Examining The Different Definitions And Types Of Psychology

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychologists are professionals that strive for a better understanding of the human mind — and how to use this knowledge to help clients. Their efforts have led to the development of various fields of psychology, each one dedicated to delivering the best service to people who seek support and communities worldwide. 

To understand this area of study, it can be valuable to look at the foundations of psychology, the ongoing development of the study, and the many different types of psychology available to treat mental health conditions. 

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What is psychology?

The term "psychology" is derived from the Greek word "psyche," which can be translated to mean "breath, mind, soul, or principle of life." This word was paired with "logos," meaning "word or reason." The combination of these words informed the definition of psychology given by the American Psychological Association (APA): "Psychology is the study of mind and behavior."

The APA elaborates on this definition by revealing that psychology is concerned with "all aspects of human experience" and that "the understanding of behavior" is among the primary focuses of a psychologist.

As a field of study, psychology attempts to understand the various factors that can influence behavior. It can do this by examining the relationship between behavior and mental processes such as reasoning, learning, thoughts, emotions, and motivation.

Beyond this purpose, psychology is often considered a broad and multifaceted academic discipline involving several schools of thought. Each iteration of psychology may seek to: 

  • Describe Behavior: Descriptors can help experts differentiate normal or healthy from abnormal or unhealthy behaviors.
  • Explain Behavior: Psychology seeks to explain why people behave the way they do by examining behaviors associated with mental illness.
  • Predict Behavior: By understanding a particular behavior and why it happens, it can be easier to predict when that behavior will occur.
  • Change Or Control Behavior: The ability to predict under what conditions a behavior will occur can make it possible to change that behavior or control whether it happens. 

A brief history of the development of psychology

The nature of the mind has fascinated thinkers throughout history, and there is a wealth of evidence showing that ancient civilizations may have tried to understand the connection between the brain, mind, and behavior before psychology was outlined. 

These early musings, such as those of the Greek intellectuals Thales, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, are considered by most to be under the banner of philosophy — and helped lay the foundation of what would later become known as modern psychology.

Psychology continued to be considered a branch of philosophy into the 1800s. The emergence of psychology as a separate body of knowledge began when its earliest advocates started to rely on the use of scientific methodologies to support their arguments and theories on the mind and behavior — which has been regarded by many as having occurred in the mid-1900s.

10 different psychology types

Understanding the differences between the types of psychology can help you understand the depth and complexity of the field. Below are a few of what some regard as the most common types of psychology. 

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology is regarded by many as the study of how the human brain processes information. It also may cover how information is gathered, processed, and recalled. Some of the processes considered under cognitive psychology might include:

  • Concept Formation: This area of focus addresses how the brain categorizes information and how new information is linked to what is already known. 
  • Memory Formation: A significant part of cognitive psychology is studying how humans acquire, store, and retrieve information, like facts and skills.
  • Reasoning: This concept covers how individuals make deductions and inferences to develop logical arguments.
  • Problem-Solving: Problem-solving techniques, such as the use of judgment, can help in achieving clinical goals.
  • Attention: Cognitive psychology can investigate attention, focus, and concentration and consider how these elements work together to improve performance.
  • Perception: Perception can include studying the physical senses and how people interpret stimuli.
  • Language Development: Language development can include the components of language, language acquisition, how people understand language, and the connection between language and emotions.

Other science areas closely related to cognitive psychology can include linguistics, biology, philosophy, and neuroscience (brain science). 

While cognitive psychology is primarily research-oriented, many cognitive psychologists work in public and practice assisting clients and patients. Examples of practical situations in which the theories of cognitive psychology can be applied may include:

  • Improving memory and treating memory loss during a person's lifespan
  • Developing educational programs
  • Inventing therapy for speech and language disorders
  • Facilitating greater efficiency in decision making

Sport and performance psychology 

While it is often associated with athletics, sport and performance psychology focuses on helping persons achieve their goals — not just in athletic activities but in other areas of life as well. Perhaps for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as "performance psychology."

The APA mentions "mental toughness and the ability to persevere during a high-stakes situation" as areas of focus for the sport and performance psychologist. This definition may be because the field is mainly concerned with performance under pressure, especially when that performance includes physical, emotional, and mental stress.

Sports and performance psychologists can work with clients to help them find ways of coping with or overcoming problems that hinder their performance in any way. It may be used for professional athletes or career professionals in any industry.

Approaches the sport and performance psychologists might use include:

  • Counseling to help clients who may be experiencing anxiety disorders or who have experienced a traumatic event 
  • Therapy to assist with confidence building and to develop a positive mindset
  • Techniques for developing goal-setting and mental skills
  • Techniques to improve physical aptitude

Neuropsychology

Neuropsychology is a combination of neurology and psychology. It combines cognitive psychology and brain physiology to study how neurological disorders (disorders of the nervous system) may affect behavior. 

Neuropsychologists can study the brain's structures and functions with a particular interest in how these areas relate to behavior and cognitive function. As such, the neuropsychologist may be called upon to treat patients with a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Brain tumors and brain cancer
  • Dementia or Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease 
  • Learning disorders
  • Developmental disorders 
  • Seizure disorders, including epilepsy
  • Sports concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) 

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Clinical psychology

Assessment, treatment, and research are among the three most essential aspects of clinical psychology. The field primarily focuses on the practical applications of research findings and methodologies in helping clients with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

Clinical psychologists can conduct a psychological assessment of the client, using various methods to diagnose disorders. These can include:

  • Administering and interpreting intelligence, personality, and neuropsychological tests
  • Conducting interviews with the use of questioning to gather information

Some clinical psychologists can choose to work with specific disorders like substance use disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may also choose to work exclusively with a particular demographic, such as youth or older people.

Regardless of how they specialize, there is often a high demand for clinical psychologists. They may find employment in various settings, including their own practice, hospitals, businesses, schools, mental health facilities, the military, and the government.

Counseling

Counselors help clients cope with and understand life challenges, including home, workplace, or community issues. 

This form of psychology focuses on helping clients identify their assets and strengths and use them to their advantage when facing challenges at various life stages. Counseling psychologists can consider how people interact with each other, the client's social environments, and all other internal and external factors which influence a person's behavior. These can include gender, sexual orientation, and mental state. 

Counseling psychologists may work with clients one-on-one, as well as with couples and families. Their work is often compared to the clinical psychologist's, but there are some noticeable differences. For instance, the clinical psychologist may be more research-based. The counseling psychologist, on the other hand, can assist clients with:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Relationship conflicts 
  • Chronic stress 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Educational development
  • Personality disorders
  • Work-related stress
  • Career opportunities and counseling
  • Sleep challenges 
  • Life crises
  • Parenting struggles
  • Addiction
  • Life transitions

Cyberpsychology

The field of psychology is regarded as dynamic, allowing new areas of focus to come about regularly. For instance, agencies like the British Psychological Society (BPS) include cyberpsychology (also known as web psychology and internet psychology) as one of the emerging fields within the industry. 

Cyberpsychology involves the study of psychological phenomena related to the use of the internet and all other forms of technology. The field includes the rapidly developing area of online counseling, where clients can conveniently connect with a therapist via the internet. Other activities like online shopping and gaming and their effect on behavior are also considered in cyberpsychology.

In describing and justifying cyberpsychology, the BPS points to "the increasing presence and usage of technology in our lives." Cyberpsychologists may address challenges like:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Cyberbullying
  • Depression
  • Self-harming
  • Social isolation
  • Substance use disorders 

Industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology

I/O can apply theories and methodologies from several other areas of psychology to organizational settings. The APA defines I/O psychology as "the scientific study of human development and behavior in the workplace." It describes the function of I/O psychologists as to "study and assess individual, group and organizational dynamics in the workplace." 

I/O psychologists can assist businesses with a range of employee-related services, including:

  • Job analysis methods like task analysis, questionnaires, and interviews
  • Recruitment, placement, and promotion of personnel
  • Performance appraisal, including analysis and management of files
  • Design, implementation, and evaluation of employee training programs
  • Identification, elimination, and prevention of unacceptable workplace behaviors such as aggression and bullying
  • Assessment and improvement of occupational health and job satisfaction, both of which affect employees' quality of life outside of work

Educational psychology

The field of educational psychology generally involves the study of the emotional, social, and cognitive aspects of the learning process. It also can look at how psychological issues may affect student education. Educational psychology is often associated with the applied field of school psychology. It can be categorized both as research and applied to the field of psychology. In practice, it includes:

  • Special education and support for gifted students as well as those with learning disabilities, to help them achieve their goals 
  • Ongoing evaluation of teaching and testing methods
  • Assessment of entire education programs
  • The development of new resources for use in the teaching-learning process

Developmental psychology

Developmental psychology focuses on the changes that can take place in humans throughout their lifetime. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as life-span psychology. It seeks not only to identify the changes but also to understand why they happen and the factors which affect them.

Developmental psychologists study the broad categories of physical, social, emotional, cognitive, personality, perceptual, and intellectual change. These can include:

  • Motor skill development
  • Self-awareness and self-concept
  • Identity formation and personality development
  • Executive functions
  • Moral understanding and reasoning
  • Language acquisition
  • Emotional development
  • Developmental disorders and learning disabilities

Forensic psychology

Forensic psychology can involve using the theories and practices of psychology within the legal system. It can be seen when forensic psychologists are called upon to give expert witness testimony in court cases. The forensic psychology field can also encompass the effort to understand why persons commit crimes, display aggression, and engage in socially deviant behaviors.

Apart from practice, forensic psychologists can be found working in prisons, law firms, rehabilitation centers, and police departments, among other settings. They are often required to work directly with lawyers, law enforcement officials, survivors, accused and convicted persons, and the families of survivors and offenders.

Services these specialists might provide include:

  • Anger management
  • Psychological assessments
  • Psychotherapy for individuals and groups
  • Crisis management
  • Sex offender assessments
  • Court-ordered evaluations
  • Personality assessments

Finding modern support

Therapy is not reserved for those living with mental illness. Over time, more people have acknowledged that looking after your mental health can be as important as taking care of your physical health. The services of psychologists or mental health professionals can prompt self-understanding, healthier relationships, stress management, and a higher quality of life. 

Despite more options for therapy than before, stigma, cost, and distance can all be barriers to care in a traditional therapeutic setting. However, online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp allows many to bypass these concerns, supporting those in need from the comfort of their home or another safe space.

A recent National Center for Health Research meta-analysis has confirmed that online therapy can be highly effective in treating behavioral disorders and mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression. Findings show significant self-reported improvement across the 20 study groups reviewed, covering a population of over 1,400 online therapy patients. 

Takeaway

Many types of psychology are available, not limited to the ones listed above. This expansiveness of the field of psychology has empowered many to seek professional support for mental health conditions and life challenges. If you think you might benefit from receiving therapeutic support, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for further guidance.

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