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8 Types of Psychology with Real-World Perspective

Eight types of psychology to consider a career in include: abnormal, biopsychology, social, cognitive, developmental, personality, forensic and industrial-organizational.

The study of psychology can be personally and professionally rewarding. Concentrations in this field offer diverse opportunities to learn about people and how they interact with others in the workplace, in relationships and when facing health, financial and other life challenges.

While deciding to pursue a psychology major can be a big decision, it can also be a challenging one with so many various types of psychology to choose from. Let’s take a look at eight types of psychology, with real-world perspective from some of the faculty in Southern New Hampshire University's psychology programs to help.


#1 - Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychologists focus on the origins and constructs of mental illness and look at unusual patterns of behaviors, emotions and thoughts. They are involved in assessment, diagnoses and clinical treatment of mental disorders.

“When most people think about abnormal behavior, they think in terms of the extremes, of unusual and shocking examples with a sensational allure,” said Dr. Nanette Mongelluzzo, an adjunct instructor of social sciences programs.

But, she added, “abnormal simply means 'away from the normal.' Culture, belief systems, family or origin, religion and other societal norms affect the interpretation of normal and abnormal. Abnormal psychology is a specialization within the field of psychology, and it's based on the study of normal psychology, normal adjustment, societal interactions, group interactions, roles that are expected, personal maturity and so on. Most psychotherapists and clinical mental health professionals would agree that abnormal psychology studies and addresses deviations from the norm.”

Pursuing a master's in psychology can help position you for success in a variety of career opportunities. Mongelluzzo said that, with an advanced degree, career choices include:

  • clinical social worker
  • clinical or research psychologist
  • criminal profiler
  • licensed professional counselor
  • marriage and family therapist
  • developmental/school psychologist
  • forensic psychologist

Clinical psychologists are also employed or serve as advisors in many areas of government, prison systems, the military, educational institutions and on teams with other professionals working for organizations as diverse as sports, media and international human rights organizations.


#2 - Biopsychology

This field concentrates on the relationship between biology and behavior, and especially the role that the brain and neurotransmitters play in controlling and regulating behavior. Biopsychologists want to know how biological changes lead to changes in behavior.

Though many biopsychologists work in academic and private research labs, an adjunct social sciences instructor Dr. Shaun Cook said the understanding of how brain processes work can lead to jobs in marketing, education, technology companies or even politics. He added that biopsychologists design and test new drugs for pharmaceutical companies, help treat people with damaged nervous systems in hospitals and clinics, facilitate a higher quality of resident life in retirement and assisted living facilities and may work in zoos to observe animal behaviors from a physiological basis.

Biological psychologists also study "behavior-changing brain lesions, chemical responses in the brain and brain-related genetics," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Biopsychology is also sometimes referred to as physiological psychology or psychobiology, according to the APA.


#3 - Social Psychology

Social psychologists study what people think and feel and how behavior is impacted by others. They look at group membership, prejudice and discrimination, attitudes and persuasion, social impacts on self-esteem and other areas.

According to the APA, how you view yourself in relation to the world is what influences factors such as behavior and belief. Another factor that affects behavior and how people view themselves is the opinions of others. Social psychologists are interested in interpersonal relationships and using psychology to improve them.

Due to the training of a social psychologist combining human behavior with scientific research methods, job opportunities and work settings are diverse. Many social psychologists work in educational environments where they can teach, conduct research and run laboratories, according to the APA. Other occupations include working for government offices, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, social service agencies and private corporations. The range of options for a social psychologist vary so much that careers can include research, marketing, politics and even technology design.


#4 - Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology looks at the mental processes that relate to thinking, memory and language, and makes discoveries about these processes by observing behavior, according to the APA. Current research has focused on information processing theories developed in computer science and artificial intelligence, APA reports.

Most psychologists working in brain science and cognition work in academic settings where they teach, conduct research or both, according to the APA. Their expertise is invaluable in growth areas such as human-computer interaction, software development, organizational psychology and as consultants throughout the private sector. Many cognitive psychologists work directly with clients and patients in a wide variety of private practice and clinical settings; others serve in positions within government, private research centers and treatment facilities and even as expert witnesses for court cases.

Demand for brain scientists and cognitive psychologists has fluctuated throughout the years, but, according to the APA, the subfield is on the rise. With technology continually evolving and cures for health issues like Alzheimer's disease being evasive, there is expected to be an increase in demand for brain science and cognition experts.


#5 - Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology involves the research and application of scientific knowledge to areas such as education, childcare and policy, according to Dr. Jay Greiner, adjunct instructor of social sciences. "Developmental psychologists study how people grow and adapt (physically and psychologically) from conception to death, and conduct research to understand and support people to reach their full potential."

Additionally, Greiner said, "developmental psychologists work with people of all ages to understand and support their growth, including gerontology and working with the aging baby boomer population. (In their work with young children), they flag developmental delays and serious health conditions and assist with interventions to help children get back on track to normal development."

Developmental psychologists may work as counselors, childcare workers and managers, child and adolescent therapists and teachers too, Greiner added.

"Developmental psychologists play an integral role in designing, evaluating and implementing cross-cultural approaches to human life in many settings," said Dr. Nickolas H. Dominello, an associate dean of social sciences. "Focusing on cognitive, physical, social and personality factors, developmental psychologists often work in academia, health care or education."

According to the APA, developmental psychologists study human growth over the lifespan, including physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, personality and emotional growth. Developmental psychologists may work in more applied settings such as a healthcare facility or clinic to help evaluate and treat people living with developmental disabilities. Among other settings developmental psychologists can work are: assisted living homes for the elderly, hospitals, mental health clinics and centers for the homeless.


#6 - Personality Psychology

This is the study of personality and how it varies among individuals. Personality psychologists rely on research and theories related to personality traits, evolution, biology, humanism, behavior and social learning to determine what makes a person unique. Understanding how personality develops, and its similarities as well as variances among individuals, is key. Personality psychologists assess, diagnose and treat personality disorders that negatively impact a person's quality of life.

“I focus on personality factors related to work and school success,” said Jeral Kirwan, an adjunct instructor of social sciences. “My recent research has looked at personality characteristics and dispositions of online learners and educators and how those factors relate to communication, performance and satisfaction.” Personality psychologists may specialize in fields as diverse as conflict resolution, leadership development, research, human resources, marketing, teaching, public policy analysis and other areas.


#7- Forensic Psychology

"Forensic psychology has been called 'the intersection of law and psychology,' and it’s a field in which psychologists (who are most commonly licensed) apply their psychosocial knowledge to civil and criminal law," said an adjunct social sciences instructor Kathy Edwards.

Forensic psychologists generally hold a PhD or PsyD degree, yet many careers are open for master’s level clinicians as well, said Edwards. "Typical careers involve conducting forensic assessments for the courts system – such as a person's competency to stand trial or in custody assessments," she said, "but opportunities exist in police psychology, prison psychology and consulting, for example as an expert witness."

Dr. Joel Fick, is an adjunct social sciences instructor and also provides individual and group therapy for male inmates dealing with mental health and medical issues. He conducts suicide assessments and mental health evaluations and is developing a behavior management plan for staff, especially for complex, progressive medical conditions, such as dementia.

“I started my work in forensics by working with adolescents in the juvenile justice system and it eventually led to developing expertise in forensic psychology,” he said. “I recommend that students be open to trying a variety of experiences: I never planned on working in a prison but it has been an amazing experience with continual learning opportunities.”

According to the APA, an important goal of forensic psychology is the description and measurement of capacities relevant to legal questions. As a result, they attempt to create relevant, accurate and credible conclusions that inform legal arguments but do not interrupt the process. Additionally, there is a special focus on clarifying the conflicts of psychology ethics and the demands of law.


#8 - Industrial-Organizational Psychology

According to The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, this branch of psychology is the scientific study of working and it has critical relevance to individuals, businesses and society. Industrial-organizational psychology applies research to issues facing individuals, teams and organizations, and examines employee well-being and attitude, employee-employer relationships and the entire breadth of workplace behavior.

Many industrial-organizational psychologists teach in academia and/or conduct research. Employees with graduate psychology degrees or with a degree in industrial-organization psychology may work as:

  • Career or executive coach
  • Employee efficiency expert
  • Human resource generalist or manager
  • Mergers and acquisition specialist/consultant
  • Organizational performance manager
  • Talent acquisition manager
  • Training specialist

According to the APA, industrial-organization psychologists are practitioners with expertise in the design, execution and interpretation of psychology research. Industrial-organization psychology then utilize their findings to address human and organizational problems in the context of organized work.

Industrial-organizational psychologists:

  • Identify training/development needs
  • Optimize jobs and quality of work life
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of designed training programs
  • Coach employees
  • Develop systems to evaluate the performance of individuals and organizations
  • Assess consumer preferences, customer satisfaction and marketing strategies

Dr. Thomas MacCarty, an associate dean of social sciences, was drawn to industrial-organization psychology out of an interest in gaining knowledge in the issues that employees face every day with their employers. “Industrial-organization psychology is, in my opinion," he said, "one of the most important subfields of psychology as the clear majority of us work close to 30% of our lives.”

View the 8 Types of Psychology Infographic here.

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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