Counseling Psychology Theories

Counseling PsychologyCounseling psychology is one of four major applied specialties recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), along with clinical psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and school psychology. Applied specialties are developed and maintained in order to provide effective psychological services to people, based on psychological theory and research.

Counseling psychology is a specialty that facilitates personal and interpersonal functioning across the life span with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational concerns…. [Counseling psychology] help[s] people improve their well-being, alleviate distress and maladjustment, resolve crises. and increase their ability to live more highly functioning lives. (Continuing Education and Regional Conferences Committee of the Counseling Psychology Division of APA, 1994, What Is a Counseling Psychologist? [Brochure]. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association)

Counseling psychology has a long history of integrating psychological theories and theory-based research with the practice of the specialty. A few psychological theories have been unusually influential in guiding the specialty.

Eight Influential Theories in Counseling Psychology

A group of experts in counseling psychology was consulted regarding the most influential theories. These experts were identified by nominations solicited from the directors of counseling psychology doctoral training programs in the United States, with self-nominations disallowed. The 29 identified experts represented age, ethnic, cultural, gender, geographic, and professional-setting diversity, reflecting the diversity in counseling psychology. Sixteen (55%) of those identified responded to an invitation to identify “the principal theories that have determined the course of development of this field.” The results of this survey of experts reflect reasonable agreement on eight theories and some agreement on seven others. Newly emerging theories have not had the time to be influential and are not identified in this list, despite their potential to influence the future of the specialty.

Three of the eight theories that experts generally agreed were principally influential on counseling psychology practice, as opposed to research, are psychotherapy theories: (1) Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy theory; (2) Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy theory; and (3) Carl Rogers’s (1951) person-centered therapy theory. Recent research in counseling psychology has only occasionally made these theories the focus of empirical investigations. The irony in this influence pattern is that Beck, Ellis, and Rogers have all championed scientific investigation as an important aspect of psychotherapeutic theorizing.

Two of the eight are theories of career development: (4) John Holland’s (1973) career typology theory and (5) Donald Super’s (1957) career development theory. These two theories reflect the dual missions of counseling psychology because they have strongly influenced both the practice of career counseling and research on vocational behavior. Holland’s theory is the single most researched in the vocational area. In addition, it is the framework used in most standardized and computerized assessments of vocational choice. Su­per’s theory has generated important research and influenced practice, as well, but not to the degree of Hol­land’s theory.

Two of the theories are either directly or indirectly from social psychology: (6) Albert Bandura’s (1986) social-cognitive theory and (7) Stanley Strong’s social influence theory (Strong & Claiborn, 1982). These two theories have had some impact on counseling practice, but their primary influence has been on counseling psychology research. Bandura’s theory has generated a research subspecialty on the role of self-efficacy and related social-cognitive processes in career decisions and work-related behavior. Strong’s social influence theory has spawned numerous investigations of counselor factors that influence client attitudes and behavior.

Finally, a pair of racial identity development theories, those of (8) William Cross, Jr. (1991) and of Janet Helms (1990), were viewed by the experts as closely related and together as constituting the final entry in this category. These theories have generated much of the empirical research on multicultural awareness and multicultural counselor training in counseling psychology. Likewise, they have been influential in the training of counseling psychologists with regard to attitudes, beliefs, and skills necessary for sensitive and effective counseling between people of differing cultures or subcultures. So their influence on the practice of counseling is significant and growing.

Seven Additional Theories in Counseling Psychology

The seven theories on which there was some, but not widespread, agreement included four theories that directly influence psychotherapy: (1) Sigmund Freud’s psychodynamic theory, which has spawned such theories as attachment theory, object-relations theory, and working alliance theory: (2) B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism; (3) collectively, the counseling skill development theories of Allen Ivey (Ivey & Authier, 1978), Norman Kagan (1975). and C. B. Truax and Robert Carkhuff (1967): and (4) a group of theories collectively known as feminist psychotherapy theories, because of their integration of feminist values and beliefs with counseling interventions (e.g.. see reviews by Lucia Gilbert. in Brodsky & Hare-Mustin, Eds, New York. 1980; Worell & Remer. New York, 1992). Although Freud’s and Skin­ner’s theories have generated a great deal of research in other fields, within counseling psychology the primary impact of these theories has been on practice. A notable exception to that general trend has been a group of important research investigations in counseling psychology based on theories that were themselves rooted in Freudian theory. For example, a number of studies have been reported in counseling psychology journals on the working alliance, which has its roots in Freudian theory. The skill development theories have guided much of the initial psychotherapy training of a generation or more of counseling psychologists, although the number of counseling psychology research investigations of these theories has declined in recent years. Feminist psychotherapy theories have definitely influenced counseling practice. Their impact on counseling psychology research is less pronounced, although research related to the broader construct of gender regularly appears in counseling psychology journals.

The fifth entry on this list does not involve psychotherapy directly, but rather the closely related area of supervision of counselors who are engaged in psychotherapy: (5) Stoltenberg and Delworth’s (1988) developmental model of psychotherapy supervision has been influential on both counseling psychology research and on the practice of counseling supervision.

The final two of these seven theories involve career development: (6) John Krumboltz’s (1979) social learning theory of career decision making and (7) Nancy Betz and Louise Fitzgerald’s (1987) women’s career development theory. The work of Krumboltz and of Betz and Fitzgerald has influenced career development research. Krumboltz’s work has paved the way for what has emerged as the social cognitive perspective in research on vocational behavior. The publication of Betz and Fitzgerald’s book has helped define women’s career development as a subspecialty within the area. These approaches have had less impact on counseling practice than on counseling psychology research.

Challenging Issues in Counseling Psychology

Having identified these influential theories, it is important to identify several important issues that complicate the task of identifying the principal theories that have guided the specialty. One of the most common comments by experts was that the task of identifying principally influential theories was challenging. Perhaps the most important issue is that counseling psychology is not monolithic: counseling psychologists represent great diversity in demographic and cultural characteristics, work settings, age, psychotherapeutic approaches, and the like. In fact, two defining features of the specialty are its advancement of multiculturalism and of the psychology of women. So, it should come as no surprise that there is great diversity, even among the experts, regarding which theories are most influential to the field. No theory was a unanimous choice and 15 theories were thought principally influential by only one or two experts. The implication of these results is that theories other than these 8 are also influencing counseling psychology, though probably to a lesser extent.

A second, challenging issue concerns foundational theories versus derivative theories. A foundational theory is a broadly applicable psychological theory, such as Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, whereas a derivative theory derives its essential intellectual character from a foundational theory and applies it more narrowly. For example, John Krumboltz’s social learning theory of career decision making is derivative of Bandura’s theory. What is foundational is also relative. Although Krumboltz’s theory may be viewed as deriving from Bandura’s, Bandura’s theory itself may be viewed as deriving from the work of B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson.

Ideas evolve, so it is sometimes difficult to identify which evolution of a theory has been principally influential. For example, John Krumboltz’s theory of career counseling has led to the development of a general social-cognitive career model, championed by scholars such as Nancy Betz, Gail Hackett, and Robert Lent. Likewise, William Cross’s racial identity development theory has been a foundational element in Janet Helms’s racial identity development theories.

There was some disagreement among the experts regarding what constitutes a theory. For example, experts sometimes excluded intellectual products that have been influential because they did not view them as sufficiently theoretical in form or scope. For example, Betz and Fitzgerald’s career psychology of women theory was viewed by some experts as more a survey of thought and research than a theoretical statement.

Some theories were viewed as sufficiently similar to each other that the experts grouped them together for inclusion as a single theoretical contribution. For example, the counseling skills theories of Ivey, Kagan, and Truax and Carkhuff were grouped together, as were the theoretical contributions of Cross and Helms.

Because so much of the work of counseling psychologists involves direct psychotherapy of individuals, couples, families, and small nonfamily groups, there is disagreement regarding whether the main influential theories should all be theories of psychotherapy, such as Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy theory, or whether the list of principally influential theories should also include theories important to counseling psychology that are not theories of psychotherapy, such as Stanley Strong’s social influence theory. Psychotherapy theories in the two lists include those of Beck Ellis and Rogers, from the first list; and Freud, Ivey, Truax and Carkhuff, Kagan, and feminist therapy from the second list.

A related way of viewing this challenge is that some theories have had direct influence on the practice of counseling psychology, whereas others have stimulated counseling psychology research, but that research has not influenced the practice of the specialty. For example, Holland’s and Super’s theories probably have influenced the practice of vocational counseling to a greater degree than Bandura’s social-cognitive theory has, although Bandura’s theory has heavily influenced vocational research.

To allow the most accurate and comprehensive perspective on the specialty, both foundational and derivative theories are included in the list, as are earlier theories and their intellectual heirs. Likewise, both theories regularly used in direct psychotherapy and those not used in that context are included. From one point of view, this results in an inelegant hodgepodge. From another perspective, the list simply reflects the various differentiating characteristics of the influential ideas in the specialty.

Alternative Perspectives on Counseling Psychology

Confidence in the accuracy of the list of influential theories grows when different methods produce similar lists. The opinion of experts is an important source of information regarding the identification of theories that have been influential to counseling psychology. However, a question remains regarding whether other methods produce similar lists. Next, the degree to which expert opinion coincides with coverage of the specialty’s handbook (Brown & Lent, Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 2nd ed., 1992) and with a series of articles that have surveyed citation patterns in counseling psychology journals and texts will be detailed.

Just as there are limitations to the use of expert opinion in determining which theories are principally influential, there are also limitations to using the content of the Handbook and to using the results of studies of citation counts. The chief limitation of using the Handbook content is that it again reflects the judgments of the two experts who serve as its editors and the authors they chose to write for the Handbook. Although both of the Handbook’s editors were nominated for the expert panel, their views were not included among those of the 16 judges. Only one of the 40 authors of Handbook chapters also served as an expert.

Regarding articles on citations, there are two main difficulties. First, these citation counts reflect impact on research, not counseling practice. Second, the data in three of the four articles that have tracked citations do so only with reference to the author and not with reference to the specific book, book chapter, or article. So, citation counts include in some cases citations of work that is not tied to the theory, or to work that is tied to a different theory from the one the experts identified as influential. For example, Albert Bandura has developed two major theories, so it would be impossible to tell in these four articles which of these theories was being cited, Finally, even if the work cited was about theory, it might have been cited for reasons unrelated to the theory: for example, because a particular method or measure was used, With those limits in mind, it is worth seeing what emerges from these other sources,

Regarding the content of the Handbook, the results roughly parallel those of the experts, The mean citations for theorists from the top eight was 23,6, with a range from 7 for Rogers to 42 for Holland, The mean citations for the second group was half of that for the first group (mean = 12), with a range from 3 for feminist therapy to 26 for the counseling skills theorists. The 15 theories cited as influential by only one or two experts averaged only 4.5 citations, with a range of 0 to 10. These data suggest that the distinctions made by the experts parallel the focus of the editors and authors of the Handbook.

Regarding the four journal articles on citations, each differed in the sources of citations, years of inclusion, and number of theories or theorists listed as frequently cited. For simplicity, if a theory or theorist was listed as frequently cited in any part of one of these four articles, it was counted as having been listed in that article. Theorists from the top-eight group were cited in 2.5 of the 4 articles on average, with a range from 1 to 4. Theorists from the second group were cited in 1.4 articles on average, with a range from 0 to 3. Theorists from the third group were cited much less frequently (mean = 0.73, range = 0-2; however, only George Kelly’s personal construct theory garnered two article listings ). These data, too, generally support the differences in influence that the expert panel made. The four articles were Cotton & Anderson, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1973, 20, 272-274; Heesacker, Heppner, & Rogers, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1982, 29, 400­-405: Howard & Curtin, The Counseling Psychologist, 1993, 21, 288-302: and Myers & DeLevie, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1966, 13, 245-246.

In summary, the judgment of experts, the citation patterns in the Handbook of Counseling Psychology, and the results of four journal articles on the frequency with which works are cited in journal articles and books converge in identifying eight theories as being of principal influence in counseling psychology. These three information sources also converged in demonstrating that seven additional theories also have influenced counseling psychology, but to a lesser extent. The fact that the information from these various sources, with their differing strengths and weaknesses, suggests increased confidence in the validity of the judgments experts made regarding the influential theories in counseling psychology.


  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Details Bandura’s theory and supportive research, which forms the basis of important vocational research in counseling psychology.
  2. N. E., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1987). The career psychology of women. Orlando, FL: Academic Press. A comprehensive survey of theory and research on women’s vocational behavior, including Betz and Fitzgerald’s perspectives.
  3. Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (1992). Handbook of counseling psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley. The indispensable guide to current theory and research in counseling psychology.
  4. Cross, Jr.. W. E (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Describes Cross’s racial identity development theory.
  5. Helms, J. E. (Ed.). (1990). Black and white racial identity: Theory. research, and practice. New York: Greenwood Press. Comprehensive treatment of Helms’s racial identity theory.
  6. Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Holland’s classic statement of his theory of career choice.
  7. Ivey, A. E., & Authier, J. (1978). Microcounseling (2nd ed.). Springfield. IL: Charles C Thomas. Ivey’s most comprehensive description of microskills counseling training.
  8. Kagan, N. (1975). Interpersonal process recall: A method for influencing human interaction. East Lansing: MI: Michi­gan State University. Describes Kagan’s approach to counseling skills training.
  9. Krumboltz, J. D., (1979). A social learning theory of career decision making. In A. M. Mitchell. G. B. Jones. & J. D. Krumboltz (Eds.), Social learning theory and career decision making (pp. 19-49). Cranston, RI: Carroll. This classic chapter describes Krumboltz’s theory and related research.
  10. Osipow, S. H., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1996). Theories of career development (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Latest edition of a classic survey textbook, with detailed discussions of Holland’s. Krumboltz’s. and Super’s theories and the general social-cognitive model.
  11. Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Rogers’s theory of therapy is detailed.
  12. Stoltenberg, C. D.. & Delworth. U. (1988). Supervising counselors and therapists: A developmental perspective. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The comprehensive description of their supervision theory.
  13. Strong, S. R.. & Claiborn, C. D. (1982). Change through interaction: Social psychological processes of counseling and psychotherapy. New York: Wiley. Strong’s most comprehensive presentation of his social influence theory.
  14. D. E (1957). The psychology of careers. New York: Harper & Row. Super’s comprehensive statement of his career development theory.
  15. C. B.. & Carkhuff. R. R. (1967). Toward effective counseling and psychotherapy: Training and practice. Chicago: Aldine. The original text of their skills-based counseling training theory.

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