The Different Sides of Psychology

Albizu University psychology student using a computer in the library

While “sides” may not be the most technically correct term to describe the many branches of psychology, it does work in conveying that the study of the mind and human behavior has many approaches dedicated to it. Over-simplification aside, psychology does have an extensive list of disciplines, subfields and specialty areas that have developed over time. This post will present a brief overview of the various branches of psychology. But before we get started, a proper definition and history of psychology are called for in order to understand where it has come from and what it is accomplishing today to help millions upon millions of people.

The Definition of Psychology

The American Psychological Association website defines psychology in the following manner:

“Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience — from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. In every conceivable setting, from scientific research centers to mental healthcare services, “the understanding of behavior” is the enterprise of psychologists.”1

In addition,’s definition of psychology says:

“It encompasses the biological influences, social pressures, and environmental factors that affect how people think, act, and feel.”2

A Brief History of Psychology

For the most part, psychology traces its origin back to the great philosophers of Greece, namely Plato and Aristotle. In fact, psychology comes from the Greek word psyche, which translates as “life” or “breath.”

Up until the 19th century, psychology was regarded in a philosophical context. It wasn’t recognized as a science until the latter part of the 1800s. Here’s a quick timeline of the development of psychology as a science and its approaches.

1879 – Wilhelm Wundt, a German scientist and first person to be called a psychologist, publishes Principles of Physiological Psychology. He establishes Structuralism, which is the study of the basic elements involved with the human experience.

1890 – Functionalism, the study of how humans and animals adapt to their environments, is founded based on the work of William James.

1897 – Ivan Pavlov establishes Behavioral Psychology, which is the study of how organisms modify their behavior or learn as a response to an action of their environment.

1900 – Sigmund Freud introduces Psychoanalytic Psychology, which studies how unconscious conflicts impact behavior and influence personality.

1910 – Gestalt Psychology3 is founded as an approach that focuses on the organization of experience into identifiable patterns.

1950 – Cognitive Psychology is established and studies the functioning of mental processes involved with perception, thought, language and memory through inferences from exhibited behavior.

1960 – Humanistic Psychology is introduced and focuses on the study of the whole person and that behavior is determined by the person’s perception of the environment around them.

1990 – Socioculture Psychology looks at how the social and cultural environments surrounding a person can influence behavior.

The Major Branches of Psychology Today

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, there are a variety of approaches in modern psychology. Generally, they all fall into one of two categories: Research or Practice.

Research is focused on exploring, testing and expanding the knowledge base for understanding human thought and behavior.

Practice is the application of knowledge and expertise in order to serve the needs of individuals, groups or organizations.

Through research, our understanding and advancement of psychological knowledge is increased so the benefits can be applied through the practice of psychology to help others.

Modern psychology has evolved to serve the ever-changing needs of humans. And, while there are many different types and subfields, here are the main branches of psychology today.

Abnormal Psychology – strives to identify and treat an individual’s abnormal behavioral, emotional and thought patterns. Abnormal is typically defined by behaviors that make it difficult for an individual to function normally in society.

Behavioral Psychology – studies observable behaviors and how learning occurs through a conditioning process, which can involve association, consequences, classical and concepts of conditioning.

Biological Psychology – looks at how the mind and behavior are influenced by biological processes. This branch is associated with neuroscience and is typically utilized in cases where there has been brain injury or damage.

Clinical Psychology – is dedicated to assessing, diagnosing and treating mental illness, emotional distress or psychological problems.

Cognitive Psychology – investigates mental processes that involve learning, memory, problem-solving, decision making and language. It analyzes how we gain, process and remember information.

Counseling Psychology – is focused on assisting and treating individuals suffering with mental and emotional distress that can be associated with health, family, marriage, work or other conditions. Counseling Psychology seeks to improve social and emotional health.

Developmental Psychology – works to understand how people mature both emotionally and physically over the course of their lives. By looking at biological, cognitive and emotional growth, developmental psychologists assess and diagnose a variety of issues, like developmental delays, prenatal development and Alzheimer’s disease.

Educational Psychology – studies what impacts and influences learning and processing of information and how to empower students to improve their educational outcomes. Educational psychologists work with all types of students, from those with learning disabilities to gifted individuals.

Experimental Psychology – uses scientific methodology to investigate and research the brain, behavior and psychological phenomena in order to identify and better understand underlying psychological processes.

Forensic Psychology – is focused on using psychological research and principles within the legal and criminal justice system. It can involve assessing competency, providing expert testimony, conducting evaluations for child custody and more.

Industrial-Organizational Psychology – applies psychological principles to address workplace productivity and behavioral issues. It seeks to enhance employee well-being, improve efficiency, increase productivity and optimize work/life balance.

Social Psychology – studies the factors that impact social and group behavior, leadership, social interactions, social influences on behavior and decision making and more.

Sports Psychology – works to help athletes improve performance, increase motivation, enhance focus and recover from injury.

Far from complete, the above list is just a basic listing of the various “sides” of psychology. With many more subfields, including a large number of new additions like traffic psychology, online psychology and even spiritual psychology, the branches of psychology continue to spread and sprout.

1American Psychological Association How does the APA define “psychology”?