Applied Psychology

Different types of psychology, and what they entail

Jul 28, 2020 | By Kyle Young
Types of Psychology

Psychology is a subject that fascinates academics and the public alike, seemingly bridging the gaps between science and the human soul. When discussing the applications of psychology, UCT Professor Johan Louw described psychology as the hub of science that connects almost all of the biological, social, mathematical and behavioural sciences, making it an incredibly large and diverse field. To understand just how broad and deep the subject psychology truly is, let’s take a closer look at some of its different fields.

Key takeaways

  • Broadly defined, psychology is the study of mind and behaviour
  • Different branches of psychology have emerged to help study different topics of interest within the field.
  • Psychology can be broadly classified into 16 branches

Tell anyone you’re considering studying psychology and the inevitable response is “Are you psychoanalysing me right now?”. It’s a banality no psychologist will ever be able to dodge (#askanypsychologystudent).

But beyond mind reading, sage advice-giving and criminal profilers, psychology is actually by definition, the study of mind and behaviour. And, while many may associate psychology with a comfy couch and a pair of attentive ears, the field is in fact so vast that there’s a slew of specialties packed under its umbrella. After all, the human experience is a multifaceted one and there is unlikely to be a singular way to describe the incredible depths and diversity of our behaviour, thoughts and emotions.

So as students of psychology, we learn how to look at people through a many different lenses, which we draw from a number popular fields of psychology.

1. Biopsychology

In 1913, a researcher named Hideyo Noguchi discovered the bacterium responsible for syphilis in the brain of a deceased mental hospital patient. At the time, syphilis was a horrifying condition with no reliable treatment that was believed to drive its victims insane. Why is this important? Well, because this was the first time someone had found biological evidence of what was considered at the time to be a psychological problem. For the first time, the scientific world had reason to investigate the relationship between our physiology and our psychological health.

Since then, the various fields of biological psychology have studied the genetic and physiological mechanisms of behaviour in humans; it is an area that is interested in the “nature” rather than “nurture” of psychology. As a field, it has made enormous contributions to our understanding of where mental health problems come from and how they develop.

2. Psychopathology

Also known as abnormal or clinical psychology, this branch of psychology involves the categorisation, diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems. Despite being only one part of a huge discipline, it attracts a lot of public interest, often giving the incorrect impression that it is what psychology is all about!

The field of psychopathology is often associated with clinical psychologists, given that they often work is hospitals and mental health clinics, where diagnosis and treatment takes place. In reality, psychopathology is a field that all psychologists are familiar with.

At what point do behaviours become abnormal and what do we use as a foundation for normality? What life circumstances make mental health problems worse, or better? How do we help people live with long term conditions in healthy and adaptive ways? These are some of the questions you are likely to answer within this field. 

3. Neuropsychology

This field of psychology combines neuroscience and the study of psychology to learn how our brain and our cognitive, behavioural and emotional functioning are related. Studying the roles that brain structures and neurotransmitters play this fields helps us understand how neurological problems can affect our daily living and how we can address them.

Interestingly, late in 2019, it was announced that one could formally register as neuropsychologist in South Africa, making it the most recent addition to the recognised categories of psychologists. These psychologists will most likely to work in medical and research settings, where they will consult on and study neurological problems like traumatic brain injuries, strokes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Is it true that one’s personality can change after a brain injury? How do we prevent cognitive decline associated with aging? How are neurotransmitters and mood related? These are some of the questions the field of neuropsychology has sought the answers to.

4. Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour in an educational setting and, as such, it is interested in determining and harnessing the learning potential of people. In learning settings such as schools and universities, educational psychologists might evaluate educational programmes, conduct research on factors that affect learning and consult on cases where students or pupils have different learning needs.

In South Africa, an educational psychologist is one of the six categories of psychologist that one can register as, following the completion of a recognised master’s degree.

When compared to other psychologists, educational psychologists tend to make more use of psychometric assessments, like IQ tests, in their day to day work. Together with in-depth interviewing, these tests help to create a holistic picture of learners who are gifted, neuro-diverse or having a tough time at school and make recommendations how to best approach their learning.

5. Behavioural Psychology

Behavioural psychology, or simply behaviourism, was one of the most popular ways to view and understand human behaviour in the early 1900s. It proposed that people’s behaviour is a learned response from something in our environment. Behaviourists wanted to get away from the psychoanalytic tradition and saw behaviourism as a more objective and measurable way of understanding people.

Ever heard of Pavlov’s dog? This famous behavioural experiment describes how Pavlov notices that his dog salivated whenever they saw food. So for a period of time, he rang a bell before he gave his dog food. After a while, it only took the ringing of the bell to cause the dog to salivate, showing what is described as a conditioned response. The dogs had been conditioned to expect food when hearing the bell ring. Reinforcement is another technique that is commonly used to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviours through rewards and punishment.

6. Cognitive Psychology

The field of psychology that deals with mental processes, such as thoughts, memory and problem solving, is called cognitive psychology. It is a field that has built our understanding of many of our more “automatic” mental processes like how we pay attention, learn language, store and retrieve information from memory and even what happens when we think of our own thoughts.

Cognitive psychology has made many important discoveries that has advanced other fields in the discipline, such as social, educational and developmental psychology. For example, in the 1950s cognitive psychology began to garner interest, despite behavioural psychology being the main approach to understanding people at that time. By the 1990s, Aaron Beck had published a book that described applying both approaches when counselling, creating the basis for cognitive behavioural therapy, which remains one of the most popular methods of treating psychological problems to date. 

7. Forensic Psychology

The application of psychology to law making, law enforcement, the examination of witnesses, and the treatment of the criminal lies in the field of forensic psychology. Essentially, the application of any knowledge from a field of psychology to the law could be considered forensic psychology.

Forensic psychology became increasingly popular as televisions portrayed FBI agents and detectives employing the services of psychologists to profile and catch serial criminals or to battle the wits of villains such as Hannibal Lector. In reality, forensic work in psychology will refer to psychologists who are well versed in providing expert testimony or opinion in legal proceedings, especially where mental health is a factor. This might be suggesting whether someone is fit to stand trial, advising in child custody cases and making sentencing recommendations.

Other important applications of psychology and law is generally concerned with how to best deal with criminality in society. This might include producing research that explains criminal behaviour, providing psychological services to offenders and designing programmes to divert young people from incarceration.

8. Social Psychology

As much as our own thoughts, emotions and personalities affect what we think, feel and do, so do our connections with people around us! An underpinning aspect of social psychology is that our behaviour is influenced by other people who are part of our broader social context. Accordingly, social psychology might seek to explain how our image of ourselves is affected by others, why we conform to social norms and what causes us to be loving or aggressive.

As a field, social psychology has also made contributions to the understanding of discrimination, through theories that describe how groups of people relate to each other. It is also a field that is very interested in culture and how it is expressed through social learning.

As a student, social psychology is an interesting field to study because it points out many common biases that people tend to hold. An example? Have you noticed that when we witness someone else make a mistake, we’ll usually say it is because of their individual capacity, but when we make a mistake, we’ll tend say it is because of our circumstances?

9. Industrial Psychology

This branch of psychology applies psychological theory to our workplaces and is interested in how people function in their work or occupational life. For example, this field is particularly interested in motivation, job satisfaction and work environments and creating healthier, happier and more productive employees.

Psychology is a useful tool in the world of work and as such organisational or industrial psychologists can capacitate organisations in a number of interesting ways. They might screen applicants for skills and aptitudes that are crucial to a particular position, develop employee wellness programmes or devise training and development strategies.

Following the completion of an accredited master’s degree, it is possible to register as an industrial psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

10. Health Psychology

Health psychology is a field that investigates the ways in which behaviour, biology and social context influence illness and health. This means that health psychologists see both physical and mental health is inextricably linked and recognise the value that improving one has on the other.

Health psychology is an important field because a lot of the work that it does is in prevention and health promotion. So rather than trying to deal with health problems once they already arise, health psychology considers what puts people at risk in the first place and combats those risks by promoting healthier behaviours. In other words, it tries to trace ill-health back to its roots and eliminate it before it becomes a much more serious problem.

Very often, extremely common problems like being overweight, stress or smoking are risks for an enormous number of other physical and mental health problems. So much so, that even achieving the tiniest positive lifestyle changes at a population level could prevent thousands and thousands of people from ever developing serious problems like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

11. Research Psychology

If the discipline of psychology had a heartbeat, it would lie in the field of research (or experimental) psychology. Why? Because despite the enormous diversity of fields in psychology, research is one thing that they all have in common. All psychologists are trained in the skills and competencies necessary to conduct research and need to be able to continuously engage with current research in their fields in order to stay on top of their game.

Most psychologists are trained in a scientist-practitioner model, which means that they are expected to be in a constant cycle of engaging with current research in their field and then applying their learning to their own practice. The decisions that psychologists make can have profound effects on people’s lives so being highly informed and conversant on topics relevant to your field is expected.

There are some psychologists, however, that dedicate their careers solely to expanding our body of psychological knowledge. Research psychologists are trained in different scientific methods to answer all manner of questions that we have about human beings. Research psychologists are highly valued, given their transferrable skillset and can be found in a myriad of organisations where they conduct experiments and trials, develop and evaluate programmes and consult for other researchers in various fields.

12. Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is a large field with a long history of studying the human throughout our various life stages. While it had started out looking at child and adolescent development, it was later expanded to include the entire lifespan. Developmental psychology investigates three main domains, namely physical, emotional and social development to build a full picture of human development throughout the life stages.

Developmental psychology is especially interesting because of how staggeringly large the field is. Because it studies how phenomena emerge in children and how they develop over a lifetime, a developmental approach often forms the basis of many other fields, because it investigates where the subject under study came from and how it changes over time. As a result, developmental psychology has contributed immensely to child psychology, educational psychology, cognitive psychology and many other related areas.

13. Community Psychology

Rather than trying to solve psychological problems one at time, community psychology is interested in how communities and their resources can be mobilised to solve problems that they face collectively. It takes the position that most problems that people have are a connected to their social conditions and that psychology relies too much on professionals to solve everyday problems. As such, community psychology recognises that communities know the most about their own problems and that with considered facilitation and training, they can be empowered to solve them.

In places where people experience many social ills, like poverty or discrimination, solving problems one at a time with a psychologist doesn’t work well, because of how common issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse and trauma are. By working with communities to identify these issues and build on their own skills and capacities to address them, a community psychology approach is more efficient. And since the community decides on the solution, it is also likely to be more culturally appropriate.

14. Psychometry

Psychometry is the field dedicated to the development and administration of psychological tests and the measurement of psychological phenomena. The results from these tests help psychologists make important decisions in many different situations. For example, whether a struggling student should move forward to the next grade, what career someone is well suited to, or even if someone is at risk of depression. Other popular areas of human measurement include skills and knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational achievement.

One of the biggest challenges in this field is creating a standard way of measuring things which are largely intangible or ensuring that you are actually measuring the thing that you are trying to measure! People have enormously diverse ways of expressing their inner worlds, so trying to neatly categorise behaviours for measurement, is extremely challenging. As an example, although this field has been interested in measuring intelligence for a hundred years, it remains an area of contentious debate.

15. Personality Psychology

A personality is generally defined as a set of characteristics that each individual possesses that shape their thoughts, feelings and behaviour and personality psychology is a field that investigates these characteristics. The history of personality psychology is closely entwined with psychometry, given early scholars attempts to measure various traits that make up people’s personalities. Some believed that there were thousands of personality traits, although todays personality tests measure much fewer. Like all psychometric measures, personality tests are not very useful on their own and used by psychologists to develop a bigger, fuller picture of an individual.

16. Critical Psychology

Critical psychology is a fascinating field of psychology that turns its gaze inwards, and interrogates the beliefs and practices of the discipline itself. This might sound a bit strange, but as a helping profession, it is crucial to constantly reflect on what the discipline is doing and whether or not it is actually really helping. For example, psychology is often thought of as a science which makes it seem like the knowledge that it produces is “objective” or true. More often however, this is not the case and that because psychology is done by people, power and politics always play a role. Critical psychology seeks to lay these omissions bare and ensure that the role of history, culture and power in the discipline of psychology are examined.

If you’ve been mulling over the prospect of studying psychology, why not consider the South African College of Applied Psychology? SACAP’s Bachelor of Applied Social Science degree is a comprehensive undergraduate psychology degree programme, providing a perfect springboard for those wishing to progress to Honours and Masters in order to become a psychologist. The college’s Bachelor of Psychology professional degree, meanwhile, has a “built-in” Honours equivalent which will provide you with an internationally recognised pathway to obtaining your Master’s Degree in Psychology and, ultimately, to becoming a qualified psychologist. For more information, enquire now.

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