Psychologists specialize in a host of different areas within the field and identify themselves by many different labels. A sampling of those focal areas is presented here to give you an idea of the breadth of psychology’s scholarship and applications.
Clinical psychologists assess and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. These range from short-term crises, such as difficulties resulting from adolescent conflicts, to more severe, chronic conditions, such as schizophrenia. Some clinical psychologists treat specific problems exclusively, such as phobias or clinical depression.
Cognitive and perceptual psychologists:
Cognitive and perceptual psychologists study human perception, thinking and memory. Cognitive psychologists are interested in questions such as how the mind represents reality, how people learn and how people understand and produce language. Cognitive psychologists also study reasoning, judgment and decision making.
Community psychologists work to strengthen the abilities of communities, settings, organizations and broader social systems to meet people’s needs. They help people access resources and collaborate with others to improve their lives and communities. Instead of helping individuals cope with negative circumstances (e.g., trauma, poverty), community psychologists help empower people to change those circumstances, prevent problems and develop stronger communities. Examples of community psychology interventions include improving support for hurricane victims, partnering with neighborhoods to prevent crime, collaborating with schools to prevent bullying and helping change policies to improve health outcomes.
Counseling psychologists help people recognize their strengths and resources to cope with everyday problems and serious adversity. They do counseling/psychotherapy, teaching and scientific research with individuals of all ages, families and organizations (e.g., schools, hospitals, businesses).
Developmental psychologists study the psychological development of the human being that takes place throughout life. Until recently, the primary focus was on childhood and adolescence, the most formative years. But as life expectancy in this country approaches 80 years, developmental psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in aging, especially in researching and developing ways to help older people stay as independent as possible.
Educational psychologists concentrate on how effective teaching and learning take place. They consider a variety of factors, such as human abilities, student motivation and the effect on the classroom of the diverse races, ethnicities and cultures that make up America.
Engineering psychologists conduct research on how people work best with machines. For example, how can a computer be designed to prevent fatigue and eye strain in people? What arrangement of an assembly line makes production most efficient? What is a reasonable workload? Most engineering psychologists work in industry, but some are employed by the government, particularly the Department of Defense. They are often known as human factors specialists.
Environmental psychologists study the dynamics of person–environment interactions. They define the term environment very broadly, including all that is natural on the planet as well as built environments, social settings, cultural groups and informational environments. They examine behavior evolving at various scales and from various processes (e.g., localization, globalization). They have a broad and inherently multidisciplinary focus. They recognize the need to be problem oriented, coordinating as needed with researchers and practitioners in the other fields of psychology, in related disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, biology, ecology), as well as in the design fields (e.g., regional, urban and community planning; landscape architecture; architecture and engineering).
Evolutionary psychologists study how evolutionary principles such as mutation, adaptation and selective fitness influence human thought, feeling and behavior. Because of their focus on genetically shaped behaviors that influence an organism’s chances of survival, evolutionary psychologists study mating, aggression, helping behavior and communication. Evolutionary psychologists are particularly interested in paradoxes and problems of evolution. For example, some behaviors that were highly adaptive in our evolutionary past may no longer be adaptive in the modern world.
Experimental psychologists are interested in a wide range of psychological phenomena, including cognitive processes, comparative psychology (cross-species comparisons), and learning and conditioning. They study both human and nonhuman animals with respect to their abilities to detect what is happening in a particular environment and to acquire and maintain responses to what is happening.
Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. Their expertise is often essential within the judicial system. They can, for example, help a judge decide which parent should have custody of a child or evaluate a defendant’s mental competence to stand trial. Forensic psychologists also conduct research on jury behavior or eyewitness testimony. Some forensic psychologists are trained in both psychology and the law.
Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists apply psychological principles and research methods to the workplace in the interest of improving productivity, health and the quality of work life. Many serve as human resources specialists, helping organizations with staffing, training and employee development. They may provide employers with testing and other valid selection procedures in their hiring and promotion processes. Others work as management consultants in such areas as strategic planning, quality management and coping with organizational change.
Neuropsychologists (and behavioral neuropsychologists):
Neuropsychologists (and behavioral neuropsychologists) explore the relationships between brain systems and behavior. For example, behavioral neuropsychologists may study the way the brain creates and stores memories, or how various diseases and injuries of the brain affect emotion, perception and behavior.
They design tasks to study normal brain functions with imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Clinical neuropsychologists also assess and treat people. And with the dramatic increase in the number of survivors of traumatic brain injury, neuropsychologists are working with health care teams to help brain-injured people resume productive lives.
Rehabilitation psychologists work with stroke and accident victims, people with mental disabilities and those with developmental disabilities caused by such conditions as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. They help clients adapt to their situation and improve their lives, and they frequently work with other health care professionals. They deal with issues of personal adjustment, interpersonal relations, the work world and pain management.
Rehabilitation psychologists are also involved in public health programs to prevent disabilities, including those caused by violence and substance abuse. And they testify in court as expert witnesses about the causes and effects of a disability and a person’s rehabilitation needs.
School psychologists are engaged in the delivery of comprehensive psychological services to children, adolescents and families in schools and other applied settings. They assess and counsel students, consult with parents and school staff, and conduct behavioral interventions when appropriate. Most school districts employ psychologists full time.
Social psychologists study how a person’s mental life and behavior are shaped by interactions with other people. They are interested in all aspects of interpersonal relationships, including both individual and group influences, and seek ways to improve such interactions. For example, their research helps us understand how people form attitudes toward others and, when these are harmful — as in the case of prejudice — provides insight into ways to change them.
Sport psychologists help athletes refine their focus on competition goals, become more motivated, and learn to deal with the anxiety and fear of failure that often accompany competition. The field is growing as sports of all kinds become more competitive and attract younger children.