Psychologists specialize in a host of different areas within the field and identify themselves by many different labels. A sampling of these areas is presented below to give you an idea of the breadth of psychology’s content as well as the many different settings in which it is found. Psychologists also teach psychology in academic institutions from high schools to university graduate programs.
The field of psychology encompasses both research, through which we learn fundamental things about human and animal behavior, and practice, through which that knowledge is applied in helping to solve problems and promote healthy human development. In each of the subfields there are psychologists who work primarily as researchers, others who work primarily as practitioners and many who do both (scientist-practitioners). Indeed, one of psychology’s most unique and important characteristics is its coupling of science and practice, which stimulates continual advancement of both.
- Clinical psychologists assess and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. These range from short-term crises, such as difficulties resulting from adolescent rebellion, to more severe, chronic conditions such as schizophrenia. Some clinical psychologists treat specific problems exclusively, such as phobias or clinical depression. Others focus on specific populations: youngsters, ethnic minority groups, gays and lesbians, and the elderly, for instance.
- Cognitive and Perceptual psychologists study human perception, thinking, and memory. Cognitive psychologists are interested in questions such as, how does the mind represent reality? How do people learn? How do people understand and produce language? Cognitive psychologists also study reasoning, judgment, and decision making. Cognitive and perceptual psychologists often collaborate with behavioral neuroscientists to understand the biological bases of perception or cognition or with researchers in other areas of psychology to better understand the cognitive biases in the thinking of people with depression, for example.
- Counseling psychologists help people recognize their strengths and resources to cope with their problems. Counseling psychologists do counseling/psychotherapy, teaching, and scientific research with individuals of all ages, families, and organizations (e.g., schools, hospitals, businesses). Counseling psychologists help people understand and take action on career and work problems. They pay attention to how problems and people differ across life stages.
- 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 elderly people stay as independent as possible.
- Experimental psychologists are interested in a wide range of psychological phenomena, including cognitive processes, comparative psychology (cross-species comparisons), learning and conditioning, and psychophysics (the relationship between the physical brightness of a light and how bright the light is perceived to be, for example). Experimental psychologists 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.
- Health psychologists specialize in how biological, psychological, and social factors affect health and illness. They study how patients handle illness; why some people don’t follow medical advice; and the most effective ways to control pain or to change poor health habits. They also develop health care strategies that foster emotional and physical well-being.Psychologists team up with medical personnel in private practice and in hospitals to provide patients with complete health care. They educate medical staff about psychological problems that arise from the pain and stress of illness and about symptoms that may seem to be physical in origin but actually have psychological causes. Health psychologists also investigate issues that affect a large segment of society, and develop and implement programs to deal with these problems. Examples are teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, smoking, lack of exercise, and poor diet.
- Industrial/Organizational psychologists apply psychological principles and research methods to the work place in the interest of improving productivity and the quality of work life. Many serve as human resources specialists, helping organizations with staffing, training, and employee development. And others work as management consultants in such areas as strategic planning, quality management, and coping with organizational change.
- 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 new 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 over the past 30 years, neuropsychologists are working with health teams to help brain-injured people resume productive lives.
- Quantitative and Measurement psychologists focus on methods and techniques for designing experiments and analyzing psychological data. Some develop new methods for performing analysis; others create research strategies to assess the effect of social and educational programs and psychological treatment. They develop and evaluate mathematical models for psychological tests. They also propose methods for evaluating the quality and fairness of the tests.
- Social psychologists study how people interact with one another and how they are affected by their social environments. These psychologists frequently try to identify the attributions, attitudes, beliefs, and social norms that often influence a variety of interpersonal behaviors. This research can include the study of individuals as well as groups, and may involve either the observation of observable behaviors or assessment of private thoughts. Social psychologists can be found in academic settings, advertising agencies, corporations, hospitals, and testing or survey firms.