Examining The Different Definitions And Types Of Psychology
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.
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.
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 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 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)
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.
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
- 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
- Life transitions
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
- 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
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 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 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.
What are the five most fundamental questions of psychology?
Like all science disciplines, psychology is built on seeking answers to big questions. Add that to its multifaceted nature, and it makes it very difficult to isolate just five "basic" questions of psychology.
However, psychologists explore several fundamental questions to understand human behaviors and mental processes.
These questions include:
1. What is psychology?
Instructors and philosophers commonly ask this question in an academic setting. Its official definition by the American Psychological Association (APA) is simply "The study of the mind and behavior.
It's essential to examine and re-examine the basic definition of psychology and its function over time, as the science itself is ever-changing, and the answers may evolve with new discoveries in the field.
2. How do humans and animals behave?
This question is often explored in experimental psychology and comparative psychology (also referred to as ethology or behavioral biology). It aims to examine humans' and animals' observable actions, reactions, and behaviors to understand patterns and underlying mechanisms.
3. What are the underlying causes of behaviors?
Psychologists seek to understand the factors, both internal (such as genetics and brain structure) and external (such as environment and social influences), that contribute to human behavior.
Some schools of psychology that focus on this type of research include biopsychologists who study brain physiology and function, and cognitive psychologists, who also explore how the brain works to influence how we think and learn. Research psychologists study environmental and genetic causes, as well.
4. How do we learn and acquire new behaviors?
This question delves into learning, memory, and cognition processes to understand how individuals acquire, store, and use information to adapt and respond to their environments. Specialists in this field include developmental psychologists, social scientists, and behavioral psychologists.
5. How do we perceive and experience the world?
Psychologists study sensory processes, perception, and consciousness to understand how individuals perceive, experience, and make sense of the world around them. Cognitive psychology and neurobiological psychology explore the mechanisms and causes of these functions.
These five basic questions provide a foundation for the study of psychology, and researchers often delve deeper into specific aspects of these questions to gain a clearer understanding of human behavior and mental processes.
What are the four main types of psychology?
Psychology is a diverse field with many subdisciplines and specializations, each with its own set of questions and areas of focus. But there are four main branches or types of psychology encompassing a wide range of topics and research areas:
1. Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychology is perhaps the most well-known branch of psychology. It focuses on assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental disorders and emotional issues in individuals—typically using psychotherapeutic techniques (talk therapy).
Clinical psychologists may keep a general practice or specialize in a particular age group or mental condition. They work in group settings, hospitals, mental health clinics, or own practices, and they use various therapeutic approaches to help individuals improve their mental health.
Applications of clinical psychology include:
- Adult Counseling— Helps adults explore their emotional and behavioral functioning and interpersonal relationships. There are many goals for this type of counseling, including addressing cognitive and behavioral issues, improving social, professional, and personal interactions, and cultivating better overall mental health.
- Child And Adolescent Counseling— Involves treatment for children from the infant stage to the adolescent phases of growth. These age groups require an individualized therapeutic approach to accommodate their unique developmental milestones and life experiences.
Child and adolescent psychologists may focus on emotional, cognitive, developmental, and behavioral issues. They may work with the patient on topics like change, trauma and loss, social and relationship challenges, the home and school environment, and coping with stress.
- Geriatric Counseling— Like children and adolescents, older adults (typically defined as 65 years or older) require more specialized care focusing on their unique psychology and physiology. Geriatric psychologists may work with older adults on topics like memory and coordination, trauma and loss, isolation and loneliness, helplessness and dependency, significant life changes, and aging within relationships.
- Family Therapy— Family therapy aims to explore the dynamics of interfamilial relationships to facilitate positive changes in attitudes and behaviors. Family therapists typically work within the context of the client's relationships, but part of that may include addressing individual issues such as low self-confidence, stress, addiction, anxiety, and depression.
- School Psychologists— Social psychologists specializing in school psychology work with teachers and administrators in elementary and secondary schools to cultivate a safe, happy, and productive learning environment. They often work with children, adolescents, and their families to determine if a child needs help with behavioral, developmental, and cognitive issues to improve academic performance, create a positive school experience, and establish healthy peer relationships.
2. Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology studies the mental processes related to perception, learning, problem-solving, decision-making, psycholinguistics, attention, thinking, memory, sensory functioning, motor control, and consciousness.
Understanding these processes allows cognitive psychologists to work with patients in identifying distorted thought patterns that influence emotions and behaviors. With this knowledge, patients learn to develop healthier ways of thinking and shape problem behaviors into functional ones.
Like other schools of psychology, the ultimate goal of cognitive psychology is to improve the patient's mental state and quality of life. Cognitive psychologists may treat:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Depressive Disorders
- Treat Substance Abuse Disorders
- Treat Personality Disorders
- Eating Disorders
- Stress Management
- Relationship Challenges
- Challenges In Work Or Academic Performance
- Challenges Caused By Health Problems
3. Behavioral Psychology
This discipline attempts to identify the origins of why people think and act in specific ways. It works on the assumption that behaviors are the product of how we perceive and interact with our environment.
There are two main types of conditioning in behavioral psychology:
Classical Conditioning—Changes behaviors by repeatedly pairing a neutral stimulus with a naturally occurring stimulus. Over time, the subject develops the same reaction to the neutral stimulus.
Operant (Or Instrumental) Conditioning—Change occurs via the association of rewards and punishments as consequences for behavior. It assumes that if a reward follows a behavior, the subject will likely repeat it. If a punishment follows a behavior, the subject is less likely to repeat it.
Biopsychologists research human behaviors like motivation, emotion, memory, social interaction, attention, and decision-making within the context of brain functioning and evolution. Although studies may involve human subjects, biopsychology research typically focuses on non-human mammals.
Sub-fields under the umbrella of biopsychology include:
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Comparative Psychology
- Physiological Psychology
The evolution of these four psychological approaches has given rise to many subdisciplines, including:
- Abnormal Psychology— Focuses on the study of abnormal behavioral patterns, thoughts, and emotions. In this context, "abnormal" refers to characteristics such as deviance, distress, dysfunction, and danger. Though it is presently used to study and treat mental health disorders, the area of abnormal psychology is a subject of debate among the scientific community, with some claiming that the concept contributes to the stigmatization of mental illness.
- Industrial And Organizational Psychology—This type of psychology studies human behavior within the context of organizations and the workplace. It focuses on how topics like motivation, interpersonal relationship skills, and personality type are understood and used to solve problems and streamline operations in business.
Industrial-organizational psychologists often have a specialized degree and work as human resource specialists, executive coaches, and workforce planning specialists. Industrial-organizational psychology is used to improve areas of hiring and recruitment, workplace motivation, performance measurement, training and development, and organizational development.
Industrial-organizational psychology is also used to assess areas of consumer behavior and marketing strategy.
- Forensic Psychology—Uses scientific knowledge of human behavior and motivation to provide insight into criminal activity. Forensic psychologists work with law enforcement, attorneys, victims of crime, witnesses, and at-risk youth. Criminal psychologists focus on understanding criminal behavior and the justice system rather than victims, witnesses, and juries.
- Social Psychology— A social psychologist aims to help people understand how they view themselves as constituents of a larger society and how that perception affects one's choices, beliefs, and behaviors.
- Health Psychology— Determines how biological, psychological, behavioral, and social factors influence individual health, fitness, and illness.
- Rehabilitation Psychology—Specialists in rehabilitation psychology work with individuals who have chronic health conditions or disabilities to help them cope with the issues that come with having physical challenges, address any co-occurring mental health challenges and improve their quality of life.
- Sport And Performance Psychology—This type of psychology uses science to study the relationship between human psychology and its effect on an individual's abilities and performance in exercise and sport.
How does psychology help us understand human behavior?
Psychology uses different scientific, research-based approaches to explain why individuals act in specific ways. Many psychological disciplines work in tandem to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition. For example, neuropsychologists may work with behavioral psychologists to determine if there's a bi-directional relationship between brain function and behavior. Cognitive psychologists may work with clinical psychologists to assess personality psychology and pathology in patients with severe mental disorders.
What kind of changes are possible through psychology?
There are many areas in which psychology can work to create change. A few examples include:
- Organizational psychology can help companies cultivate a corporate environment that encourages home/life balance for their employees and supports their mental health.
- Clinical psychology can help change individual lives by treating mental health conditions and supporting the patient's overall health.
- Biological psychology can uncover organic, physical causes for mental illness— not only boosting an individual's quality of life by developing effective treatments but also helping to reduce the stigma associated with some mental conditions.
How do we use psychology in everyday life?
Psychology is used in every aspect of daily life— from how an individual's self-concept influences their behaviors and decisions to how organizations can improve their bottom line.
How does psychological well-being influence quality of life?
Psychological well-being influences quality of life in every way. When an individual is psychologically healthy, they may:
- Build and maintain healthier relationships.
- Achieve better productivity at work or school.
- Establish a greater sense of purpose for helping others.
- Cultivate and maintain better physical health.
- Influence others to improve their mental health and well-being.
What is the most effective way to study psychology?
One may effectively study psychology using the same strategies as studying any discipline:
- Be active in class by taking notes that summarize the material's key points. It's also a good idea to attend class prepared by reading the assigned materials before the lecture/class discussion.
- Schedule and keep regular study times.
- Study actively by quizzing yourself and summarizing the main points of the material without assistance from your notes or resources.
- Study on your own first, then study with a group of your peers.
How can positive psychology change and improve society?
Positive psychology is defined by the APA as "A field of psychological theory and research that focuses on the psychological states, individual traits or character strengths, and social institutions that enhance subjective well-being and make life most worth living."
Positive psychology can help cultivate well-being in individuals, who, in turn, are more likely to contribute positively to their relationships, communities, and society. It operates under the tenet that a positive mental state can also lead to better physical health and overall quality of life that may translate to far-reaching positive influence on public health.
How reliable are psychology studies?
A psychological study is generally considered reliable if its findings can be replicated over time by different researchers while maintaining consistency. Because of its rapid growth as a social science, there is much effort to either confirm or refute the validity of studies in different disciplines in psychology.
However, a wide body of research within the past decade calls into question the reliability of psychological studies, going so far as to question its status as a science altogether. However, it's important to remember that quantifying psychological phenomena through research is a complex endeavor. As such, some experts posit that research in psychology may not be well served by using the same methodological strategies as other natural sciences. For example, a 2020 paper published in the Journal of Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science suggests that "blind adherence to natural-science principles has not advanced but, instead, substantially impeded the development of psychology as a science."
Can you learn psychology on your own?
Because of the many resources available, studying psychology on your own is possible.
Yale's Introduction to Psychology and Introduction to Social Psychology from the University of Queensland are free courses offered online to provide an overview and guidance for individuals who are beginning to learn about psychology. '
In addition to university resources, there are many psychology podcasts, magazine resources, and publications (both online and in paper circulation) that can enhance and deepen your understanding of psychology. However, it is important to note that learning the fundamentals is the first step in an extended educational and experiential journey if you'd like to establish a career path in psychology.
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