Psychology is a vast discipline, comprising of an interesting range of specialities that have emerged as the field has progressed over time. The scientific basis for modern psychology means it is ever-evolving, with new developments being made, and frontiers being explored every day by dedicated professionals and academics in the field. Here we take a look at the core branches of psychology, and how they contribute to our greater understanding of human behaviour.
Basic science of psychology
This branch of psychology studies irregular patterns of behaviour, thought, and emotion. This may or may not be considered in the context of a mental disorder. Whilst there is some variance on what typifies ‘abnormal’, abnormal psychology specifically inspects behaviour in a clinical context to better understand and contain behaviour considered to be statistically, morally, or functionally deviant or aberrant.
Also known as biological psychology, and closely aligned to developmental psychology, behavioural psychology is the application of biological principles to the study of the physiological, genetic, and developmental mechanisms of behaviour in humans and other animals. It touches upon the nature of personality, the causes of abnormal behaviour, reactions to stress, and the effectiveness of therapy.
As another central area within the science of behaviour and mind, cognitive psychology studies mental processes including language, memory, intelligence, thinking, creativity, perception, attention, and problem solving. This arm of psychology actively overlaps with other disciplines within psychological study such as educational psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, and even economics.
This area of scientific study researches the behaviour of (non-human) animals. There is an underlying assumption in this field that many laws of behaviour can be applied across species, so that any study of animals will produce phylogenetic knowledge applicable to human beings. However, some researchers argue that this is the not the sole purpose of comparative psychology and that there is great value to be found in the focused study of species in isolation.
Cross-cultural psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour and thought processes in the context of different cultural conditions and with respect to their variability and invariance. The purpose of this is to expand and develop psychology by widening research methodologies to recognise the impact of cultural variance upon behaviour, language, and meaning.
Cultural psychology is the study of the ways in which a person’s psychological and behavioural tendencies are both rooted in and influenced by their culture. The primary principle of cultural psychology is that the mind and culture are inseparable and mutually essential, which means that human beings shape their culture in the same way that they are shaped by their culture.
Strongly related with the other elements of psychology, differential psychology assesses the ways individual behaviours differ and the inner processes that affect these behaviours. This is what sets differential psychology apart from other aspects of psychology, where psychologists more often study groups of people, or try to determine generalised psychological processes and apply them to all individuals.
Developmental psychology is the scientific study of the ways and reasons why human beings change over the course of their lives. By examining the various stages of life, from childhood though adolescence to adulthood and aging, developmental psychologists study aim to understand and explain how thoughts, feelings, and behaviours change throughout life.
This theoretical approach to the social and natural sciences examines psychological structures from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to recognise which human psychological features are evolved adaptations, the functional outcomes from natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution. Evolutionary psychologists propose that evolutionary theory can supply a metatheoretical framework that integrates the entire field of psychology.
Experimental psychology concerns the work accomplished by those who apply experimental methods to psychological study to identify and comprehend its underlying psychological processes. This approach is undertaken by using human and animal subjects in relation to a multitude of topics including but not exclusive to cognition, learning, motivation, emotion, memory, sensation and perception developmental process, and social psychology.
This approach to psychological research is based on the mathematical modelling of perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes, and has the goal of obtaining more exact hypotheses to yield firmer empirical validations. It is grounded in established rules that correlate quantifiable stimulus characteristics with quantifiable behaviour, very often formed by ‘task performance’ or how a person does with a given task.
Researching personality and how it varies among individuals, this area of study investigates individual psychological differences, human nature, and the psychological similarities of people by forming a coherent insight into an individual and their main psychological processes. In this sense, ‘personality’ is described as a structured set of characteristics that individually affect a person’s emotions, motivations, behaviours, and thoughts in different situations.
A relatively new field within the science of psychology, positive psychology concerns itself with the concept of Eudaimonia, a Greek term for ‘human flourishing’. It is the scientific study of the strengths that allow human beings to thrive, individually and communally. It assumes that people inherently want to make life worth living and will cultivate what is best in themselves to achieve this in terms of the biological, personal, relational, and cultural features of life.
This field of scientific study brings statistical analysis of human or animal psychological processes with a method of mathematical modelling, and research design and methodology. Psychologists working in this field develop and analyse a broad range of research methods such as psychometrics, which is concerned with the theory and technique behind psychological measurement.
This is the scientific study of the way thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are affected by the actual or implied presence of another people. In this way human behaviour is explained as the result of interaction between mental states and social situations. Social psychologists focus on topics such as group behaviour, social interaction, nonverbal behaviour and communication, and social influences on behaviour.
This element within the field of psychology blends science, theory, and clinical expertise to better understand, prevent, and relieve psychological issues that cause distress or dysfunction. From this, it means to improve mental wellbeing and promote personal development. Clinical psychology includes psychological assessment and psychotherapy, and is a regulated mental health profession in some countries.
Sharing some ground with cognitive and behavioural psychology, this is the scientific study of human learning. Researchers review learning processes to understand individual differences in intelligence, motivation, cognitive development, and self-concept. Educational psychology depends on quantitative methods such as testing and measurement, toward the refinement of educational activities related to instructional design, classroom management, and assessment.
At the point where the justice system and psychology converge is forensic psychology. It encompasses jurisdictional considerations – as law varies from place to place – whilst properly cooperating with relevant parties such as judges and lawyers. Forensic psychology also addresses elemental legal principles in relation to expert witness testimonies and other specific areas like workplace discrimination and child custody.
Industrial and organisational psychology
Also known as occupational psychology, work and organisational psychology, and I-O psychology, this increasingly prevalent discipline within psychology studies the science of human behaviour in relation to the workplace. Work in this area involves applying research on employee behaviours and attitudes to refine training practices and management systems in order to improve performance, motivation, job satisfaction, and occupational health and safety.
This interdisciplinary academic field within psychology aims to interpret politics, politicians, and political behaviour from a psychological perspective. The connection between politics and psychology is mutual, with psychology being used as a means to explain politics and politics being used to conversely explain psychology. Political psychology draws on many other subjects such as anthropology, sociology, economics, philosophy, journalism, and history.
Another interdisciplinary field within psychology is sport psychology, which brings input from other related fields including physiology, biomechanics, and kinesiology. It looks at how psychological factors impact upon performance and the ways in which sport and exercise affect psychological and physical concerns of a participant. Whilst performance improvement is central to the subject, it has further relevance to communication, team building, and career transitions.
Graduates of psychology degrees can expect a range of exciting career opportunities to open up for them, both inside and outside of the field. If you’d like to launch a rewarding career in psychology, and develop a professional skillset sought by employers worldwide, then why not consider an online bachelor’s degree in psychology?
MSc Psychology (BPS)
The MSc Psychology (BPS) is an online master's programme that explores the core areas of clinical psychology to improve ethical and evidence-based decision-making skills.