Counseling Psychology Theories

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology, recognized as one of the four major applied specialties by the American Psychological Association (APA), along with clinical psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and school psychology, plays a crucial role in providing effective psychological services to individuals. These applied specialties are designed to apply psychological theory and research in a practical manner to better people’s lives.

At its core, counseling psychology focuses on facilitating personal and interpersonal functioning across the entire lifespan. The specialty addresses a broad spectrum of concerns, including emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational issues. By nurturing individuals’ well-being and addressing distress and maladjustment, counseling psychology seeks to empower people to lead highly functioning lives and overcome crises.

The historical development of counseling psychology has been shaped by the integration of various psychological theories and theory-based research into its practice. Several influential psychological theories have significantly guided the development and evolution of this specialty, underpinning its evidence-based and research-oriented approach.

Through the careful application of these theories and research findings, counseling psychologists assist individuals in exploring and understanding their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. They aim to foster personal growth, resilience, and self-awareness, while also promoting healthier relationships and coping mechanisms. In doing so, counseling psychology plays a crucial role in promoting positive mental health and enhancing individuals’ overall quality of life.

Furthermore, counseling psychology’s dedication to continuous learning and professional development is exemplified through the efforts of the Continuing Education and Regional Conferences Committee of the Counseling Psychology Division of APA. This committee, among others, strives to keep counseling psychologists updated with the latest research and best practices, ensuring the delivery of high-quality psychological services to those in need.

As counseling psychology moves forward, it remains committed to integrating cutting-edge research, theory, and practice to meet the evolving needs of individuals and communities. By fostering a strong foundation of psychological knowledge and applying it with empathy and compassion, counseling psychologists continue to make a positive impact on the well-being and mental health of diverse populations. Their unwavering dedication to serving individuals and promoting psychological wellness cements counseling psychology’s crucial role as an indispensable pillar in the field of applied psychology.

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

To identify the most influential theories in counseling psychology, a panel of experts was assembled, drawn from diverse backgrounds to represent the rich tapestry of counseling psychology. These experts were nominated by directors of counseling psychology doctoral training programs in the United States, ensuring a comprehensive and well-rounded selection. The insights and perspectives of 29 experts, spanning age, ethnicity, culture, gender, geography, and professional settings, were gathered to shed light on the theories that have profoundly impacted the development of counseling psychology.

Among the theories identified by these experts, three stood out as instrumental in shaping counseling psychology practice: (1) Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy theory, (2) Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy theory, and (3) Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy theory. Surprisingly, despite the influence of these theories on the field’s growth, they have not been extensively examined in recent research within counseling psychology. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the pioneers behind these theories have consistently emphasized the importance of scientific investigation as an integral aspect of psychotherapeutic theorizing.

Turning to the realm of career development, two theories have significantly impacted both counseling practice and vocational research. (4) John Holland’s career typology theory and (5) Donald Super’s career development theory have left a profound mark on the field. Holland’s theory, the most extensively researched in the vocational domain, serves as the foundation for many standardized and computerized vocational assessments. On the other hand, Super’s theory, though not as extensively researched as Holland’s, has still played a vital role in shaping practice and generating essential research in the field of vocational behavior.

Social psychology has also made a substantial contribution to counseling psychology through (6) Albert Bandura’s social-cognitive theory and (7) Stanley Strong’s social influence theory. These theories have had a notable impact on counseling psychology research, particularly in the exploration of self-efficacy and social-cognitive processes in career decision-making and work-related behavior. Furthermore, Strong’s social influence theory has been a catalyst for investigations into counselor factors that influence client attitudes and behaviors.

The category concludes with a pair of closely related theories, (8) William Cross, Jr.’s racial identity development theory and Janet Helms’s racial identity theory. These theories have become central in promoting multicultural awareness and counselor training in counseling psychology. Through empirical research, they have advanced the understanding and practice of counseling in diverse cultural contexts, fostering sensitive and effective interactions between individuals from varying cultures and subcultures.

While these eight theories stand as pillars of influence in counseling psychology, it is essential to acknowledge that the field is continually evolving. New theories may emerge and shape the future of the specialty, bringing fresh perspectives and innovative approaches to enhance counseling psychology’s impact on individual well-being and societal progress. By integrating theory, research, and practice, counseling psychologists are poised to create meaningful change in the lives of those they serve, ensuring that the field remains vibrant and responsive to the evolving needs of diverse populations.

Challenging Issues in Counseling Psychology

While identifying influential theories in counseling psychology is essential, it is crucial to recognize the complexity of this task, as several challenging issues come into play. The first and most significant issue lies in the diverse nature of counseling psychology itself. Counseling psychologists encompass a wide array of demographic and cultural characteristics, work settings, age groups, and psychotherapeutic approaches. Embracing multiculturalism and understanding the psychology of women are two defining features of the specialty. Consequently, there is substantial diversity even among experts’ opinions on the most influential theories in the field. No single theory garnered unanimous agreement, and 15 theories were considered principally influential by only one or two experts. This diversity indicates that other theories also impact counseling psychology, though perhaps to a lesser extent than the identified eight.

Another challenging issue revolves around foundational versus derivative theories. Foundational theories, like Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, have broad applications, while derivative theories build upon foundational ones and apply them in narrower contexts. For instance, John Krumboltz’s social learning theory of career decision making derives from Bandura’s theory. However, what is foundational remains relative, as Bandura’s theory itself can be seen as evolving from the works of B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson.

The evolution of theories presents further complexities in determining which specific version of a theory has had the most significant influence. For instance, John Krumboltz’s theory of career counseling has given rise to the development of a general social-cognitive career model championed by scholars like Nancy Betz, Gail Hackett, and Robert Lent. Similarly, William Cross’s racial identity development theory has served as a foundation for Janet Helms’s racial identity development theories.

Experts’ varying interpretations of what constitutes a theory add to the intricacies of the identification process. Some influential intellectual products were excluded by some experts because they were perceived as insufficiently theoretical in form or scope. For example, Betz and Fitzgerald’s career psychology of women theory was viewed as more of a survey of thought and research than a comprehensive theoretical statement.

To streamline the list, some theories were grouped together if they were deemed sufficiently similar in nature. For instance, the counseling skills theories of Ivey, Kagan, and Truax and Carkhuff were amalgamated, as were the theoretical contributions of Cross and Helms.

Another dimension of complexity arises from the question of whether the most influential theories should primarily focus on psychotherapy or include other essential theories in counseling psychology. Given that counseling psychologists engage significantly in direct psychotherapy with individuals, couples, families, and small nonfamily groups, some experts proposed that influential theories should concentrate solely on psychotherapy, like Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy theory. However, others argued that theories like Stanley Strong’s social influence theory, which is not directly linked to psychotherapy, should also be considered, as they have significant relevance to counseling psychology research.

Furthermore, there exists a distinction between theories that directly impact the practice of counseling psychology and those that predominantly stimulate research within the field. For example, Holland’s and Super’s theories have likely influenced vocational counseling practice more than Bandura’s social-cognitive theory, despite the latter’s substantial impact on vocational research.

In an effort to provide the most comprehensive perspective on the specialty, the list of influential theories includes both foundational and derivative theories, as well as theories relevant to direct psychotherapy and those with a broader research focus. While this may create a varied compilation, it ultimately mirrors the diverse and multifaceted nature of influential ideas in counseling psychology. Embracing this complexity allows the field to appreciate the richness and depth of its theoretical underpinnings, fostering a robust and adaptable foundation for the future of counseling psychology.

Alternative Perspectives on Counseling Psychology

In the pursuit of accurately identifying influential theories in counseling psychology, various methods have been employed to ensure confidence in the results. While expert opinions hold significant value, it is crucial to corroborate these perspectives with other sources to create a comprehensive understanding of the field’s most influential theories.

One alternative method involves examining the content of the Handbook of Counseling Psychology (2nd edition, 1992) edited by Brown and Lent. Although this approach is not without limitations, as it reflects the judgments of the editors and authors selected for the Handbook, its findings broadly align with those of the expert panel. Notably, the mean citations for theorists from the top eight influential theories reached 23.6, indicating substantial recognition and impact. The second group of influential theories exhibited half the mean citations of the first group (mean = 12), while the theories cited by only one or two experts averaged only 4.5 citations. These results suggest that the distinctions made by the experts are mirrored in the focus of the Handbook’s editors and authors.

Another alternative method involves investigating citation patterns in counseling psychology journals and texts. However, this approach presents its own challenges, as citation counts primarily reflect research impact rather than counseling practice. Additionally, some articles may cite works for reasons unrelated to the theories in question. Despite these limitations, the findings from the four journal articles on citations provided further support for the distinctions made by the expert panel. The theorists from the top-eight group were frequently cited in an average of 2.5 out of the four articles, while those from the second group were cited in an average of 1.4 articles. Theorists from the third group were cited less frequently, with George Kelly’s personal construct theory being an exception.

The convergence of evidence from these various sources adds to the validity of the expert panel’s judgments regarding influential theories in counseling psychology. It highlights the consistency in identifying eight principal influential theories and seven additional theories that have influenced the field to a lesser extent. By integrating the perspectives of experts, Handbook content, and citation patterns, a more robust understanding of the landscape of influential theories emerges.

Despite the complexities and limitations of each method, their convergence strengthens our confidence in the accuracy of the identified influential theories. The field of counseling psychology is rich and multifaceted, encompassing a diversity of theoretical perspectives and research areas. Through a holistic examination of these perspectives, counseling psychologists can gain valuable insights into the theories that have shaped the field’s evolution. Such knowledge paves the way for continued growth and development, ensuring that counseling psychology remains at the forefront of providing effective psychological services to diverse populations and advancing our understanding of human behavior and well-being.


  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.

See also: