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Types of Psychology: Definitions & Potential Career Examples


Tables of Contents

  1. What is Clinical Psychology?
  2. What is Cognitive Psychology?
  3. Behavioral Psychology Definition
  4. What is Developmental Psychology?
  5. What is Abnormal Psychology?
  6. Choosing a Career in Psychology

In January 2017, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s Split was released in movie theatres throughout the globe. The engaging thriller chronicled the kidnapping of three teenage girls by a man named Kevin Wendel Crumb, and offered a fictionalized glimpse into Crumb’s struggle with dissociative identity disorder (aka, split personality disorder.) James McAvoy, the actor cast to play Crumb, received critical acclaim for his performance in the film, in which he transitions effortlessly between eight distinct personalities, spanning from a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig to a proper, older-woman named Ms. Patricia.

Four people stand on a platform next to an image of a human brain

Although Split is among the most identifiable examples of psychology in pop culture, it contains more fiction than fact. The practice of psychology, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as the scientific study of the relationship between the mind and behavior, encompasses far more than the study of atypical and abnormal disorders.

While the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and counseling share some similarities —  all three professions utilize various forms of talk therapy, for instance — there are several key differences between them. For example, whereas psychiatrists are medical doctors and can thus prescribe medication, psychologists and counselors cannot. It should also be noted that while counselors help patients address a specific issue, such as stress management or addiction, psychologists delve into the underlying reasons that affect how a person interacts with the world.

The field of psychology is extremely broad and includes numerous branches, each of which focuses on the study of a specific topic. Examples of some of the major types of psychology include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Behavior psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Abnormal psychology

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What is clinical psychology?

Psychology can be used to understand how environmental factors, such as a person’s family dynamic, and social pressures, such as influence from peers, affect behavior. Gaining a deeper understanding of how various factors play a role in how an individual thinks, acts, and feels can help people gain valuable insights as to why they think, act, and behave the way they do.

Clinical psychology is used to treat individuals who have a variety of mental health and/or behavioral disorders. Clinical psychologists use psychotherapy to provide care to individuals and families across their lifespan. However, some specialize in treating specific disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or certain patient populations, such as child or geriatric mental health.

Clinical psychologists also provide treatment for issues such as emotional, intellectual, behavioral, and/or social maladjustment. Although most clinical psychologists work in hospitals and mental health clinics, some work in correctional facilities or in private practice.

Types of therapy clinical psychologists use

Psychologists seek to help individuals with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as people seeking to overcome stress, grief, or trauma.

Not surprisingly, clinical psychologists use an array of therapeutic models to treat their patients. Examples include cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, developmental therapy, and psychoanalytic therapy.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy is a common type of psychotherapy in which patients work with a psychologist in a structured environment. Patients typically attend a limited number of sessions with the goal of becoming more aware of inaccurate and/or negative thinking patterns. As awareness of inaccurate and negative thinking patterns increases, individuals engaged in cognitive therapy can begin to see difficult situations more clearly and thus, respond more effectively.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is used to treat a wide range of disorders, such as panic disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. This type of therapeutic model can be used with adults and children, and it is hinged upon the idea that unhealthy behaviors are learned, and can thus be changed. Other types of behavioral therapy, such as exposure therapy, may be used to help people confront their fears.

Developmental Approach 

Developmental psychology focuses on the factors that impact human development across the lifespan. For example, if an individual has a developmental delay, such as delayed speech, and doesn’t hit certain milestones by a certain age, developmental therapy may be used to assist in two ways. First, it may be used to assess the biological and environmental factors that are impacting development. This approach can also be used to help patients develop strategies that can help them progress.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a type of talk therapy that is used to treat a variety of conditions, such as depression, emotional trauma, personality disorders, and self-destructive behavior patterns. The primary goal of this therapy model is to bring subconscious thoughts and feelings to the surface so they can be examined. Psychotherapy is used to help individuals understand how past experiences and memories have affected their behavior, thinking, and relationships.

Clinical psychology job duties

Clinical psychologists have an assortment of job duties, many of which overlap with the duties of other types of psychologists. Sample job duties include:

  • Performing patient assessments
  • Diagnosing behavioral, emotional, and mental health disorders
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Conducting therapy
  • Working with other health professionals, such as psychiatrists, to carry out treatment plans

Careers in clinical psychology

Individuals who have an interest in pursuing a career in clinical psychology can follow a variety of career paths, such as case manager, psychiatric technician, counseling psychologist, clinical health psychologist, clinical neuropsychologist, psychotherapist, marriage and family therapist (MFT), and others.

However, individuals who wish to practice psychology will need to complete an advanced education and in some cases, pass a state licensing exam. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies all types of psychologists under the same category, noting that overall employment within this field is projected to grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than what’s projected for all other occupations.

There are a number of professional roles in the clinical psychology field, some of which require education and licensing beyond the undergraduate level. Here are some examples of these occupations and their median salaries as of June 2020, according to PayScale.com. 

Clinical Psychology Career Resources

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Psychologists can specialize in areas including psychoanalysis, couple and family psychology, forensic psychology, sleep psychology, and other fields

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What is cognitive psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the study of an individual’s internal mental processes, such as their perception, problem-solving skills, memory, and others. The applications for cognitive research are numerous. In addition to helping patients cope with memory disorders, cognitive psychologists may also be sought to help patients who are recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or who are struggling with a learning disorder.

Although many cognitive psychologists work in research institutions, such as universities and governmental agencies, others work directly with patients who are experiencing hardship due to hindrances in their mental processes. Other sample work environments include hospitals, mental health clinics, and private practice.

Types of therapy cognitive psychologists use

Cognitive psychologists use various forms of cognitive therapy to treat their patients. Examples include cognitive processing therapy, cognitive stimulation therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps patients identify and modify unhelpful beliefs that arose from a traumatic event, such as child abuse, sexual assault, combat, and natural disasters. According to the American Psychological Association, this type of treatment is strongly recommended for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cognitive Stimulation Therapy 

Cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) is an intervention program for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or mild to moderate dementia. It can be performed in an individual or group setting in hospitals, adult daycare facilities, and other types of treatment centers. The goal of CST is to enhance patients’ cognition by having them engage in a series of memory exercises, such as asking them to recall the current date or to contrast how their lives are different today from when they were children.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is designed to help patients identify and correct patterns of negative thinking so they can see situations more clearly and react in a healthier way. Psychologists use CBT to treat a variety of mental health disorders, such as eating disorders, PTSD, depression, and others.

Cognitive psychology job duties

Cognitive psychologists perform a variety of job duties, many of which overlap with the duties of other types of psychologists. Sample job duties include:

  • Assessing patients
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Teaching at a college or university
  • Conducting research projects
  • Publishing research findings in peer-reviewed journals

Careers in cognitive psychology

Individuals who wish to pursue a career in cognitive psychology can choose from varying career paths, such as clinical psychologist, psychology teacher, research analyst, survey researcher, forensic psychologist, and others.

Although there are some entry-level opportunities in the field for bachelor’s degree holders, such as working as a research assistant, most careers require a master’s or doctorate degree. Individuals who wish to practice psychology may also need to pass a state licensing exam.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in this field is expected to grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Median salary estimates for the following cognitive psychology occupations are listed, as noted by PayScale.com:

Cognitive Psychology Career Resources

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: Psychologists practice in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, worksites, research facilities, schools, prisons, and rehabilitation centers

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Behavioral psychology definition

As implied by its name, behavioral psychology is the study of human behavior. This approach studies measurable events, such as the effects of conditioning and stimulus-response relationships.

Behavioral therapy is used to treat adults and children with a range of mental health disorders. This is done by helping patients identify and change unhealthy and/or self-destructive behaviors, such as self-harm, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and others.

Behavioral psychologists work in an assortment of environments, such as hospitals, mental health clinics, substance abuse facilities, private practice, and correctional institutions.

Types of therapy behavioral psychologists use 

Behavioral psychologists can choose from several therapeutic models to treat their patients. In addition to cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also sometimes used by cognitive psychologists (as noted in the above section), other examples include classical conditioning, exposure therapy, operant conditioning, and dialectical behavior therapy.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as behavior modification therapy, operates on the belief that all learning is based on interactions with the environment. Psychologists who use this type of therapy aim to help patients break the association between a stimulus, such as a loud noise, and the patient’s undesired response to the stimulus, such as a panic attack.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a type of behavior modification therapy that is designed to help people confront their phobias or fears. It can be used to treat a range of mental health disorders, such as PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Patients who are treated with exposure therapy are gradually exposed to feared objects or situations as a means of helping them reduce their fear.

Operant Conditioning 

Operant conditioning is a type of behavior modification therapy that uses rewards and punishments to modify an individual’s behavior. The primary principle of operant conditioning is that if a behavior is rewarded, it is likely to be repeated. In contrast, behaviors that are followed by a punishment are less likely to be repeated. This type of treatment has been proven to be effective in treating certain behavior disorders, such as eating disorders, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy 

Dialectical behavior therapy is used to treat individuals who want to enhance their ability to tolerate stress, negative emotions, and communicate more effectively with others. Psychologists who use this type of therapy help provide clients with various skills that can help them reduce conflicts in their relationships and better manage painful emotions. This therapeutic model has been successful in treating patients with bipolar disorder, binge-eating disorder, substance abuse, and various other behavioral disorders.

Behavioral psychology job duties

The job duties of a behavioral psychologist are diverse, although some job functions, such as assessing patients and developing treatment plans, are also performed by other types of psychologists. Other sample job duties include:

  • Teaching at colleges or universities
  • Treating adults and children who have experienced trauma
  • Conducting research to understand human behaviors
  • Observing and interpreting the behaviors of patients

Careers in behavioral psychology 

Individuals who wish to follow a career in behavioral psychology can pursue a wide range of career paths in higher education, research, and clinical practice. However, professionals who want to evaluate and treat patients will need to complete an advanced education and may need to pass a licensing exam in the state where they wish to practice.

As with employment in other areas of psychology, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment of behavioral psychologists will increase by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than anticipated growth projections for all other occupations.

PayScale.com estimates the median salaries for the following behavioral psychology career paths are as follows:

Behavioral Psychology Career Resources

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What is developmental psychology?

Developmental psychologists study how and why individuals change throughout their lives. Although this field initially focused on studying infants and children, it has since been broadened to include adolescents, adults, and geriatric populations. Professionals who choose this career path examine how biological and environmental factors, also known as “nature and nurture,” impact human development over time.

Developmental psychologists who want to focus on teaching and research will typically seek employment at colleges and universities. Those who choose to focus on evaluating and treating patients may find work in health care facilities, mental health clinics, assisted living homes, centers for the homeless, and private practice.

Types of therapy developmental psychologists use

The type of therapy that a developmental psychologist uses with their clients can vary based on the condition being treated. However, psychotherapy and group therapy models are frequently employed.

Psychotherapy

Similar to clinical psychologists, developmental psychologists also use talk therapy, or psychotherapy, to treat patients with a variety of developmental disorders, as the American Psychiatric Association reports that this type of therapeutic model has been proven effective in helping individuals cope with difficulties in their lives. In addition to meeting with patients one-on-one, developmental psychologists may also work in a group setting.

Group Therapy

Group therapy can help individuals with a wide range of developmental issues. In this therapeutic model, the psychologist may lead meetings of small groups of patients who have not met certain developmental milestones by a certain age. A key benefit of group therapy is that it helps participants understand they are not isolated in their challenges.

Developmental psychology job duties

Although some developmental psychologist job duties are unique to the field, others, such as assessing and treating patients, are routinely performed by different types of psychologists. Additional sample developmental psychologist job duties may include:

  • Conducting research studies
  • Publishing research findings in peer-reviewed journals
  • Studying the social, cognitive, and emotional development of individuals in varying life stages
  • Using therapeutic techniques to help individuals and/or groups of patients overcome learning disabilities
  • Working alongside child protective services to investigate claims of child abuse and neglect

Careers in developmental psychology 

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that employment of developmental psychologists is projected to grow by 14% by 2028, which is faster than the anticipated growth trajectory for all other occupations. Although individuals who wish to pursue careers in this field will be eligible to seek entry level jobs, such as child welfare case worker, after completing a bachelor’s degree, those who want to practice psychology will need to complete an advanced education, and, depending on the state they wish to practice in, pass a state licensing exam.

PayScale.com estimates the median salaries for the following possible developmental psychology career paths at the following levels:

Developmental Psychology Career Resources

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What is abnormal psychology?

The field of abnormal psychology focuses on the study of individuals who exhibit abnormal or atypical mental health disorders. Examples of atypical mental health disorders include afflictions such dissociative identity disorder (aka split personality disorder), and foreign accent syndrome. The latter is a rare type of dissociative disorder in which individuals experience recurrent, uncontrollable episodes of speaking with a foreign accent, without the presence of a neurological impairment or brain trauma.

Psychologists who choose this field of practice may work with patients of all ages, although some specialize in treating children, adolescents, or geriatric populations. Some abnormal psychologists may also choose to specialize in treating a specific disorder, such as dissociative disorders or varying personality disorders, such as antisocial or avoidant personality disorder.

Work environments for this field vary based on the career an individual chooses to pursue. For example, those who want to focus on teaching and research are often employed by colleges and universities, whereas those who want to practice psychology often work at hospitals, mental health facilities, or in private practice.

Types of therapy abnormal psychologists use

Similar to clinical psychologists, abnormal psychologists also use psychoanalytic therapy to help patients understand the subconscious forces that affect their thoughts and behaviors. According to Psychology Today, one small study found that 77% of patients experienced a significant improvement when this therapeutic model is used. Other therapeutic models, such as art and music therapy, may also be used.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is an evidenced-based treatment model in which music is used as a therapeutic mode.  After a patient is assessed and their emotional, cognitive, physical, and social needs are determined, a treatment program is prescribed. Treatment programs include activities such as singing, creating, listening to, and/or dancing to certain types of music.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is similar to music therapy in that it’s rooted in the belief that creative expression can improve patients’ mental well-being. Art therapy is conducted using various techniques such as coloring, painting, drawing, sculpting, and other types of artistic outlets. The goal of this therapeutic model is to help patients engage in self-expression as a means of gaining personal insight and developing more adaptive coping skills.

Abnormal psychology job duties

The job duties of an abnormal psychologist are largely similar to the job duties of a clinical psychologist, as both fields involve using psychotherapy to treat patient populations. Other sample abnormal psychologist job duties include:

  • Diagnosing, treating, and studying mental health disorders
  • Administering tests, such as the Rorschach inkblot test, to patients
  • Teaching at a college or university

Careers in abnormal psychology

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment of abnormal psychologists will increase by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than what’s projected for the average occupation. Individuals who want to pursue a career path in this field have numerous entry-level and advanced career options to choose from. As with other areas of psychology, individuals who want to practice psychology will need to complete a master’s or doctorate degree. In some cases, aspiring psychologists may also need to pass a state licensing exam.

PayScale estimates the median salaries for the following abnormal psychology career paths are as follows:

Abnormal Psychology Career Resources

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Choosing a career in psychology

The field of psychology is constantly evolving, and new branches and types of psychology, such as experimental, sports, and health psychology, continue to emerge. Each new field and focus of study contributes to the understanding of how biological and environmental factors, and traumatic events, influence how people think, act, and feel.

Individuals who have an interest in pursuing a psychology-related career path must start by gaining the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. Enrolling in and completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology is an important first step, and there are a variety of on-campus and online programs to choose from. Be sure to take your time and research various options so you can choose the degree program that’s right for you.

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Sources

Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, “Common Questions”

American Board of Professional Psychology, “Learn About Specialty Boards”

American Psychiatric Association, What is Psychotherapy?

American Psychological Association, “Different Approaches to Psychotherapy”

American Psychological Association, “Recognized Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology”

American Psychological Association, “Science of Psychology”

Better Help, “What is Behavioral Psychology? Definition and Applications”

Council of Specialties in Professional Psychology, “Specialties”

Health Grades, “Developmental Therapist: Your Expert in Developmental Challenges & Delays”

Healthline, What is Behavior Therapy?

Insider, “James McAvoy Plays a Character with 24 Different Personalities in ‘Glass’—Here They All Are”

Psychology Today, “Types of Therapy” Very Well Mind, Entry-Level Job Options for Psychology Majors

Very Well Mind, “The Major Branches of Psychology”

Very Well Mind, ”What is Psychology?

WebMD, Guide to Psychiatry and Counseling