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10 Most Influential Psychologists

A Look at Eminent Thinkers in Psychology

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The breadth and diversity of psychology can be seen by looking as some of its best known thinkers. While each theorist may have been part of an overriding school of thought, each brought a unique and individual voice and perspective to the field of psychology.

A study that appeared in the July 2002 issue of the Review of General Psychology created a ranking of the 99 most influential psychologists. The rankings were mostly based on three factors: the frequency of journal citations, introductory textbook citations, and the survey responses of 1,725 members of the American Psychological Association.

10 Influential Thinkers in Psychology

The following list provides an overview of 10 psychologists from this ranking survey. These individuals are not only some of the best-known thinkers in psychology, they also played an important role in psychology's history and made important contributions to our understanding of human behavior. This list is not an attempt to identify who was the most influential or which school of thought was best. Instead, this list offers a glimpse of some of the theoretical outlooks that have influenced not only psychology, but also the larger culture in which we live.

1. B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner
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In the 2002 study ranking the 99 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner topped the list. Skinner's staunch behaviorism made him a dominating force in psychology and therapy techniques based on his theories are still used extensively today, including behavior modification and token economies.

2. Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud
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When people think of psychology, many tend to think of Freud. His work supported the belief that not all mental illnesses have physiological causes and he also offered evidence that cultural differences have an impact on psychology and behavior. His work and writings contributed to our understanding of personality, clinical psychology, human development, and abnormal psychology.

3. Albert Bandura

Bandura's work is considered part of the cognitive revolution in psychology that began in the late 1960s. His social learning theory stressed the importance of observational learning, imitation, and modeling. "Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory.

4. Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget
Roland Zumbühl
Jean Piaget's work had a profound influence on psychology, especially our understanding children's intellectual development. His research contributed to the growth of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, genetic epistemology, and education reform. Albert Einstein once described Piaget's observations on children's intellectual growth and thought processes as a discovery "so simple that only a genius could have thought of it."

5. Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers
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Carl Rogers placed emphasis on human potential, which had an enormous influence on both psychology and education. He became one of the major humanist thinkers and an eponymous influence in therapy with his "Rogerian therapy." As described by his daughter Natalie Rogers, he was "a model for compassion and democratic ideals in his own life, and in his work as an educator, writer, and therapist."

6. William James

William James
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Psychologist and philosopher William James is often referred to as the father of American psychology. His 1200-page text, The Principles of Psychology, became a classic on the subject and his teachings and writings helped establish psychology as a science. In addition, James contributed to functionalism, pragmatism, and influenced many students of psychology during his 35-year teaching career.

7. Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson
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Erik Erikson's stage theory of psychosocial development helped create interest and research on human development through the lifespan. An ego psychologist who studied with Anna Freud, Erikson expanded psychoanalytic theory by exploring development throughout the life, including events of childhood, adulthood, and old age.

8. Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov
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Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose research on conditioned reflexes influenced the rise of behaviorism in psychology. Pavlov's experimental methods helped move psychology away from introspection and subjective assessments to objective measurement of behavior.

9. Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin
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Lewin is known as the father of modern social psychology because of his pioneering work that utilized scientific methods and experimentation to look as social behavior. Lewin was a seminal theorist whose enduring impact on psychology makes him one of the preeminent psychologists of the 20th-century.

10. Reader's Choice

Following the examples of Eugene Garfield's 1977 ranking list and Haggbloom's 2002 ranking, the final position on this list has been left blank in order to allow "the reader's best case for a psychologist who should have made the list" (Haggbloom, 2002).

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