Subfields of Psychology

Although the human psyche has fascinated humankind for millennia, the scientific study of the psyche – psychology – is relatively new. Unlike other sciences such as biology and physics, psychology was first developed in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, it has rapidly developed into numerous distinct schools of thought. This reflects the fact that the human mind is influenced by biological agents, cognitive habits, culture, genetics, and various other factors. Each school of thought attracts people who have chosen to emphasize some factors more than others.

The American Psychological Association has more than fifty professional divisions, but the main areas of psychology can be arbitrarily divided into five to ten subfields. Some common department titles from U.S. universities include: behavioral psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and social psychology. Brief descriptions of various psychology subfields are provided below.

  • Behavioral psychologists are more interested in behaviors than in the emotions and reasons underlying those behaviors. Behavioral psychology is commonly applied in autism therapy and to help patients who have addictions.
  • Biological psychologists are knowledgeable about neuroscience and psychology. They study relationships between neurotransmitters and the brain.
  • Clinical psychologists treat patients in one-to-one, family, or group therapy sessions. Some take a strict Freudian approach, but the idea that all clinicians offer their patients a couch is outdated!
  • Cognitive psychologists are most interested in people’s thought processes. Their work centers on how people acquire, process, and store information.
  • Community psychologists emphasize the interaction between individuals and the community context. This area tends to focus on preventing psychological problems by strengthening community networks.
  • Developmental psychologists focus on how people’s physical and mental development interacts with thoughts, actions, and behaviors.
  • Social psychologists investigate group behavior and study how groups and individuals influence one another.

Most undergraduate programs in psychology help students choose a suitable focus area by requiring them to sample each type of theoretical approach.