The Wide Variety of Psychology

As I mentioned on the “Why Psy?” page, psychology is both a science and a professional practice. In addition to these two main components, psychology has numerous divisions covering numerous interests and career opportunities. This page will give you some idea of the wide variety of the branches and sub-fields of psychology.

First and foremost, psychology is divided by the pursuits of normal and pursuits of abnormal. This distinction is often described as being between scientific psychology and clinical psychology, or between scientific and applied psychology, but both of those categorizations are somewhat inaccurate. Clinical psychology – a generic term for the large branch that deals with psychological disorders, but also a specific label for an approach to disorders and extensive education – includes scientific research. And applied psychology can mean anything from therapists to psychologists working on computer interface design. No, the real big initial division is between those who are engaged in research or activities that apply to normal human behavior and mental processes, and those who are interested in disorders, abnormalities, problems in behavior or mind, and treating them.

Psychology actually came into existence examining the normal experiences of the human mind. Everybody learns that the first psychology lab was Wundt’s in Germany, sometime before 1880, and he, and those who followed after him, studied things like how awareness works, how perception works, how thought works. The clinical side grew mostly out of medicine, what we’d call psychiatry today (a psychiatrist has a medical degree), and though it began well before Wundt (insanities have been around a long time, and with them, attempts to cure), and though it “met” psychology only a few years after Wundt was in business, it didn’t catch on as “clinical psychology” for maybe another 20 years. But the two never really became one. And in some ways the division is deep: the predominance of clinical psychology practitioners within the APA (American Psychological Association) led to a splintering and the formation (in 1988) of APS, the American Psychological Society, recently renamed to the Association for Psychological Science; its existence is “dedicated to the advancement of scientific psychology.” Which only goes to show there are strong feelings about this division within psychology.

The clinical side of psychology includes therapists of all sorts, counselors, people with Ph.D.s in clinical psychology, medical doctors with specializations in psychiatry, social workers, health psychologists, and a variety of untrained people offering help or cures for psychological disorders. Technically, anyone can be a “therapist,” so the label is nearly useless, except that it is generally understood by the public to refer to someone who provides psychological help, so even those with advanced degrees and training might refer to themselves as therapists. The clinical side of psychology also includes researchers who scientifically study psychological disorders and the effectiveness of various treatments. However, the vast majority of those employed in this side of the field are practicing professionals: they see clients and provide help in one way or another.

Studying normal human behavior and mental activity fills volumes and has a large number of different sub-fields. In your introductory course, with some exceptions, every chapter or unit is a different field. A researcher might focus on child development, another on brain function, someone else on sensory systems, or memory, or conditioning, or health, or aging, or social influence, or personality, and so on. The most popular of these are probably:

Social Psychology (itself divided into sub-fields, all related to things having to do with other people, from being influenced by other people, to thinking about other people);
Developmental Psychology (examining changes in behavior and mental process as we age, from conception through old age);
Cognitive Psychology (which looks at the mind, the mental processes, ranging from memory to intelligence, to problem-solving and decision-making).

Less popular but no less important to the field are:

Biological Psychology (or neuropsychology: the study of the brain and nervous systems that make all behaving and mental processing possible from a biological perspective);
Experimental Psychology (which is a poor label for a variety of interests, though often referring to the study of sensation and perception);
Measurement and Statistics (employing statisticians – data analysts – and people who study the validity of measurement instruments, such as IQ tests);
Personality Psychology (searching for broader descriptions of persons that can help predict their reactions to different settings);
Positive Psychology (an attempt to emphasize research on things that make us happy and well);

And then mixing research with application, some of the popular fields are:

Educational and School Psychology (studying a variety of applications of psychological research to schooling);
Forensic Psychology (well-popularized through TV and film, emphasizing psychology’s role in the criminal justice system);
Sport Psychology (applying psychology to sporting environments);
Industrial and Organizational Psychology (applying psychology to the world of work).

Of course those lists are not exhaustive. If you’re interested in seeing even more of the variety of psychology, below are the 54 “Divisions” of the American Psychological Association (APA). To get an idea of what each stands for, see the APA’s Divisions of APA web site:

1 Society for General Psychology
2 Society for the Teaching of Psychology
3 Experimental Psychology
5 Evaluation, Measurement, and Statistics
6 Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology
7 Developmental Psychology
8 Society for Personality and Social Psychology
9 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)
10 Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts
12 Society of Clinical Psychology
13 Society of Consulting Psychology
14 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
15 Educational Psychology
16 School Psychology
17 Society of Counseling Psychology
18 Psychologists in Public Service
19 Society for Military Psychology
20 Adult Development and Aging
21 Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology
22 Rehabilitation Psychology
23 Society for Consumer Psychology
24 Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology
25 Behavior Analysis
26 Society for the History of Psychology
27 Society for Community Research and Action: Division of Community Psychology
28 Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse
29 Psychotherapy
30 Society of Psychological Hypnosis
31 State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs
32 Society for Humanistic Psychology
33 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
34 Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology
35 Society for the Psychology of Women
36 Psychology of Religion
37 Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice
38 Health Psychology
39 Psychoanalysis
40 Clinical Neuropsychology
41 American Psychology-Law Society
42 Psychologists in Independent Practice
43 Society for Family Psychology
44 Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues
45 Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues
46 Media Psychology
47 Exercise and Sport Psychology
48 Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology Division
49 Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy
50 Society of Addiction Psychology
51 Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity
52 International Psychology
53 Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
54 Society of Pediatric Psychology
55 American Society for the Advancement of Pharmacotherapy
56 Trauma Psychology