The 25 Most Influential Psychologists of All Time–A Study Starter

Psychology refers to the academic discipline, scientific field, and healthcare profession which concern the human mind and human behavior. This critical area of study is dedicated to better understanding the relationships between thought, feeling and action, to illuminating the connections between neuroscience and individual behavior, to exploring the intersection between the conscious and unconscious mind, and much more.

The 25 Most Influential Psychologists of All Time–A Study Starter

Today, psychology is recognized as an expansive educational discipline, one touching on countless areas of life from education and philosophy to organizational culture and political science. Likewise, the psychology profession touches on countless aspects of modern life, from the most basic level of self-care and mental health maintenance to a more proactive engagement of counseling to total psychiatric care for those with severe mental disorders.

As discourse on mental health grows in visibility, and as the academic community gains a greater understanding of this extremely nuanced and complex area of study, you can get started in your own education with a look at the formative history of the field.

Whether you’re interested in becoming a practitioner, you’re getting started on a research assignment, or you’re simply hoping to gain a better understanding of yourself and others, check out our Psychology Study Starter.

What follows is a list of the The 25 Most Influential Psychologists of all time based on the period of history between 1400 and 2020 CE. This is a bird’s eye view of psychology, an overview from the very top, but by no means a comprehensive nor probing dive into any one area. That’s why we call this a Study Starter. We just get the ball rolling. The rest is up to you…

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Influence Rankings

The InfluenceRanking engine calculates a numerical influence score for people, institutions, and disciplinary programs. It performs this calculation by drawing from Wikipedia/data, Crossref, and an ever-growing body of data reflecting academic achievement and merit.

The InfluenceRanking engine measures the influence of a given person in a given discipline, as well as in important related subdisciplines. Influence can also be measured within a specific set of time parameters. For instance, it is said that Croatian humanist and Latinist Marko Marulic coined the term psychology in the late 15th or early 16th Century. This, therefore, seems an appropriate starting point for the period under investigation. Thus, for the 25 Most Influential Psychologists of all time, we used the time parameters of 1400 to 2020 CE.

A Note On Diversity

We recognize from the outset that this ranking list reflects a problem, not specifically with our algorithm, but with the human history of influence. What follows is a list composed largely of men, most of them European and North America, or otherwise descended from European ancestry. The list includes very few women, and no people of color.

This is not because their contributions don’t warrant inclusion in such a list. Instead, this is a direct reflection of the social, racial, and gender inequalities that were ingrained in these academic and professional fields for the 600 years of history measured here. Moreover, our rankings are limited to those thinkers whose work has enjoyed extensive translation in the English-speaking world.

Because our influence rankings measure the raw permeation of citations, writing, and ideas originating with each of these thinkers, the rigid prejudices that have persisted throughout history are also reflected on our list. This is not an endorsement of those prejudices—merely a faithful reporting on a subject which is inherently reflective of those prejudices.

Happily, when one distills a more current period of history in the psychology discipline, one can see just how much the field of thought has evolved today, such that a meaningful number of women, people of color, and people of non-European origin are represented. This denotes a clear evolution in an academic field that, for all of its insight and illumination, also has a deep-seated history of Eurocentrism.

For a look at the psychologists with the greatest influence on the field today, check out Top Influential Psychologists Today.

With this limitation acknowledged, we bring you…

The Most Influential Psychologists of All Time

What follows is a list, in order, of the most influential psychologists who ever lived. Most of the names below will be familiar, though you might find a few surprises below.

Other information provided below includes a condensed Wikipedia bio for each psychologist as well as key contributions, and Selected Works. You can also click on the profile link for each psychologist to see where they rank in specific sub-disciplines, such as cognitive science, educational psychology, and developmental psychology.

1.Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Freud was born to Galician Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881 at the University of Vienna. Upon completing his habilitation in 1885, he was appointed a docent in neuropathology and became an affiliated professor in 1902. Freud lived and worked in Vienna, having set up his clinical practice there in 1886. In 1938, Freud left Austria to escape Nazi persecution. He died in exile in the United Kingdom in 1939.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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2.Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Gustav Jung, was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. Jung’s work has been influential in the fields of psychiatry, anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, psychology and religious studies. Jung worked as a research scientist at the famous Burghölzli hospital, under Eugen Bleuler . During this time, he came to the attention of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. The two men conducted a lengthy correspondence and collaborated, for a while, on a joint vision of human psychology.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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3.William James (1842-1910)

William James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the “Father of American psychology”. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce , James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked James’s reputation in second place, after Wilhelm Wundt, who is widely regarded as the founder of experimental psychology. James also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. James’s work has influenced philosophers and academics such as Émile Durkheim , W. E. B. Du Bois , Edmund Husserl , Bertrand Russell , Ludwig Wittgenstein , Hilary Putnam , Richard Rorty , and Marilynne Robinson .

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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4.Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Harold Maslow was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization. Maslow was a psychology professor at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research, and Columbia University. He stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms”. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Maslow as the tenth most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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5.Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

Carl Ransom Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach in psychology. Rogers is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research and was honored for his pioneering research with the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions by the American Psychological Association in 1956. The person-centered approach, his own unique approach to understanding personality and human relationships, found wide application in various domains such as psychotherapy and counseling (client-centered therapy), education (student-centered learning), organizations, and other group settings. For his professional work he was bestowed the Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Psychology by the APA in 1972. In a study by Steven J. Haggbloom and colleagues using six criteria such as citations and recognition, Rogers was found to be the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century and second, among clinicians, only to Sigmund Freud.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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6.Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was a German physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the founders of modern psychology. Wundt, who distinguished psychology as a science from philosophy and biology, was the first person ever to call himself a psychologist. He is widely regarded as the “father of experimental psychology”. In 1879, at University of Leipzig, Wundt founded the first formal laboratory for psychological research. This marked psychology as an independent field of study. By creating this laboratory he was able to establish psychology as a separate science from other disciplines. He also formed the first academic journal for psychological research, Philosophische Studien, set up to publish the Institute’s research.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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7.Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called “the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud”. Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan’s work has marked the French and international intellectual landscape, having made a significant impact on continental philosophy and cultural theory in areas such as post-structuralism, critical theory, feminist theory and film theory as well as on psychoanalysis itself.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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8.Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called “genetic epistemology”. Piaget placed great importance on the education of children. As the Director of the International Bureau of Education, he declared in 1934 that “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.” His theory of child development is studied in pre-service education programs. Educators continue to incorporate constructivist-based strategies.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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9.John B. Watson (1878-1958)

John Broadus Watson was an American psychologist who popularized the scientific theory of behaviorism, establishing it as a psychological school. Watson advanced this change in the psychological discipline through his 1913 address at Columbia University, titled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”. Through his behaviorist approach, Watson conducted research on animal behavior, child rearing, and advertising, as well as conducting the controversial “Little Albert” experiment and the Kerplunk experiment. He was also the editor of Psychological Review from 1910 to 1915. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Watson as the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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10.Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist, known for his work on psychological development in children. He published on a diverse range of subjects, and from multiple views as his perspective changed over the years. Among his students was Alexander Luria. He is known for his concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD): the distance between what a student (apprentice, new employee, etc.) can do on their own, and what they can accomplish with the support of someone more knowledgeable about the activity. Vygotsky saw the ZPD as a measure of skills that are in the process of maturing, as supplement to measures of development that only look at a learner’s independent ability. Also influential are his works on the relationship between language and thought, the development of language, and a general theory of development through actions and relationships in a socio-cultural environment.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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11.Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

Erich Seligmann Fromm was a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. He was a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the US. He was one of the founders of The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology in New York City and was associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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12.B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an American psychologist, behaviourist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. Considering free will to be an illusion, Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement: If the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. Skinner developed behavior analysis, especially the philosophy of radical behaviorism, and founded the experimental analysis of behavior, a school of experimental research psychology.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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13.Albert Bandura (1925-2021)

Albert Bandura held the title of David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. A top name in social psychology, Bandura was born in Mundare, Alberta, Canada, and earned his bachelor of arts at the University of British Columbia in 1949. He soon moved to the U.S. and earned his MA in 1951 and PhD in 1952 at the University of Iowa. Bandura began teaching at Stanford in 1953. Bandura is among the most cited psychologists in the (relatively) short history of the field. He is considered the founder of social learning theory, and his groundbreaking model for understanding human social development. From his famous ”Bobo doll experiment“, Bandura developed his theory of how humans imitate the behaviors they observe in others as a kind of ”social learning,” i.e. learning what they can and cannot do in social settings. In particular, Bandura was interested in how children learn from the behaviors they observe in adults, especially aggression. This eventually led to the development of social cognitive theory, which examines how social learning affects cognition itself, not just behavior. This has had profound effects on everything from the field itself, to education, entertainment, rehabilitation, and training.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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14.John Dewey (1859-1952)

John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. He is regarded as one of the most prominent American scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. The overriding theme of Dewey’s works was his profound belief in democracy, be it in politics, education, or communication and journalism. As Dewey himself stated in 1888, while still at the University of Michigan, “Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous.“...Dewey was one of the primary figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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15.Melanie Klein (1882-1960)

Melanie Klein was an Austrian-British author and psychoanalyst known for her work in child analysis. She was the primary figure in the development of object relations theory. Klein suggested that pre-verbal existential anxiety in infancy catalyzed the formation of the unconscious, resulting in the unconscious splitting of the world into good and bad idealizations. In her theory, how the child resolves that split depends on the constitution of the child and the character of nurturing the child experiences; the quality of resolution can inform the presence, absence, and/or type of distresses a person experiences later in life.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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16.Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)

Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States. Exiled from the land of his birth, Lewin made a new life for himself, in which he defined himself and his contributions within three lenses of analysis: applied research, action research, and group communication were his major offerings to the field of communication. Lewin is often recognized as the “founder of social psychology” and was one of the first to study group dynamics and organizational development. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Lewin as the 18th-most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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17.Anna Freud (1895-1982)

Anna Freud was a British psychoanalyst of Austrian-Jewish descent. She was born in Vienna, the sixth and youngest child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays. She followed the path of her father and contributed to the field of psychoanalysis. Alongside Hermine Hug-Hellmuth and Melanie Klein, she may be considered the founder of psychoanalytic child psychology. Compared to her father, her work emphasized the importance of the ego and its normal “developmental lines” as well as incorporating a distinctive emphasis on collaborative work across a range of analytical and observational contexts. After the Freud family were forced to leave Vienna in 1938 with the advent of the Nazi regime in Austria, she resumed her psychoanalytic practice and her pioneering work in child psychology in London, establishing the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic in 1952 (now the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families) as a centre for therapy, training and research work.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

  • Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Lectures for Child Analysts and Teachers (1922–1935)
  • An Introduction to the Technique of Child Analysis (1927)
  • The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936)
  • About Losing and Being Lost (1967)

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18.Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987)

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist best known for his theory of stages of moral development. He served as a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago and at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Even though it was considered unusual in his era, he decided to study the topic of moral judgment, extending Jean Piaget’s account of children’s moral development from twenty-five years earlier. In fact, it took Kohlberg five years before he was able to publish an article based on his views. Kohlberg’s work reflected and extended not only Piaget’s findings but also the theories of philosophers George Herbert Mead and James Mark Baldwin. At the same time he was creating a new field within psychology: “moral development”.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

  • The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (1981)
  • The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development (1981)
  • The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (1984)
  • Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Development View (1987)

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19.Jerome Bruner (1915-2016)

Jerome Seymour Bruner was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory in educational psychology. Bruner was a senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law. He received a B.A. in 1937 from Duke University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1941. He taught and did research at Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and New York University. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Bruner as the 28th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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20.Daniel Kahneman (1934-Present)

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist and economist who is currently the Eugene Higgins Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus for the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He earned a B.S. in psychology from Hebrew University and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley. Kahneman is world-famous for his groundbreaking work on the psychology of judgement and decision making. His studies, along with Amos Tversky, developed into prospect theory which examines behavioral economics and finance and how humans handle risk and uncertainty. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on human rationality in economic theory in 2002.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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21.Rollo May (1909-1994)

Rollo Reece May was an American existential psychologist and author of the influential book Love and Will. He is often associated with humanistic psychology and existentialist philosophy, and alongside Viktor Frankl , was a major proponent of existential psychotherapy. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich was a close friend who had a significant influence on his work.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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22.Albert Ellis (1913-2007)

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist and psychotherapist who founded Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy . He held MA and PhD degrees in clinical psychology from Columbia University, and was certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology . He also founded, and was the President of, the New York City-based Albert Ellis Institute. He is generally considered to be one of the originators of the cognitive revolutionary paradigm shift in psychotherapy and an early proponent and developer of cognitive-behavioral therapies.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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23.Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian doctor of medicine and psychoanalyst, a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud. The author of several influential books, most notably Character Analysis, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and The Sexual Revolution, Reich became known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. Reich’s work on character contributed to the development of Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), and his idea of muscular armour—the expression of the personality in the way the body moves—shaped innovations such as body psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetic analysis and primal therapy. His writing influenced generations of intellectuals; he coined the phrase “the sexual revolution” and according to one historian acted as its midwife. During the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Berlin, students scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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24.Leda Cosmides (1957-present)/John Tooby (1952-Present)

Leda Cosmides currently holds the title of Distinguished Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. She also co-founded and co-directs the UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology. Cosmides completed both her undergraduate studies in biology and her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at Harvard University by 1985. Best known for playing an integral role in the development of evolutionary psychology, Cosmides has often worked in collaboration with her husband, American anthropologist John Tooby, who received his PhD in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University in 1989 and is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In their book, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, edited along with Jerome H. Barkow, the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and paleoanthropology are merged in an attempt to further explore evolutionary history.

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25.G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924)

Granville Stanley Hall was a pioneering American psychologist and educator. His interests focused on childhood development and evolutionary theory. Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association and the first president of Clark University. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Hall as the 72nd most cited psychologist of the 20th century, in a tie with Lewis Terman.

Key Contributions

Selected Works

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And if this bird’s eye view of the psychology discipline has sparked your interest, consider diving a little deeper with a look at:

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