The Major Branches of Psychology

An individual therapy session.
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How do psychologists think about and study the human mind and behavior? Psychology is such a huge topic and conveying the depth and breadth of the subject can be difficult. As a result, a number of unique and distinctive branches of psychology have emerged to deal with specific subtopics within the study of the mind, brain, and behavior.

Each branch or field looks at questions and problems from a different perspective.

While each has its own focus on psychological problems or concerns, all areas share a common goal of studying and explaining human thought and behavior.

Psychology can be roughly divided into two major areas:

  1. Research, which seeks to increase our knowledge base
  2. Practice, through which our knowledge is applied to solving problems in the real world

Because human behavior is so varied, the number of subfields in psychology is also constantly growing and evolving. Some of these subfields have been firmly established as areas of interest, and many colleges and universities offer courses and degree programs in these topics. 

Each field of psychology represents a specific area of study focused on a particular topic. Oftentimes, psychologists specialize in one of these areas as a career. The following are just some of the major branches of psychology. For many of these specialty areas, working in that specific area requires additional graduate study in that particular field.

Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychology is the area that looks at psychopathology and abnormal behavior. Mental health professionals help assess, diagnose, and treat a wide variety of psychological disorders including anxiety and depression. Counselors, clinical psychologists, and psychotherapists often work directly in this field.

Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. While this branch of psychology dominated the field during the first part of the twentieth century, it became less prominent during the 1950s. However, behavioral techniques remain a mainstay in therapy, education, and many other areas.

People often utilize behavioral strategies such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning to teach or modify behaviors. For example, a teacher might use a system of rewards in order to teach students to behave during class. When students are good, they receive gold stars which can then be turned in for some sort of special privilege.

Biopsychology

Biopsychology is a branch of psychology is focused on how the brain, neurons, and nervous system influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This field draws on many different disciplines including basic psychology, experimental psychology, biology, physiology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

People who work in this field often study how brain injuries and brain diseases impact human behavior. Biopsychology is also sometimes referred to as physiological psychology, behavioral neuroscience, or psychobiology.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the assessment and treatment of mental illness, abnormal behavior, and psychiatric disorders. Clinicians often work in private practices, but many also work in community centers or at universities and colleges. Others work in hospital settings or mental health clinics as part of a collaborative team that may include physicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on internal mental states. This area of psychology has continued to grow since it emerged in the 1960s.

This area of psychology is centered on the science of how people think, learn, and remember.

Psychologists who work in this field often study things such as perception, motivation, emotion, language, learning, memory, attention, decision-making, and problem-solving. Cognitive psychologists often use an information-processing model to describe how the mind works, suggesting that the brain stores and processes information much like a computer.

Comparative Psychology

Comparative psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the study of animal behavior. The study of animal behavior can lead to a deeper and broader understanding of human psychology. This area has its roots in the work of researchers such as Charles Darwin and Georges Romanes and has grown into a highly multidisciplinary subject. Psychologists often contribute to this field, as do biologists, anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, and many others.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology is one of the largest individual subfields within psychology. It is centered on treating clients experiencing mental distress and a wide variety of psychological symptoms. The Society of Counseling Psychology describes the field as an area that can improve interpersonal functioning throughout life by improving social and emotional health as well as addressing concerns about health, work, family, marriage, and more.

Cross-Cultural Psychology

Cross-cultural psychology is a branch of psychology that looks at how cultural factors influence human behavior. The International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP) was established in 1972, and this branch of psychology has continued to grow and develop since that time. Today, increasing numbers of psychologists investigate how behavior differs among various cultures throughout the world.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology focuses on how people change and grow throughout the entire lifespan. The scientific study of human development seeks to understand and explain how and why people change throughout life. Developmental psychologists often study things such as physical growth, intellectual development, emotional changes, social growth, and perceptual changes that occur over the course of the lifespan.

These psychologists generally specialize in an area such as infant, child, adolescent, or geriatric development, while others may study the effects of developmental delays. This field covers a huge range of topics including everything from prenatal development to Alzheimer's disease.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with schools, teaching psychology, educational issues and student concerns. Educational psychologists often study how students learn or work directly with students, parents, teachers, and administrators to improve student outcomes. They might study how different variables influence individual student outcomes. They also study topics such as learning disabilities, giftedness, the instructional process, and individual differences.

Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology is the branch of psychology that utilizes scientific methods to research the brain and behavior. Many of these techniques are also used by other areas in psychology to conduct research on everything from childhood development to social issues. Experimental psychologists work in a wide variety of settings including colleges, universities, research centers, government and private businesses.

Experimental psychologists utilize the scientific method to study a whole range of human behaviors and psychological phenomena. This branch of psychology is often viewed as a distinct subfield within psychology, but experimental techniques and methods are actually used extensively throughout every subfield of psychology. Some of the methods used in experimental psychology include experiments, ​correlational studies, case studies, and naturalistic observation.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is a specialty area that deals with issues related to psychology and the law. Those who work in this field of psychology apply psychological principles to legal issues. This may involve studying criminal behavior and treatments or working directly in the court system.

Forensic psychologists perform a wide variety of duties, including providing testimony in court cases, assessing children in suspected child abuse cases, preparing children to give testimony and evaluating the mental competence of criminal suspects.

This branch of psychology is defined as the intersection of psychology and the law, but forensic psychologists can perform many roles so this definition can vary. In many cases, people working within forensic psychology are not necessarily "forensic psychologists." These individuals might be clinical psychologists, school psychologists, neurologists or counselors who lend their psychological expertise to provide testimony, analysis or recommendations in legal or criminal cases.

Health Psychology

Health psychology is a specialty area that focuses on how biology, psychology, behavior and social factors influence health and illness. Other terms including medical psychology and behavioral medicine are sometimes used interchangeably with the term health psychology. The field of health psychology is focused on promoting health as well as the prevention and treatment of disease and illness.

Health psychologists are interested in improving health across a wide variety of domains. These professionals not only promote healthy behaviors, they also work on the prevention and treatment of illness and disease. Health psychologists often deal with health-related issues such as weight management, smoking cessation, stress management, and nutrition.

They might also research how people cope with illnesses and help patients look for new, more effective coping strategies. Some professionals in this field help design prevention and public awareness programs, while others work within the government to improve health care policies.

Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Industrial-organizational psychology is a branch that applies psychological principles to research on workplace issues such as productivity and behavior. This field of psychology, often referred to as I/O psychology, works to improve productivity and efficiency in the workplace while also maximizing the well-being of employees. Research in I-O psychology is known as applied research because it seeks to solve real-world problems.  I-O psychologists study topics such as worker attitudes, employee behaviors, organizational processes, and leadership.

Some psychologists in this field work in areas such as human factors, ergonomics, and human-computer interaction. Human factors psychology is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on topics such as human error, product design, ergonomics, human capability, and human-computer interaction. People who work in human factors are focused on improving how people interact with products and machines both in and out of the workplace. They might help design products intended to minimize injury or create workplaces that promote greater accuracy and improved safety.

Personality Psychology

Personality psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on the study of the thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors that make each individual unique. Classic theories of personality include Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality and Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. Personality psychologists might study how different factors such as genetics, parenting, and social experiences influence how personality develops and changes.

School Psychology

School psychology is a field that involves working in schools to help kids deal with academic, emotional, and social issues. School psychologists also collaborate with teachers, students, and parents to help create a healthy learning environment.

Most school psychologists work in elementary and secondary schools, but others work in private clinics, hospitals, state agencies, and universities. Some go into private practice and serve as consultants, especially those with a doctoral degree in school psychology.

Social Psychology

Social psychology seeks to explain and understand social behavior and looks at diverse topics including group behavior, social interactions, leadership, nonverbal communication, and social influences on decision-making.

This field of psychology is focused on the study of topics such as group behavior, social perception,  nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression, and prejudice. Social influences on behavior are a major interest in social psychology, but social psychologists are also focused on how people perceive and interact with others.

Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise and physical activity. Some sports psychologists work with professional athletes and coaches to improve performance and increase motivation. Other professionals utilize exercise and sports to enhance people’s lives and well-being throughout the entire lifespan.

A Word From Verywell

Psychology is always evolving and new fields and branches continue to emerge. It is important to remember that no single branch of psychology is more important or better than any other. Each specific area contributes to our understanding of the many different psychological factors that influence who you are, how you behave, and how you think.

By conducting research and developing new applications for psychological knowledge, professionals working in every branch of psychology are able to help people better understand themselves, confront the problems they may face, and live better lives.

Sources:

Gray, PO & Bjorklund, D. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2014.

Hockenbury, SE & Nolan, SA. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2014.

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