10 Most Influential Psychologists

A Look at Eminent Thinkers in Psychology

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

Portrait Of B. F. Skinner
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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

An image of B.F. Skinner in 1948
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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.

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2. Sigmund Freud

Freud at his desk in 1938
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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.

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3. Albert Bandura

An image of psychologist Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura / bandura@stanford.edu / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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.

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4. Jean Piaget

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."

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5. Carl Rogers

Sketch of 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."

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6. William James

An image of psychologist 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.

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7. Erik Erikson

An image of psychologist 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.

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8. Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov on Right
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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.

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9. Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky
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Vygotsky was a contemporary of some better-known psychologists including Piaget, Freud, Skinner, and Pavlov, yet his work never achieved the same eminence during his lifetime. This is largely because many of his writing remained inaccessible to the Western world until quite recently. It was during the 1970s that many of his writings were translated from Russian, but his work has become enormously influential in recent decades, particularly in the fields of educational psychology and child development.

While his premature death at age 38 put a halt to his work, he went on to become one of the most frequently cited psychologists of the 20th-century.

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10. Reader's Choice

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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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