ Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill.


Sigmund Freud’s biggest contribution to psychology was Psychoanalytic Theory. He laid the groundwork for all psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists after him. He is the foundation upon which all other psychologists came into being by first studying his principles and then expanding upon them. His groundbreaking theories include The Structural Theory of Personality, Defense Mechanisms, and the Theory of Psychosexual Development.

Those psychologists who were also into psychoanalytic perspectives were Jung, Adler, Horney, Fromm, and Erickson.


Jung’s contribution to psychology was Analytical Psychology. He developed a Structure for Personality, which consisted of the psyche, consciousness, the ego, the personal unconscious that included complexes, the collective unconscious, which included archetypes (archetypes included the persona, the anima and animus, the shadow, and the self). Jung also came up with a psychology of types, and symbolization in dreams.


Adler’s contribution was Individual Psychology. In individual psychology Adler tried “to understand the experiences and behavior of a person as an organized entity.” He came up with the concepts of teleoloy, superiority, fictional finalism, and the style of life and the creative self. He also came up with a construct of types – the ruling type, the getting type, the avoiding type, and the socially useful type.


Horney’s concepts were involved in Social and Cultural Psychoanalysis with her theories on the Etiology of Neuroses which consisted of a large listing of Neurotic Needs. She also introduced Three Basic Neurotic Trends or the compliant type, the aggressive type, and the detached type. She also developed a theory regarding a Humanistic View of Development.


Erich Fromm’s contribution was Humanistic Psychoanalysis. As a young boy Fromm was deeply involved in religion and became fascinated with the possibility of redemption in the stories of Abraham, Jonah, and Adam and Eve. He was a student of the Torah, the Bible, and the Talmud (he began a 14-year study of the Talmud at age 13).

He later left Judaism and at the University became interested in the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. He developed a theory of Character Formation and wrote many books such as Escape to Freedom, The Sane Society. He began to reject some of Marx’s and Freud’s ideas and came up with his own. He also wrote the Art of Loving, Man for Himself, The Heart of Man, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

His concepts were based on Human Needs and he also came up with a set of character types that were called Nonproductive Orientation and Productive Orientation. He was quite ahead of his time in some of his theories regarding people in the world at large and how through their beliefs they are destroying the environment and through technology are destroying the world.


Erikson’s position was Psychoanalytic Ego Psychology. His theory was the Ego Development Theory, which included revised versions of Freud’s Psychosexual Theory of the stages of development and added four more stages. This contributed greatly to Developmental Psychology. Erikson made use of Freudian concepts but revised them.


Allport’s Trait Theory was based on humanistic psychology and from his first conversation with Freud, Allport began to theorize with the idea that before a psychologist begins his psychoanalysis he should pay attention to a patient’s manifest and conscious motives.

Allport’s focus was on the unique qualities of a person and how the person’s “internal cognitive and motivational processes influence and cause behavior.” He theory was a Theory of Traits that included cardinal, central, and secondary traits; and common traits versus personal dispositions. He also theorized on stages of development and on the development of the mature personality.

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and B. F. Skinner shared the Humanistic-Existential perspectives.


Abraham Maslow was the founder of Self-Actualization, the Peak Experience, and Human Potential and developed a hierarchy of needs. He was a learning theorist and concerned himself mainly with how people learn and how it is possible for them to learn in better ways that can cause them to self-actualize and realize their potential. His theories were based on the positive aspects of psychology rather than pathological aspects.


Carl Rogers was interested in how people learn and saw learning as an experiential process. People learn through involvement on their own, not just through their mind but also through their feelings and emotions. Learners need to have the freedom for self-expression and creativity. Learning cannot be structured and confining. What a person learns he learns better by finding out then by being told. That is because finding out affects the whole being not just the mind. He emphasizes learning within the group. His ideas and theories had a great impact on how students learn in school and the teaching and learning process.

He also theorized on Therapeutic Conditions that Facilitate Growth, and gave empirical support for the Theory of Therapy. He postulated the characteristics of the fully functioning person and the emerging person in facilitative theory.


Rollo May wrote the following books: Love and Will, The meaning of Anxiety, Man’s Search for Himself, Power and Innocence, The Courage to Create, Psychology and the Human Dilemma, and Freedom and Dignity. His psychology is existential. Rollo May is concerned with the inner being of the person and discusses the disintegration of values in modern society. He discusses loneliness and anxiety in the context of a Schizoid society. His main focus is psychotherapy rather than psychoanalysis. His ideas on the curing of patients follow an existential approach opposite to psychoanalysis, through which technique follows understanding thus he does not focus on technique first but tries to understand the patient before using technique.


B. F. Skinner is of the Social-Behaviorist perspective and through his laboratory experiments in operant conditioning demonstrated how people learn as autonomous individuals. Through operant conditioning he also demonstrated positive reinforcement and the affects of punishment. He also spoke of operant extinction. He designed the Skinner Box, which was totally environmentally controlled. He wrote many books including Walden Two, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He became a standard in the learning process for educators and therapists.


Fritz Perls developed a theory of Gestalt Therapy and founded the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. He rejected Freudian theory almost completely and was a humanistic psychologist. He also wrote poems and painted. His theories were based on developing the growth process and human potential and foregoing psychoanalytic Technique.


Albert Ellis recently died on July 24, 2007 after a long illness. He was the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy and his approach was Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy. Rational Emotive Therapy helped patients understand that their personal beliefs led to their emotional pain and were in fact irrational and rigid, self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. In a 1982 survey he was ranked ahead of Freud as being one of the most influential psychologists and came in second behind Carl Rogers. He challenged Freud’s “slow-moving methodology.” He believed in short term therapy that focused on the here and now of patients problems. His was a talk therapy that didn’t just focus on feeling better, but on actually getting better.

He founded the Institute for Rational Living which is now called the Albert Ellis Institute in NY City. Albert Ellis wrote over 75 books with many becoming best sellers. Some of the books included A Guide to a Successful Marriage, Overcoming Procrastination, A Guide to Rational Living, and The Art of Erotic Seduction. The greatest influence on his thinking was the eminent psychologist, Karen Horney.


This here is a brief synopsis of some of the most famous and influential psychologists of modern times. For the purposes of this article, I have not given information on the older psychologists mentioned or the great thinkers such as philosophers who had a great impact on modern day psychology. However if you would like to find out more about these psychologists, philosophers, and sociologists please look them up at


Hall, Calvin S., Nordby, Vernon J., A Primer of Jungian Psychology, Taplinger Publishing Company, NY, 1973.

May, Rollo, Love and Will, W. W. Norton & Company, NY, 1969.

Perls, Frederick S., Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, NY, 1969.

Rickman, Richard M., Theories of Personality, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, CA, 1985.

Rogers, Carl R., Freedom to Learn, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, Ohio, 1969.

Schultz, Duane P., Schultz, Sydney Ellen, A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., NY, 1992.

NY Times article, “Albert Ellis, 93, Influential Psychotherapist, Dies,” July, 25, 2007,