The Major Branches and Fields of Psychology

There are many different branches, fields or types of psychology, however, most believe there are up to 15 major branches of psychology or more. For your convenience, here is a list of some of the branches of psychology.

Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology that studies abnormal or unusual behavior, thoughts, or emotions. It focuses on gaining a better understanding of the variety of psychological disorders which affect human behavior and cause psychopathology. Most definitions of abnormal psychology include the idea that the abnormal psychologist is concerned with understanding the individual pathologies of the mind, behavior, mood, or emotions. The key is that these pathologies of thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are considered “abnormal” or “atypical”.

There are many ways to define “abnormal” or “atypical” and they may differ based on the culture, age, location, and expected norms of the respective society. However, abnormal psychologists scientifically study and classify the behavior, thoughts, or emotions along the well-known bell-shaped curve. Abnormal psychologists who participate in research can apply statistical criteria to behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. As such, they can determine if these are statistically significant compared to the majority of people (e.g., they look at how many standard deviations from the norm the behaviors, thoughts, or emotions fall). Those behaviors which cluster in the middle are considered “normal” while those which fall on either of the extreme ends are considered abnormal.

It is important to recognize that within the field of abnormal psychology, those behaviors considered normal and those considered abnormal are not synonymous with right or wrong. Rather, abnormal psychologists are concerned with how these “abnormal” or “atypical” behaviors cause distress for the person, their friends, family, or society. Furthermore, if these behaviors cause irrational or harmful behavior to self or others, then the abnormal psychologist would be brought in to better understand, diagnose, and treat these behaviors.

In addition to using the statistical significance (deviation from the norm), distress, or harmful behavior to self or others (maladaptive behavior) as criteria for defining abnormality in psychology, the desirability of the behavior can also be used to determine if it is considered “abnormal” or “atypical”. For example, those with a high IQ (considered a genius) are statistically significantly different from those considered normal, however, most people would not view geniuses as abnormal in a negative way. On the other hand, those with an IQ on the lower extreme of the bell-shaped curve usually have lower cognitive abilities and are viewed as less desirable and may cause some discomfort and distress for those around them. Similarly, Tourette Syndrome (TS) belongs to a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions referred to as Tic Disorders. Some Tic Disorders are barely noticeable and can be transient while others are more noticeable and can persist into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, those which are more noticeable may be considered more “abnormal” and cause discomfort or distress.

Abnormal psychologists may take various approaches when treating the abnormal or unusual behavior, thoughts, or emotions. Some psychologists may take the behavioral approach by focusing on the observable behaviors and reinforcing positive behaviors and not reinforcing negative or maladaptive behaviors. Other psychologists may take a more cognitive approach by focusing on changing the person’s thoughts, perceptions, reactions, and reasoning in order to change their behavior. Another group of psychologists may take a psychoanalytic approach which takes its roots from Sigmund Freud and suggests that abnormal behaviors may stem from desires, memories, or unconscious thoughts. The belief is that these feelings influence conscious actions.  Still other psychologists may take a biological (or medical) approach by looking at the underlying causes of the disorders like chemical imbalance, genetics, or medical conditions.

Similar to other types of psychologists, some abnormal psychologists work in clinical settings such as hospitals, clinics, or mental health facilities. Others work in a university or college setting or in research facilities. Those who work in the research arena typically focus their research on a particular psychological disorder (or group of disorders). Those who work in higher education usually teach and may conduct research. Abnormal psychology falls more under the theoretical and experimental branches of psychology (as opposed to the applied branch), therefore, you may not find many working in private practice.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is considered the standard abnormal psychology and psychiatry reference book in North America. It is currently in its fifth edition and is known as DSM-5. The DSM-5 includes three main sections: the diagnostic classification, the diagnostic criteria sets, and the descriptive text. Another reference used by abnormal psychologists (especially in other parts of the world) is the ICD-10 which has been used by World Health Organization (WHO) member states since 1994. In particular, chapter five includes around 300 mental and behavioral disorders. Indeed, chapter five of the ICD-10 was influenced by previous versions of the DSM-5, therefore, you will find a great deal of similarities between the two.

Applied Psychology

Applied psychology is a field which applies psychological methods, principles, and scientific findings to real-world problems of human and animal behavior. In other words, it puts practical research into action. Applied psychologists focus more on the implementation of real-world results versus abstract theories and lab experiments.

Many psychologists believe there are two main types of psychology: experimental psychology and applied psychology. Experimental psychology focuses primarily on research, whereas, applied psychology takes this research and applies it to practical problems for people (as individuals, groups, or organizations). In particular, an applied psychologist will look at existing research and use it to solve problems in such settings as the workplace, health environment, legal/law enforcement, and the clinical environment. Some of the other branches of applied psychology include industrial/organizational (I/O), sports, forensic, educational, political, military, and consumer.

It is important to remember that applied psychology is founded on experimental psychology in that applied psychology takes the research from experimental psychology and applies it to the real world to identify and develop solutions for problems to achieve tangible results. They work hand in hand to achieve measurable results.  Applied psychology wouldn’t exist without experimental psychology.

Applied psychologists must not only have a good working knowledge of the experimental method (make observations, form an hypothesis, make a prediction [or multiple predictions], develop and perform an experiment to test the prediction[s], analyze and interpret the results, draw a conclusion, and report your results), they must also be able to apply this method to real-life situations instead of laboratory experiments/laboratory environment. Furthermore, applied psychologists must also feel comfortable working with, and speaking to, individuals, groups, and the public as they often need to persuade and educate them regarding their work. They must be able to create organize their thoughts and have strong writing skills which are necessary for creating proposals and reports. In addition, applied psychologists must know how to effectively communicate with their subjects in order to elicit honest and natural behaviors and feedback.

Applied psychology encompasses a wide range of activities from laboratory experiments to field studies to direct clinical services for individuals, couples, groups, and organizations. Applied psychology has broadened since its early beginnings when it simply looked at testing and teaching methods to stress performance to evaluation of attitudes, morale, and feelings. Applied psychology will continue to broaden and expand as new experimental findings become available and as new problems arise. Students interested in continuing their education in applied psychology can visit our list of the most affordable applied psychology graduate programs and resources.

Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on studying observable human behaviors and the methods of acquiring and changing those behaviors through conditioning. Behavioral psychology is often referred to as behaviorism. The behavioral approach, taken by behaviorists, involves studying behavior in a systematic and observable manner to better understand how interaction with the environment determines behavior. Behaviorism assumes that all learning occurs through interactions with the surrounding environment and that the environment shapes behavior. As a result, according to this school of thought, only observable behavior should be considered. In other words, behaviorists do not consider emotions, moods, or cognitions because these are far too subjective.

Behavior analysis is also based on the foundations of behaviorism including utilizing learning principles to bring about behavior changes. Therefore, those who study behavioral psychology may also get involved with one, or both, of the two major areas of behavior analysis (experimental and applied). Experimental behavior analysis is research that is focused on adding to the body of knowledge about behavior. On the other hand, applied behavior analysis is research that is focused on applying these behavior principles to the real world (i.e., real life situations). For example, those focused on applied behavior analysis may apply the principles to help adults or children learn new behaviors or replace negative or problem behaviors. Others may apply the principles to help people with disabilities improve their behavior, increase their academic skills, or improve employee performance.

Because behavior analysis focuses on the behavior (and not the underlying cognitions or mentalistic causes of behavior), it is unique in the field of psychology. In fact, Division 25 of the American Psychology Association (APA) is devoted solely to the area of behavior analysis. In particular, Division 25 explains that the name of their organization “shall be the Division of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, a Division of the American Psychological Association.” Furthermore, they state that one of the purposes of the organization shall be “to promote experimental studies, both basic and applied, in the experimental analysis of behavior…” This corresponds with much of the research available which shows there are basically three different ways to analyze behavior. First, you can study behavior through experimental investigation. Second, you can use applied behavior analysis which means you apply what researchers know about behavior and apply it to real-world situations. Third, you can use conceptual analysis of behavior to address the historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological issues of behavior analysis.

Behavioral psychology is often linked to cognitive psychology as the field examines theories of human learning and behavior like conditioning theories, social learning theories, and other models of information processing. Behavioral psychologists use empirical (observable) data along with theories of human behavior, cognition, and learning.

Those who follow the theories behind strict behaviorism believe that almost any person (or animal) can be trained to perform any job or task no matter their personality traits, background, or thoughts. Strict behaviorists believe it only requires the right conditioning. Within behavioral psychology, conditioning is a theory which states that a reaction to an object or event can be learned or modified. The reaction is the “response” while the object or event is the “stimulus” and can be by a person or an animal. In other words, conditioning theory states that a response to a stimulus by an animal or person can be modified by learning (or conditioning).

There are two main types of conditioning under this school of thought (classical conditioning and operant conditioning). Classical conditioning is a learning process that involves a neutral (environmental) stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. The conditioning (learning) occurs when the neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus then, eventually, the neutral stimulus evokes the same response as the naturally occurring stimulus even when the naturally occurring stimulus is absent. One of the best known classical conditioning experiments was done by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov who decided to conditioning when he discovered that his dog subjects began to salivate not only when food (or meat powder) was given to them but they also began to salivate (even more) when the person who was feeding them came close to them without even seeing the food. To simplify and better understand this, we need to understand the terms Unconditioned Stimulus (US) or Neutral Stimulis (NS), Unconditioned Response (UR), Conditioned Stimulus (CS), and Conditioned Response (CR). At the beginning of his experiments (i.e., before conditioning) we can have an Unconditioned or Neutral Stimulus (person arriving to feed the dogs). At first the person arriving to feed the dogs did not elicit a gastric response (the dogs did not begin salivating). The Unconditioned Response was the dogs not salivating. However, during the conditioning, the dogs learned to associate the person arriving to feed them with the food itself. By the end of the experiments (i.e., after conditioning), the Conditioned Stimulus becomes the person arriving to feed the dogs which then stimulates the Conditioned Response (salivation). For those who have never owned a dog, please know that the gastric response of salivation normally is a reflex which happens to help aid digestion when the dog sees their food. However, as a result of this classical conditioning, the dogs now start salivating at the sight of the person who feeds them. Other experiments associated a bell or whistle when feeding the dogs (i.e., just before feeding the dogs, they would ring a bell or blow a whistle). Therefore, after conditioning occurs, the dogs would start salivating after hearing the bell or whistle (without actually seeing their food).

Operant conditioning is a learning process that involves reinforcements and punishments so that an association is made between a behavior and a consequence of that behavior. If a behavior is followed by a positive or favorable result, then that behavior is reinforced and is more likely to happen again in the future. On the other hand, if a behavior is followed by a negative or unfavorable result, then that behavior is punished and is less likely to happen again in the future. Operant conditioning is sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning. One of the best known operant conditioning experiments was done by behaviorist B.F. Skinner when he carried out experiments with caged rats in his ”operant conditioning chamber” (“Skinner’s Box”). The rats learned that if they pressed on a lever, they would receive food (i.e., food would automatically be released for them). Reinforcement played a key role as they learned they would receive food whenever they pressed on the lever. An experiment which would fall under instrumental conditioning would be Edward Thorndike’s experiments involving placing cats in a puzzle box. In this experiment, he placed the reward (fish) outside of the puzzle box as the incentive. In order to get out of the puzzle box, the cats had to learn to undue a latch. At first, the cats couldn’t escape the box but eventually realized that undoing the latch freed them and gave them access to the fish. They then decreased the amount of time they spent trapped in the box by learning that the same action (undoing the latch) would give them their freedom and their reward. Thorndike termed this conditioning as the “Law of Effect” which resulted in the “stamping in” of a particular behavior (i.e., opening of the latch would be reinforced). On the other hand, if the cats were punished as a result of leaving the puzzle box then the behavior would be “stamped out” (i.e., opening the latch would punished and become less frequent).

Though both operant conditioning and classical conditioning are learning processes, the key difference between the two is that operant conditioning creates an association based on the subject’s behavior and the effect or outcome it generates (e.g., rat presses a lever to receive a reward or a cat opening a latch to receive a reward). On the other hand, classical conditioning is concerned primarily with the behavior itself and how the behavior is learned (e.g., dogs salivating when the person enters the room versus only salivating when seeing the food).

The biggest strengths of behavioral psychology include: it focuses on empirical data (easily observable and measurable behaviors), it is repeatable through scientific experiments, and it is useful in modifying behaviors in animals and people in the real-world. It also has practical applications in education, parenting, child care and learning as well as in therapy. Behavioral psychologists work in a variety of settings including education, healthcare, and correctional facilities. Not only can psychologists utilize behavioral psychology techniques, parents, teachers, and animal trainers can use these techniques. Some behavior psychologists work as counselors or behavioral therapists where they meet with clients to help assess and identify behaviors and create treatment plans to address or modify behaviors. Some behavioral therapies include aversion therapy, flooding, cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, and other therapies to help people deal with anxiety, substance abuse, depression, aggression, and response to trauma. Students interested in continuing their education in behavioral psychology can view our list of the most affordable applied behavior analysis graduate programs and resources.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the assessment and treatment of mental illness, disability, abnormal behavior, and psychiatric problems. In other words, it is a branch of psychology concerned with providing mental, emotional, or behavioral health care for individuals, couples, groups, or families. Some of the more common issues or disorders that clinical psychologists deal with include severe substance abuse, sexual abuse, depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, and eating disorders. Generally, clinical psychologists take a continual and comprehensive approach to health care with the goal to understand, prevent, and relieve the issue or disorder to promote well-being and improve self-development.

Clinical psychology takes general psychology a step further by integrating the science, theory, and clinical knowledge when meeting with clients to assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral issues. Furthermore, clinical psychology is one of the most popular branches of psychology as you can find psychologists working in clinics, hospitals, private practice and some schools. In fact, many clinical psychologists hold academic positions and are engaged in teaching, research, and supervision. You may also find clinical psychologists serving as consultants and helping to develop and administer social programs. Students interested in continuing their education in clinical psychology can visit our list of the most affordable clinical psychology graduate programs and resources.

Although clinical psychology shares many characteristics with other helping professions, sometimes this creates confusion.  For example, a clinical psychologist is different from a psychiatrist. Furthermore, clinical psychology must also be distinguished from counseling psychology. Although they may appear very similar, they are different in many ways. For more information review the counseling psychology section.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that uses scientific study to explore and understand the internal mental processes related to attention, memory, perception, thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and language use. In other words, cognitive psychologists use the scientific method to study (and view) the mind as an information processor while attempting to build cognitive models which help explain what happens inside people’s minds during different life experiences and events.

Unlike behavior psychology, behaviorism, and behavior analysis which focus on the observable behavior, cognitive psychology focuses on the internal events related to perception, attention, thought, language, and memory. Cognitive psychology has been influenced by approaches to information processing and information theory so much so that a key element of cognitive psychology is the view that the mind is an information processor like how a computer inputs, stores, and recalls data. Some research articles even reference two to three stages of memory including short-term memory, long-term memory, and sometimes sensory memory. In addition to comparing a human’s mind to a computer or machine, some cognitive psychologists have also begun comparing how a human’s mind receives, processes, and stores information to artificial intelligence.

Another key element of cognitive psychology is the belief that human behavior can be understood and interpreted by how the human mind operates while receiving, processing, and recalling information. Cognitive psychologists are more interested in how the stimulus-response relationship works. Using the computer analogy, they look at all of the inputs and the relationship these inputs have with the outputs. They use lab experiments, interviews, memory psychology, and case studies as research tools to better understand how the mind works.

One of the strengths of cognitive psychology is that it follows the scientific method and, therefore, is highly controlled and follow methods that can be replicated in lab experiments to produce reliable and objective data. In addition, the cognitive approach is probably one of the most dominant approaches in the entire field of psychology and it can be combined with various other psychological approaches. For example, if you combine cognitive psychology with behaviorism, you get social learning theory. If you combine it with biology, you get evolutionary psychology.

As a result of cognitive psychology easily combining with other various psychological approaches, cognitive psychology has been integrated into other disciplines such as educational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology and other cognitive sciences. For example, cognitive psychology has influenced social learning theory, cognitive neuropsychology, artificial intelligence, and others.

Some of the methodologies or studies that have used the cognitive approach include lab experiments, case studies, computer modeling, interviews, observations, and hypnosis. Cognitive psychology and the cognitive approach have been applied in a variety of applications including education, memory and forgetting, moral development, learning styles, perception, attention, and eyewitness testimony. In addition, cognitive psychology has been applied to many forms of therapy (such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] which changes the way a person processes their thoughts to help make them more rational and positive). CBT has been applied and effective for treating depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, and some forms of addiction as well as other life challenges. Students interested in continuing their education in cognitive psychology can view our list of the most affordable cognitive psychology graduate programs and resources.

Community Psychology

Community psychology is a growing specialty branch of psychology that focuses on how individuals relate to, and influence, their environment and local communities as well as society in general. In addition, more recent community psychology research has focused on how the environment and communities affect individuals. Therefore, community psychologists have recognized the reciprocal affect and complex individual-environment interactions in today’s society.

Community psychologists examine a variety of economic, cultural, social, environmental, political, and international influences to better understand and identify problems so that they can develop and implement solutions within communities. The American Psychological Association (APA) has a division (Division 27) which focuses on community research and action. In fact Division 27 has its own website called the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) which includes who they are, what they do, resources and publications available as well as current events and upcoming events dealing with community psychology.

Community psychologists can utilize both applied psychology and theoretical psychology when engaging in this type of research. In addition, there are basically two ways to promote change or address a community problem. First, you can treat or change the individuals in the community.  Second, you can engage in research to change the system or structure in a community.

The idea of community psychology is relatively new and was first used in 1965 at the Swampscott Conference (in Swampscott, MA) when nearly 40 psychologists met to discuss the possibility of new opportunities and roles for psychologists by training professionals to focus on social problems and community well-being. Since the Swampscott Conference, these new community psychologists have extended services to those who were under-represented while focusing on both treatment and prevention of social and psychological problems in a community and by working to build collaborative relationships with community members, groups, and organizations to identify and solve social problems.

The field of community psychology has evolved to focus on prevention, promote positive change, social justice, health, and empowerment by taking an ecological perspective. A clinical psychologist traditionally takes an individualistic perspective when treating a person. That is, they focus solely on the individual. On the other hand, a community psychologist focus on how the community and the larger society affects the individual. In fact, they consider how individuals, communities, and societies are interconnected and affect one another. Many psychologists in this field of study have also referenced two other ecological principles (interdependence and adaptation). Interdependence is the idea that everything is connected so when one aspect is changed it will impact others. Adaptation suggests that behavior that is adaptive and works in one situation or setting may not work in another situation or setting. Therefore, the person will have to adapt and change their behavior to survive and thrive in the new situation.

There are many other principles that have emerged from the field of community psychology. For example, action-oriented research (including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research) along with community-based participatory research and active participation by the citizens has been key features of community psychology. In addition, a respect for diversity, a sense of community, empowerment, and wellness have been other features of community psychology.

Within the community psychology field, the ecological perspective incorporates the multiple layers or levels which need to be considered when looking at problems including the individual, family, neighborhood, community, society as well as the policies, structures, and systems of each all the way up to the national level. In the end, a community psychologist is a problem-identifier and a problem-solver of community issues. These issues may stem from the environment, system, or structure of the community or they may stem from the individuals in the community or a combination of both.

Community psychologists may work in a variety of settings such as education, government, community organizations, nonprofit groups, and private consulting. In the academic setting, they may work at community colleges, smaller undergraduate colleges and larger universities to teach courses and develop, and conduct, original research. In the government setting, they may work in health and human services departments for city, county, state, and federal governments. Students interested in continuing their education in community psychology can view our list of the most affordable community psychology graduate programs and resources.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology is a psychological specialty that focuses on treating less severe problems such as relationship issues and a variety of different emotional, behavioral, or social problems as well as marital, family, and career problems. In other words, a counseling psychologist focuses more on a patient’s emotional well-being or other social and physical issues which typically stem from life stresses associated with work, school, relationships, or family. Counseling psychologists typically focus on diagnosis, wellness and prevention.

Counseling psychologists work in a variety of settings including universities and colleges as teachers, supervisors, researchers, and service providers. In addition, you will find counseling psychologists working as independent practitioners which provide counseling, psychotherapy, assessment, and preventative care to individuals, couples, families, and groups. In some cases, you will also find them working at community health centers, VA medical centers, family centers, rehabilitation centers, and within the business and industrial segments as well.

So, what is the difference between clinical and counseling psychology? While both fall under the psychology domain and, therefore, share some overlap, there are also many differences between counseling and clinical psychology. For example, they share at least 3 similarities. First, when you look into each branch of psychology, you will find that both groups of psychologists provide psychotherapy and many participate in research. Second, you will find counseling psychologists in many of the same settings as a clinical psychologist (e.g., employed at colleges, universities, health clinics, hospitals, and private practice). Third, when a counseling psychologist and a clinical psychologist receive their license to practice, both are considered licensed psychologists (i.e., there is no difference in their licensure).

There are some key differences between clinical and counseling psychology. Clinical psychologists tend to treat clients with more severe mental, emotional, or behavioral problems such as bipolar disorder, multiple personality disorder, phobias, and schizophrenia. On the other hand, counseling psychologists treat clients with less severe problems such as relationship issues, certain kinds of substance abuse, and marital, family, or career problems.

Furthermore, clinical psychologists tend to focus on psychopathology in their training and treat the psychoanalytical and behavioral aspects of treatment. On the other hand, counseling psychologists usually work with patients who are healthier and fewer psychological problems which makes sense when you look at the origin of each. Clinical comes from the Greek word “kline” meaning bed. Counseling comes from the Latin word “counsulere” meaning advising. Clinical psychology focuses more on mental health disturbances whereas counseling psychology focuses more on providing guidance and advice. Students interested in continuing their education in counseling psychology can view our list of the most affordable counseling psychology graduate programs and resources.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on how, why, and to what extent a person (and humans in general) changes throughout their lifetime. Early research tended to focus only on infants and children, however, more recent research has extended this to include adolescence, adulthood, aging, and the entire human lifespan. A developmental psychologist takes a scientific approach to examine how and why a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings change throughout their life.

Much of the research has focused on the physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development of a person through various stages of his or her life. Some of the areas of study include physical, emotional, cognitive, intellectual, social, and personality changes as well as language acquisition, formation and development of self-concept, identity, and moral understanding. Developmental psychologists examine the influences of nature vs. nurture, whether development can be viewed as a gradual process or seen as a sequence of separate stages, and whether personality traits change or stay the same over time.

Depending on which theory you study, the number of developmental stages a person goes through ranges from 4 stages to 8, 12, or more stages. For example, Jean Piaget is considered the “Father of Developmental Psychology” and his theory of development is considered to be the first stage theory in the field. According to Piaget, all people pass through the same four stages of development. In addition, in order to progress to the next stage, the person must meet or exceed the goals of each stage. The first stage is known as the sensorimotor stage and represents the first two years of a baby’s life where babies are learning about, and experimenting with, the physical objects around them.  Language development and object permanence are goals of this stage. The second stage usually lasts until the age of 7 and is called the preoperational stage. This is where children use symbolic thinking to increase their understanding of a wide variety of concepts. The third stage is called the concrete operational stage and usually lasts until the age of 12. This is where children develop and demonstrate logical thinking skills as well as improvements in their reasoning skills. The fourth, and final, stage is the formal operational stage and typically begins around 11 or 12 years of age and lasts throughout adulthood. This stage is represented by an increased understanding of abstract concepts.

Another well-known developmental theory is Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of personality development. His theory is known as the Psychosocial Developmental Theory because he was interested in an individual’s development (how one develops and changes their self-identity) and a person’s social/cultural identity (how one develops and changes their role within one’s family, friends, and society). Erikson was well-known in the areas of psychoanalytics and psychological development and is famous for coining the popular phrase “identity crisis”. Erikson believed that everyone goes through 8 stages of development throughout their life. Stage 1 is where the infant learns about trust vs. mistrust. If the infant receives consistent and reliable care from the caregiver, then he says the infant will gain a sense of trust and confidence. If the care is inconsistent or sporadic then the infant will feel unsafe and may grow insecure. Stage 2 is where the toddler learns about autonomy vs. shame and self-doubt. When a caregiver allows their toddler to safely explore the world around them while still serving as a safe base, then the toddler will feel secure enough to explore and gain autonomy and independence. On the other hand, if the caregiver fosters dependence and discourages the toddler from exploring, then self-doubt and even shame may develop. Stage 3 is where the preschooler learns about initiative vs. guilt. Erikson believes that preschoolers are focused on doing things themselves so when caregivers encourage these behaviors, they learn how to make their own decisions and can develop planning skills which can translate into an adult who can plan ahead and follow their own ambitions. If a preschooler is constantly criticized for doing their own thing or being assertive, they will learn to simply follow another person’s lead instead of making their own decisions. Stage 4 happens in the early school years where children learn about industry vs. inferiority. According to the theory, industry represents those children who are developing self-confidence and self-esteem as a result of receiving praise for their accomplishments. Inferiority happens when children are constantly criticized and do not achieve certain milestones (e.g., inferiority complex). Stage 5 is adolescence and is when adolescents’ learn about identity vs. role confusion. During this stage adolescents’ try to learn more about themselves and their identity by trying different personas to figure out which one fits them the best. Those who find their identity usually have established a coherent sense of self and their priorities. As a result, they can establish goals and abide by the values they set for themselves as adults. Those who do not develop a strong sense of self may not venture out by themselves or try different personas and, as a result, they have not developed a consistent and strong identity (i.e., identity crisis). Stage 6 is young adulthood and is where the person learns about intimacy vs. isolation. This stage is defined as anywhere from 20-24 years of age to 20-40 years of age. If a person can develop significant relationships where they can find affection and intimacy, then they will find many emotional benefits. On the other hand, if a person does not develop these types of relationships, they may become isolated and develop feelings of loneliness. Stage 7 is middle adulthood and is where adults learn about generativity vs. stagnation. During this stage people may offer guidance to others through parenting or mentoring and they may feel like they are contributing to society. In doing so, they develop a sense of purpose. If a person doesn’t feel like they are contributing to society (or have no impact on society), they may feel isolated or restless. In addition, they may feel like they have “peaked” (i.e., stagnated). The final stage, Stage 8, occurs late in adulthood and is where older adults learn about ego integrity vs. despair. This is the stage where people reflect on their life and if they feel like they have lived a full life, they can face aging and death with a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, older adults who have regrets or disappointments may feel despair and cannot gracefully age and face death.

There are other developmental theories that have proven to be influential within this field, however, instead of providing an overview of these theories, we will simply list them below for your convenience. Additionally, students interested in continuing their education in developmental psychology can view our list of the most affordable developmental psychology graduate programs and resources.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the scientific study of how humans learn, retain, and apply knowledge. Psychologists in this field may include the emotional, cognitive, social, and behavior learning processes when studying how people absorb and retain information as well as how they apply this in their lives.

Though education psychology was, and is, primarily studied in educational settings, people continue learning throughout their lives in a variety of settings. Therefore, educational psychologists have expanded their focus (and resulting applications) to other settings such as the workplace, home, public service, social, medical, and counseling. Moreover, they have expanded the group of people studied to include children of all ages in the education system as well as those middle-aged and older adults. Some educational psychologists have also focused their studies on particular groups of people who have particular learning challenges (e.g., attention deficit disorder [ADD], attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], dyslexia) or other behavioral problems that may inhibit learning.

Educational psychologists incorporate theories and topics from other related fields of psychology (e.g., developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, etc.) to create, or build upon existing, research that can be applied in the real-world. The field of education psychology primarily uses quantitative methods to understand how cognitive and behavioral development as well as intelligence, social background, emotion, motivation, age, and setting impact a person’s learning. As such educational psychology has used, and expanded, theories of operant conditioning, behaviorism, constructivism, functionalism, humanistic psychology, Gestalt psychology, and information processing.

Psychologists working in the educational field may work with teachers, educators, counselors, speech and language therapists to better understand how to answer questions regarding how to improve teaching, retention, and the learning environment so that students of all ages can improve their learning. In particular, they may evaluate and analyze existing teaching methods, testing methods, and particular education programs to determine how effective they are for students. Then they may develop new ones to help improve the learning process by changing the setting, teaching method, and resources used (e.g., textbooks, worksheets, lesson plans, tests, videos, online learning, etc.).

Some education psychologists also work with students one-on-one as well as with parents and administrators. Others may coordinate their efforts with social workers, psychiatrists, and medical providers. Many educational psychologists focus, or specialize, in the development of specific groups of people. For example, some of them focus primarily on children while others focus on adults and still others focus on those with a learning disability. A smaller portion may also work with community organizations or learning centers while others might work at private or government research centers. Students interested in continuing their education to become an educational psychologist can view our list of the most affordable educational psychology graduate programs and resources.

Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology is the study of human and animal behavior by using scientific methods to better understand behavior. The scientific method is used in all sciences and is characterized as a method of research in which a problem is identified or a question is asked, research is conducted where relevant data is collected, an hypothesis (or multiple hypotheses) is formulated or proposed, an experiment is designed and conducted to test the hypothesis, data is recorded and analyzed (typically through observation), leading to a conclusion or multiple conclusions. These experiments may help psychologists develop theories that help identify and explain behavior by humans and animals.

Though the science of psychology covers several areas from abnormal psychology to cognitive psychology to educational psychology to social psychology, it helps to view or separate these fields into two types: applied versus experimental.  Experimental psychology focuses primarily on experimental research and empirical methods, whereas, applied psychology takes this research and applies it to practical problems for people (as individuals, groups, or organizations).

It is important to remember that applied psychology is founded on experimental psychology in that applied psychology takes the research from experimental psychology and applies it to the real world to identify and develop solutions for problems to achieve tangible results. They work hand in hand to achieve measurable results.  Applied psychology wouldn’t exist without experimental psychology. Visit the applied psychology section for further information.

Experimental psychologists are interested in a wide variety of topics which include memory, cognition, emotion, motivation, perception, sensation, and learning, behavioral, and developmental processes. Some experimental psychologists spend their entire careers studying one problem or set of problems or one question or set of related questions. Their work and results often build upon each other and lead to more questions or larger findings which lead to a more comprehensive theory. The type of research an experimental psychologist conducts depends on their background, interests, and area of employment.

Similar to other psychologists, experimental psychologists can work in a variety of settings including educational (colleges and universities) and research institutions as well as government and private industries or businesses. The key for those pursuing a career in experimental psychology is that most, if not all, of their attention is focused on experimental and empirical research and many have a passion for solving problems or pursuing and exploring theoretical questions. With this said, however, almost all psychologists may be considered experimental psychologists as research is the foundation of the discipline and many psychologists split their time spent on conducting research, teaching, and applying research (their own and others) to the real-world. Students interested in continuing their education in experimental psychology can view our list of the most affordable experimental psychology graduate programs and resources.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that presumes that human cognition, behavior, and emotions are shaped by the pressure to survive and reproduce. In other words, evolutionary psychology focuses on how human evolution has shaped and changed our thoughts, actions, and feelings. Evolutionary psychology has its roots in evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and also draws on ideas from anthropology, genetics, behavioral ecology, archaeology, zoology, and artificial intelligence.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that human behavior is shaped by human evolution and our need to survive, thrive, and reproduce so much so that our thoughts, emotions, and behavior represent adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive. In this field of study, psychologists propose that we have functional mechanisms in our brain, called psychological adaptations or evolved cognitive mechanisms, which are products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution. Therefore, human behavior is a result of these psychological adaptations to address and solve persistent problems within our ancestral environments as well as current environments.

The idea that we adapt to our environment is nothing new. Indeed, within evolutionary biology, the idea that our physiological systems such as our lungs, hearts, immune system, and other parts of our body have evolved and adapted over time is widely recognized. Evolutionary psychologists argue that modular adaptions of the mind serve different functions and have evolved as a process of natural selection. Examples of these psychological adaptations or evolved cognitive mechanisms include cheater detection mechanisms, incest avoidance mechanisms, foraging mechanisms, language acquisition modules, and intelligence and sex-specific mating preferences. One such behavior that serves our self-preservation is protecting and guarding our romantic partners. Our ancestors have guarded our mates because competition was harsh, and it is in our best interest to preserve our genes to ensure that we have offspring.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that traits or behaviors that are universally recognized across many cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations such as the ability to recognize and infer emotions, ability to identify and prefer healthier mates, and the ability to cooperate with others as these all help us survive and reproduce. These types of behaviors have generated many studies of human social behavior related to intelligence, mating preferences, perception of beauty, promiscuity, marriage preferences and patterns, and cheating tendencies and patterns.

Some of the research in evolutionary psychology refers to a concept known as evolutionary mismatch or evolutionary trap which is when we find ourselves in a modern-day environment which is inconsistent with our ancestral tendencies. In other words, this happens when our innate evolved traits and tendencies, which once were advantageous in past environments, have now become maladaptive and disadvantageous in the current environment. Some evolutionary psychologists have applied this same idea to psychological adaptations or evolved cognitive mechanisms. Moreover, some evolutionary psychologists have argued that evolutionary psychology is not a subdiscipline of psychology, rather, it is an evolutionary theory that can serve as a foundational, metatheoretical framework that integrates the whole field of psychology much like evolutionary biology has for biology.

Forensic Psychology

There are a variety of definitions for forensic psychology ranging from a relatively narrow definition to a broad definition. In general, forensic psychology is the application of psychological theory and practice to the legal arena. Other definitions focus on, and include, the people involved in the legal system (i.e., usually the perpetrators or criminals). For example, forensic psychology is the interaction of clinical specialties to the legal system and those who come into contact with the law. No matter what definition is used, forensic psychologists focus on the application of psychological theory and practice to criminal, court, and correctional systems.

Another way of describing forensic psychology is looking at the definition of forensic which can be defined as “the scientific method for investigating crime”. Therefore, forensic psychology can also be thought of as applying both psychological theory and practice with the scientific method to the legal system. Those who study, and practice in, forensic psychology must have strong clinical skills and an understanding of the law, its terms, and its processes. It is important to note that forensic psychology is different from legal psychology. Legal psychology takes a more experimental focus whereas forensic psychology is more focused on the clinical application of psychology in the legal arena. Though legal psychology and forensic psychology are different, together they form what is generally referred to as the overall field of psychology and law.

In fact, many schools offer a dual degree in psychology and the law. Moreover, those who want to become a forensic psychologist must have a Master’s degree (at a minimum) and either a PhD or PsyD as well as 1-2 years of organized and supervised professional experience. In addition, a person must obtain state licensure and may consider getting board certified. In other words, you would need to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree and/or PsyD or PhD in forensic psychology, and may even consider getting a law degree (although not required) such as a Juris Doctor (a degree earned by attorneys). Once you obtain these degrees, then you will need to obtain the state licensure and may consider becoming board certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) which, again, is not a requirement.

Forensic psychologists may work in the legal arena or work in the academic setting. For example, those working in the legal system may work in prisons, jails, rehabilitation centers, police departments, law firms, other government agencies or in private practice. Those working in the academic field may work in colleges, universities, government agencies, and other settings. Some psychologists focused on the application of their research or experimentation in the forensic field may be called upon as an expert witness or be asked to evaluate people involved in a crime or those involved in custody cases. In particular, forensic psychologists have worked directly with inmates by providing screening and psychological assessments, individual and group therapy, anger and crisis management, and sometimes court-ordered assessments. Others have been asked to look at the cognitive and emotional states of someone involved in a crime (e.g., sex offenses, murder cases, etc.). Indeed, the sensationalism of television shows has highlighted the cases where a psychologist has to determine if someone was insane at the time of the crime. It is important to note that “insanity” is not a psychological term, it is a legal term and it varies by each state even though there is also a federal standard. In legal terms, a forensic psychologist may be asked to determine if a person possessed a guilty mind (mens rea) at the time a criminal act was committed. Students interested in continuing their education in forensic psychology can view our list of the most affordable forensic psychology graduate programs and resources.

General Psychology

General psychology is a term used to describe the entire umbrella that is the science of psychology. General psychology can also be thought of as the study of the mind including its cognition, emotion, behaviors, perception, and self-perception. As one of the human sciences, general psychology is more difficult (and some say impossible) than the other sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc. because, by its very nature, psychologists try to study themselves…how do you psychoanalyze the psychoanalyst?

In the end, psychology is the study of the mind, how it works, and how it affects behavior. Most of the research in general psychology has referred to different types of psychology including, but not limited to, cognitive, social, forensic, developmental, behavioral, clinical as well as others. In practical terms, general psychology has been around since humans began thinking about other people (why they act and behave the way they do, what they are thinking, etc.). However, most people would agree that general psychology became a disciplined science in the 1800s when it separated itself from the other sciences. Since then, the different types of psychology have grown but most people still refer to the main two categories of experimental and applied psychology. Experimental psychology focuses primarily on research, whereas, applied psychology takes this research and applies it to practical problems for people (as individuals, groups, or organizations).

General psychology improved its reputation as a science when it began applying experimental method in its research (experimental psychology). When using the experimental method a psychologist will make observations, form an hypothesis, make a prediction [or multiple predictions], develop and perform an experiment to test the prediction[s], analyze and interpret the results, draw a conclusion, and report the results. Applied psychology is founded on experimental psychology in that applied psychology takes the research from experimental psychology and applies it to the real world to identify and develop solutions for problems to achieve tangible results. They work hand in hand to achieve measurable results. Applied psychology wouldn’t exist without experimental psychology.

General psychologists are trained to have certain skills and possess clinical knowledge they use to help people deal with problems or stresses in their lives. They use a variety of techniques which are based on previous research or their own research. These techniques and skills are usually applied in the clinical setting while meeting, and treating, individuals. In addition to having clinical knowledge and skills, general psychologists also receive training on developing, administering, and interpreting various assessments and tests. These can be used to help a person understand their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, their intellectual skills and capacity, their personality characteristics, and many other preferences and aptitudes.

Psychologists can work in government settings, clinical settings, academic settings, as well as in private practice. They typically work in the health field and work with those who have cognitive or mental health issues so they may work with other health professionals such as doctors (physicians, psychiatrists, pediatricians) and others to provide a more comprehensive treatment which may include therapeutic and medical management. Most general psychologists have a doctorate degree such as a PhD or PsyD. Some choose to complete the EdPsy which is specific to educational psychology. A PhD takes longer to complete (usually around 5 years) whereas a PsyD takes less time (usually around 3 years) and is popular for those interested in becoming a general psychologist who focuses on therapy rather than focusing on developing new theories or new techniques. Once you have completed your doctorate degree, most states require that you have a period of supervised working experience (usually 2 years) then you must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) which is administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Students interested in continuing their education in general psychology can view our list of the most affordable general psychology graduate programs and resources.

Health Psychology

Health psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how all areas of our lives affect our physical health and well-being. Most of the current research in this field have focused on how psychological, social, and biological factors influence health, fitness, and illness. In addition, health psychologists also look at how behaviors (good and bad) impact our ability to prevent, and recover from, illness or cope with a chronic illness. Moreover, health psychologists are not only concerned with how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors affect our health, they are also concerned with how our health affects our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Therefore, it is reciprocal in nature as much as it is causal.

Some of the research has referred to health psychology as medical psychology or behavioral medicine. Whatever term is used, health psychology wasn’t recognized as a separate branch of psychology until the late 1970s when several psychology professionals sponsored a petition to create a new health psychology division within the American Psychology Association (APA). As a result of their efforts, Division 38 of the APA – the Health Psychology Division – was created in 1978. Division 38 is now called the Society for Health Psychology and they seek “to advance contributions of psychology to the understanding of health and illness through basic and clinical research, education and service activities and encourages the integration of biomedical information about health and illness with current psychological knowledge”.

One of the main approaches used in the field of health psychology today is known as the biosocial model which posits that a combination of psychological, biological, and social factors contributes to a person’s illness and health. Psychological factors may include a person’s stress levels, personality characteristics, and overall lifestyle. Biological factors may include genetic and personality traits. Social factors may include family, friends, and work support systems and the relative closeness of those relationships as personal and cultural beliefs. Health psychologists using the biosocial model will look at all of these factors to help determine the causes of illness as well as developing and implementing plans for prevention and recovery.

With this in mind, many health psychologists work with medical professionals in healthcare facilities (hospitals, clinics) as well as working for non-profit organizations and in the government and private sectors. Of course, many health psychologists also work in academia at colleges and universities. Those who do work in the academic field may teach and conduct research. Some may also work in specialty practices such as oncology, rehabilitation facilities, pain management, or other areas such as treating patients suffering from PTSD or those wanting to quit smoking or treating an eating disorder.

The field of health psychology has grown substantially recently as a result of more people living longer and taking control of their health instead of simply relying on their traditional medical doctor’s advice. For example, life expectancy in the United States in 1959 was 69.9 years compared to 78.9 years in 2016. However, this same research showed that the rate of increase in life expectancy has slowed down over time and life expectancy has actually decreased slightly after 2014. Health psychologists look for possible reasons for these trends. Another reason why we have seen a growth in health psychologists is people are looking for other (alternative) ways to help prevent, treat, and cope with illness and their overall well-being. This is where the medical field and health psychology field can work symbiotically to take a more holistic approach to improve the care and overall well-being of their patients. Students interested in continuing their education in health psychology can view our list of the most affordable health psychology graduate programs and resources.

Industrial Organizational Psychology

Industrial/Organizational psychology (I/O) is an applied discipline within the field of psychology with a broader scope than other fields relative to the knowledge and skills required for the job, the worksites and the daily responsibilities. Industrial/Organizational psychology can also be referred to as occupational psychology. The field of I/O psychology has been informed by knowledge from occupational medicine, industrial psychology, industrial engineering, economics, preventive medicine and public health.

As society was shifting from an agrarian economy into the industrial era, companies’ greatest concerns were material production and the bottom line. Working conditions for their employees was a distant second. Early studies were focused on ways to increase productivity and were adopted, often, at a cost to the workers. Eventually, in response to a dramatic increase in the number of stress-related worker compensation claims, stress-related physical and psychological disorders were recognized as a leading occupational health risk. Companies began to see the need for understanding how people behave in a work environment. Armed with that knowledge, an industrial/organizational psychologist may be tasked with determining what policies or actions an organization should take to get the best performance from its employees as well as ways for employees to obtain maximum job satisfaction. Workplace issues can often be resolved because of industrial/organizational psychologists working with business owners, managers and individual employees. An I/O psychologist is seen as someone who can increase the effectiveness of an organization and reduce organizational risk factors for stress, illness and injury.

While industrial/organizational psychology is an applied discipline of psychology, I/O psychologists also conduct research. Research has examined the relationship between high levels of work demand and the latitude that a worker has to make decisions. Another model used examines the relationship between effort and reward. The purpose of research is to understand how working conditions affect worker health and safety.

To become an I/O psychologist, you must have at least a Master’s degree in psychology. Some positions may require a PhD degree. In addition to higher education, I-Os may also choose to distinguish their qualifications through certification and licensure programs. Often I/O psychologists hold both a counseling degree and a business degree. Courses in business management, organizational psychology, mediation, and employment law are recommended. Core curricula often include the following topics: survey of occupational safety and health; job stress theory and mechanisms; organizational risk factors for occupational stress, injury, and illness; health implications of stressful work (physical and psychological) and social and economic outcomes; organizational interventions (e.g., work redesign); and programs for reduction of occupational stress, illness and injury (e.g., employee assistance programs, work-family programs).

Most commonly, industrial/organizational psychologists are hired by large organizations that have many employees. The employee may be part of a human resources department; or, if the organization is particularly large, they may be a part of a separate department. I/O psychologists are also found in work environments such as academic institutes, private practices, research firms, large businesses, leadership development centers, human resource departments, employment assistant programs, and government or private consulting firms.

Some industrial/organizational psychologists choose to be self-employed or work on a freelance basis; however, they may not step out on their own until they have gained experience over a number of years and have built a client base. I/O psychologists usually work a traditional schedule, seldom working weekends or evenings.

Other industrial/organizational psychology positions that may have similar job descriptions and responsibilities include health and safety advisor, recruitment consultant, occupational hygienist, employee relations officer, human resource manager, training and development officer/manager, and ergonomist.

The employment outlook is comparable to positions in other fields of psychology. The median salary is $54.18 an hour.  The growth in number of positions is estimated at 13%. Students interested in continuing their education in I-O Psychology can view our list of the most affordable industrial organizational psychology graduate programs and resources.

Legal psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on issues related to law, the court system, and legal processes. Much of the research in legal psychology involves empirical research that focuses on the issues related to the law, legal institutions and processes, as well as those involved in the legal process. For example, legal psychologists will apply cognitive and social principles when dealing with eyewitness memory, jury selection and decision-making, the investigation process and interviewing process. Some legal psychologists argue that one of their goals is to help improve the legal process so that it runs more smoothly and has less impact on the people involved. One of the goals of psychology is to understand behavior while one of the goals of law is to regulate and control behavior. Legal psychology is a combination of the two with the focus on the people involved in the legal process and the process itself.

The term, and branch of, legal psychology is relatively new in the field of psychology. Some argue that it is used to help differentiate it from forensic psychology. Though legal psychology and forensic psychology are different, together they form what is generally referred to as the overall field of psychology and law. In fact, the American Psychological Association has created a division (Division 41 – American Psychology – Law Society [AP-LS]) that takes a multidisciplinary approach by including research, clinical practice, public policy, teaching and training from a variety of perspectives within the field of psychology including social, developmental, cognitive, and clinical.

With this said, it is important to note that forensic psychology is different from legal psychology. Generally, legal psychology takes a more experimental focus and examines the issues that occur within the legal system whereas forensic psychology is more focused on the clinical application of psychology in the legal arena especially in criminal cases. More specifically, legal psychologists focus more on the thoughts and behaviors of jurors, the jury selection process, the court system process, and other legal processes. Legal psychologists typically work with lawyers, police officers, and judges to research and show patterns within the legal system. They are not necessarily focused on, or concerned about, the criminals or defendants.

On the other hand, forensic psychologists are usually involved in criminal cases and are focused on the suspects, convicted felons/criminals, and defendants. Forensic psychologists are often asked to help determine if a suspect was sane at the time they committed a crime. In addition, they may also be asked to determine if a suspect or criminal will be likely to commit crime again in the future if released from prison. In order to determine this, the forensic psychologist will interview the suspect or criminal (usually in jail or prison or at a police station). In other words, forensic psychologists typically work with suspects, defendants, and criminals whereas legal psychologists usually work with lawyers, judges and police officers.

Legal psychologists may also work in an administrative capacity to help develop and implement new legal policies and procedures which improve upon existing policies or attempt to address new issues or concerns. They may work for a city council, a mayor, or other city officials to help devise the language in a city’s ordinance. Most of the time, however, legal psychologists evaluate and assess the individuals involved in the legal and court process (e.g., the jurors, the jury process, witnesses, expert witnesses, etc.). They may also need to evaluate a parent seeking custody of a minor child or an inmate scheduled to go to trial or an inmate scheduled for release.

Legal psychologists may work in a variety of settings within the criminal justice system as well as outside of it. They may work in the courthouse, in private practice, in correctional facilities or detention centers, or they may work for federal law enforcement agencies. Legal psychologists may also work in the academic field as teachers, researchers, or administrators. According to the APA, jobs such as legal psychologist (those where psychology and law intersect), are going to experience higher growth and be in more demand than those such as the general psychologist.


Neuropsychology is a combination of neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) and psychology (the study of the mind including its cognition, emotion, behaviors, perception, and self-perception). Therefore, neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how the brain and the nervous system influences a person’s thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors. This field of study is both experimental and clinical in nature. While neurology is focused on the pathology (the study of the causes and effects of illness/disease or injury) of the nervous system, neuropsychology aims to discover how the mind responds to, and works through, disease or injury. Neuropsychologists evaluate and treat people to better understand how their cognition and behavior are influenced by brain activity (or lack thereof) in different parts of the brain as a result of injury or disease.

Generally, when a physician requests neurological testing for a patient, it is completed by a clinical neuropsychologist. Furthermore, it is usually ordered for people who have experienced an illness or injury (primarily to the brain). The clinical neuropsychologist will then utilize various methods to assess the illness or injury to diagnose the cause, help manage the illness or injury, and develop a rehabilitation plan for the patient. Some of the methods include standard neuropsychological tests, functional brain imaging or brain scans (e.g., SPECT, PET, MRI, fMRI, and CAT or CT), electrophysiology measures (e.g., EEG, MEG), and the use of experimental tasks which measure reaction time and accuracy on tasks related to specific neurocognitive processes (e.g., CANTAB, CNSVS).

There are a variety of approaches used by neuropsychologists in this field of study including experimental neuropsychology, clinical neuropsychology, cognitive neuropsychology, behavioral neuropsychology. Experimental neuropsychology takes an experimental psychology approach to discover the relationship between cognitive function and the nervous system. Clinical neuropsychology uses knowledge from both neurology and psychology to assess, manage, and treat/rehabilitate those who have experienced an illness or suffer an illness. Cognitive neuropsychology applies both experimental and clinical approaches into one to better understand how the brain and mind functions within those who have a neurological illness or suffered from brain injury. Within this area, there are multiple models used by cognitive neuropsychologists. Behavioral neuropsychology is an approach that uses the ideas from behavioral theory and neuropsychological principles to study the nerves, neurotransmitters, and circuitry of the brain and how (and why) these processes affect behavior. Please note that researchers in this field refer to behavioral neuropsychology as other names such as biological psychology, biopsychology, or psychobiology.

Neuropsychologists may work in government or private research facilities as well as in the academic field at universities or colleges so they can conduct their research and teach at the same time. Clinical neuropsychologists may work in a variety of healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, or serve as clinical-trial consultants (when new drugs or treatments are being trialed). Though the majority of neuropsychologists engage in research, some of them work directly with patients to help diagnose and treat their disease or injury. For example, they may work with patients who have neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s (or other forms of dementia), Parkinson’s disease, or a variety of learning disabilities. Students interested in continuing their education in neuropsychology can view our list of the most affordable neuropsychology graduate programs and resources.

Personality Psychology

Personality psychology is a branch of psychology that attempts to study the personality of individuals as well as the similarities and differences between, and among, different people and groups. The word personality comes from the Latin word persona which means “mask”. Personality is a combination of thought patterns, feelings and emotions, behavior, and motivation that influence a person’s overall expectations, values, attitudes, and perception and self-perception.

The study of personality psychology has focused on three broad areas:  One area is focused on understanding the differences in specific personality characteristics within an individual (e.g., if one is more of an introvert or extrovert). Another area of focus is understanding a person’s overall personality type (where the person falls on all of the specific personality characteristics). A third area of focus is studying the similarities and differences in these patterns and personality types between, and among, different people and groups.

Most of the research in this area references five basic philosophical assumptions (questions) that help determine personality including:  Freedom vs. Determinism (how much control does one have over their own behavior and the motives behind it?), Heredity vs. Environment (nature versus nurture), Uniqueness vs. Universality (the extent to which one person is unique or similar to others), Active vs. Reactive (do humans act through their own initiative or act as a result of outside stimuli), Optimistic vs. Pessimistic (the extent to which humans play an integral part in changing their own personalities).

There are a number of different approaches to studying personality, however, the major personality theories include:

  • Type theories (psychological classification of different types of people) attempt to develop personality types based on characteristics that can be thought of as an either-or situation while others can be thought of as existing on a continuum. One of the more well-known type theories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which was created by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Briggs, during WWII. This model resulted in 16 personality types. There are many other type theories in this field of study.
  • Psychoanalytical theories attempt to explain human behavior based on the interaction of three significant components (id, ego, super-ego). Sigmund Freud was the founder of this school of thought.
  • Learning theories (a.k.a., Behaviorist theories) explain behavior and personality as responses to external stimuli. In other words, it applies social learning theory to the development of personality and behavior.
  • Cognitive theories explain that behaviors are a result of cognitions (e.g., expectations) about the world around you and emphasize that cognitive processes help shape your personality.
  • Humanistic theories argue that people have free will and this is the most important determinant of behavior. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers were well-known proponents of this theory and believed in a hierarchy of needs and the idea that people strive to become self-actualized (people “fulfilling themselves and doing the best they are capable of doing”).
  • Biopsychological theories focus on the role biology (genetics) and the brain have on the development of personality. Many research articles have referred to the case of Phineas Gage where, in 1848, an iron rod was driven through Gage’s head and his personality changed as a result.
  • Evolutionary theories explore how variances in personality may be a result of natural selection. Charles Darwin is the founder of the theory of evolution of the species upon which the evolutionary approach to personality psychology is based.
  • Drive theories attempt to explain personality based on primary and secondary drives. For example, personality could develop from consistent habitual responses of an individual (i.e., their habits). The secondary, or acquired, drives are learned through a process of classical conditioning. Furthermore, the secondary drives are built on primary drives and may vary based on the social environment (e.g., culture). John Dollard and Neal Elgar Miller are associated with this school of thought.

Personality psychologists may work in mental health facilities, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and clinics or may have a private practice and work out of their office. Those who focus more on research may work in the academic field in colleges or universities or work for governmental agencies or private research organizations. Students interested in continuing their education in personality psychology can visit our list of the most affordable personality psychology graduate programs and resources.

School Psychology

School psychology incorporates multiple branches of psychology (educational, developmental, clinical, community and applied behavior analysis) into the practice of consultation, intervention and assessment of school childrens’ psychological health to help meet educational needs. This is done in collaboration with families, teachers, and school administrators. The science of school psychology is historically grounded in educational psychology. School psychology is a somewhat new practice as it began in the early 20th century when the need for special education learning arose more in the classroom. The formation of school psychology education has matured throughout the years to include diverse training in research and application to equip school psychologists to provide a variety of services to students, school administrators, teachers and community programs.

Educational psychology and school psychology both study the science of human learning. Both school psychology and educational psychology use psychology theory and research methodology to better understand the cognitive and behavioral processes of learning. This research data is used to design educational programs to assist educators in teaching. Main differences between school psychology and educational psychology include degree program training, credential/certification requirements, and workplace environment. Many educational psychologists are involved in research or consultation but may also be in the school environment. The majority of school psychologists work directly with students, families and teachers in a school facility.

School psychologists have such a dynamic skill set that their profession could easily be described as a five-in-one psychologist. They apply psychology to every facet of the learning process within the school, partnering with teachers and family members to foster growth in education and eliminate negative climates for students. They are trained in individual and systemwide crisis prevention and are proactive in communicating with school administration and educators to ensure preventative programs are being executed for the health and safety of students and staff. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, they are “a highly skilled and ready resource in the effort to ensure that all children and youth thrive in school, at home, and in life.” School psychologists mostly work in K-12 grade schools, but some work in other school-based settings such as universities (research or teaching), school district administration offices, or as consultants to juvenile rehabilitation/treatment centers.

A career as a school psychologist is both rewarding and challenging. Workload due to high demand of school psychologists with low numbers of applicants leaves many professionals in the field overworked and scattered among multiple schools. Addressing new technology issues, pressure from assessment testing, and budget cuts in school funding also add to the challenge of practicing school psychology. Overall, however, most school psychologists love their careers and find that navigating through the challenges is ultimately worth the reward of helping students overcome obstacles to achieve success in learning both at school, at home, and in their communities.

Working in a school as a school psychologist requires a graduate school education. A school psychologist has a diversified portfolio of educational instruction. An undergraduate bachelor’s degree, followed by completion of a master’s degree program is the first step towards a career in school psychology. Most people then continue their education with a specialist degree or doctorate degree. A master’s specialist degree is the minimum degree accepted for certification requirements to enable the graduate to be able to work as a school psychologist. These degree programs last about 3 years with an experience-building internship built into the program. A doctorate degree usually requires 5-6 years commitment time. See our list of most affordable U.S. school psychology graduate programs and resources for more information.

Social Psychology

Social psychology is the study of individuals and groups in interpersonal relationships and how personal reactions (thought, feeling and behavior) are influenced by the presence of others (physical or imagined). The data discoveries from this field of study is used to benefit larger-scale social problems that affect all of society. A few social problem examples that the science of social psychology helps examine and minimize include prejudice/discrimination, substance abuse, general crime, technology/social media controversy, judicial system concerns, ecological/environmental issues, and family, school, and workplace breakdown.

Social psychologists normally choose from two different category types for the career path that best fits them. The first category career type is in research. Many social psychologists spend their careers creating and conducting experiments in laboratories or universities. Grouped within the “research” category can also be “academia”. Social psychologists may also be professors at colleges and universities where they also manage their research. The second career type category is application. Social psychologists can also be employed in both the private and public sector of our economy. The job paths vary as there is a wide variety of businesses, non-profit organizations, and government entities that employ social psychologists in different areas of work. Consulting, marketing research, business management, political strategy, education policy and program evaluation, and data/technology analyzing are a few of the types of “application” social psychology careers.

The work that social psychologists contribute to society affects major aspects of our lives. Social psychologists generally have a love for their work and a profound sense of accomplishment knowing that their work positively affects multitudes of people everyday. Some of the research methods that social psychologists have developed and done in the past have been used for many years and have helped society in numerous ways. Modern social psychology research, especially with technology, has become increasingly more in demand as we try to discover how technology affects interpersonal relationships.

Most social psychology careers in research or teaching require a doctorate degree. Careers in “application” may only require a master’s degree. Degree programs names vary. For example, you can pursue a graduate education in general psychology but have an emphasis in social psychology. A master’s degree generally takes two years. A doctorate in social psychology normally takes 5 years to complete. The salary and job outlook depends on specialty and degree level earned. Students interested in continuing their education in social psychology can visit our list of the most affordable social psychology graduate programs and resources.

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