Major Subfields of Psychology

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The study and practice of psychology encompasses a vast range of topics and a large number of subfields and specialty areas have developed as a result. Because human behavior is so varied, the number of subfields in psychology is constantly growing and evolving.

Psychology can be roughly divided into two major sections:

  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 psychology touches on a number of other subjects including biology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology, new areas of research and practice are continually forming 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. Still unsure of which sector of psychology is right for you? This quiz will help you find out which psychology career path fits with your goals and personality.

    Abnormal Psychology

    • This subfield of psychology deals with the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of psychopathology.
    • There are a variety of mental disorders that can cause distress and dysfunction. Some of these include mood disorder, anxiety disorders, and cognitive disorders.
    • Many different professionals work in the field of abnormal psychology and mental health including clinicians, counselors, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatrists.


      • This area of psychology is known by a number of titles including behavioral neuroscience, psychobiology, and neuropsychology.
      • Biopsychologists study the relationship between the brain and behavior, such as how the brain and nervous system impact our thoughts, feeling, and moods.
      • This field can be thought of as a combination of basic psychology and neuroscience.

        Clinical Psychology

        • Clinical psychology is the largest specialty area in psychology.
        • These psychologists apply psychological principles and research to assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental and emotional illnesses.
        • Clinicians often work in private practices, but many also work in community centers or at universities and colleges.

        Cognitive Psychology

        • Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding the mental processes of how people think.
        • Problem-solving, decision-making, language, intelligence, and attention are just a few of the topics studied by cognitive psychologists.
        • 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.

        Developmental Psychology

        Experimental Psychology

        • Experimental psychologists utilize the scientific method to study a while range of human behaviors and psychological phenomena.
        • Experimental 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 psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. This may involve studying criminal behavior and treatments, or working directly in the court system.
        • Forensic psychologists often conduct evaluations, screen witnesses, or provide testimony in court cases.

          Health Psychology

          • Health psychology is centered on understanding how psychological, biological, social, and environmental factors influence health and wellness.
          • Health psychologists are often deal with health-related issues such as weight management, smoking cessation, stress management, and nutrition.
          • Health psychologists are also involved in designing public prevention programs designed to educate people about risky behaviors and adopt healthier ones.

          Industrial-Organizational Psychology

          • Psychologists in this field apply psychological principles to research on workplace issues such as productivity and behavior.
          • Some psychologists in this field work in areas such as human factors, ergonomics, and human-computer interaction.
          • Research in this field is known as applied research because it seeks to solve real world problems.

          Personality Psychology

          • Personality psychologists study the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that make each person unique.
          • These psychologists often work in academic settings as instructors or researchers.

          Social Psychology

          • Social psychologists study social behaviors, including how individual self-image and behavior is impacted by interactions with others.
          • These psychologists often conduct research in academic settings, but others work in such areas such as advertising and government.

          School Psychology

          • School psychologists work within the educational system to help children with emotional, social, and academic issues.
          • These psychologists collaborate with teachers, parents, and students to find solutions to academic, social, and emotional problems.
          • 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.

          This article is one of the resources included in the Psychology 101 WebQuest, a lesson plan designed for students grade eight and up. The webquest allows students to gather information about a specific topic and then utilize what they have learned to create a class presentation.

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