The 16 types of Psychology, and what they entail (2023)

Psychology is a subject that fascinates academics and the public alike, seemingly bridging the gaps between science and the human soul. When discussing the applications of psychology, UCT Professor Johan Louw described psychology as the hub of science that connects almost all of the biological, social, mathematical and behavioural sciences, making it an incredibly large and diverse field. To understand just how broad and deep the subject psychology truly is, let’s take a closer look at some of its different fields.

Key takeaways

  • Broadly defined, psychology is the study of mind and behaviour
  • Different branches of psychology have emerged to help study different topics of interest within the field.
  • Psychology can be broadly classified into 16 branches

Tell anyone you’re considering studyingpsychologyand the inevitable response is “Are you psychoanalysing me right now?”. It’s a banality no psychologist will ever be able to dodge (#askanypsychologystudent).

But beyond mind reading, sage advice-giving and criminalprofilers, psychology is actually by definition, the study of mind andbehaviour. And, while many may associate psychology with a comfy couch and apair of attentive ears, the field is in fact so vast that there’s a slew ofspecialties packed under its umbrella. After all, the human experience is amultifaceted one and there is unlikely to be a singular way to describe theincredible depths and diversity of our behaviour, thoughts and emotions.

So as students of psychology, we learn how to look at people through a many different lenses, which we draw from a number popular fields of psychology.

1. Biopsychology

In 1913, a researcher named Hideyo Noguchi discovered thebacterium responsible for syphilis in the brain of a deceased mental hospitalpatient. At the time, syphilis was a horrifying condition with no reliabletreatment that was believed to drive its victims insane. Why is this important?Well, because this was the first time someone had found biological evidence ofwhat was considered at the time to be a psychological problem. For the firsttime, the scientific world had reason to investigate the relationship betweenour physiology and our psychological health.

Since then, the various fields of biological psychology havestudied the genetic and physiological mechanisms of behaviour in humans; it isan area that is interested in the “nature” rather than “nurture” of psychology.As a field, it has made enormous contributions to our understanding of where mentalhealth problems come from and how they develop.

2. Psychopathology

Also known as abnormal or clinical psychology, this branch of psychology involves the categorisation, diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems. Despite being only one part of a huge discipline, it attracts a lot of public interest, often giving the incorrect impression that it is what psychology is all about!

The field of psychopathology is often associated with clinicalpsychologists, given that they often work is hospitals and mental healthclinics, where diagnosis and treatment takes place. In reality, psychopathologyis a field that all psychologists are familiar with.

At what point do behaviours become abnormal and what do weuse as a foundation for normality? What life circumstances make mental healthproblems worse, or better? How do we help people live with long term conditionsin healthy and adaptive ways? These are some of the questions you are likely toanswer within this field.

3. Neuropsychology

This field of psychology combines neuroscience and the studyof psychology to learn how our brain and our cognitive, behavioural andemotional functioning are related. Studying the roles that brain structures andneurotransmitters play this fields helps us understand how neurologicalproblems can affect our daily living and how we can address them.

Interestingly, late in 2019, it was announced that one could formally register as neuropsychologist in South Africa, making it the most recent addition to the recognised categories of psychologists. These psychologists will most likely to work in medical and research settings, where they will consult on and study neurological problems like traumatic brain injuries, strokes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Is it true that one’s personality can change after a braininjury? How do we prevent cognitive decline associated with aging? How areneurotransmitters and mood related? These are some of the questions the fieldof neuropsychology has sought the answers to.

4. Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour in an educational setting and, as such, it is interested in determining and harnessing the learning potential of people. In learning settings such as schools and universities, educational psychologists might evaluate educational programmes, conduct research on factors that affect learning and consult on cases where students or pupils have different learning needs.

In South Africa, an educational psychologist is one of the six categories of psychologist that one can register as, following the completion of a recognised master’s degree.

When compared to other psychologists, educationalpsychologists tend to make more use of psychometric assessments, like IQ tests,in their day to day work. Together with in-depth interviewing, these tests helpto create a holistic picture of learners who are gifted, neuro-diverse orhaving a tough time at school and make recommendations how to best approachtheir learning.

5. Behavioural Psychology

Behavioural psychology, or simply behaviourism, was one of the most popular ways to view and understand human behaviour in the early 1900s. It proposed that people’s behaviour is a learned response from something in our environment. Behaviourists wanted to get away from the psychoanalytic tradition and saw behaviourism as a more objective and measurable way of understanding people.

Ever heard of Pavlov’s dog? This famous behaviouralexperiment describes how Pavlov notices that his dog salivated whenever theysaw food. So for a period of time, he rang a bell before he gave his dog food.After a while, it only took the ringing of the bell to cause the dog tosalivate, showing what is described as a conditioned response. The dogs hadbeen conditioned to expect food when hearing the bell ring. Reinforcement isanother technique that is commonly used to increase or decrease the frequencyof behaviours through rewards and punishment.

6. Cognitive Psychology

The field of psychology that deals with mental processes, such as thoughts, memory and problem solving, is called cognitive psychology. It is a field that has built our understanding of many of our more “automatic” mental processes like how we pay attention, learn language, store and retrieve information from memory and even what happens when we think of our own thoughts.

Cognitive psychology has made many important discoveries that has advanced other fields in the discipline, such as social, educational and developmental psychology. For example, in the 1950s cognitive psychology began to garner interest, despite behavioural psychology being the main approach to understanding people at that time. By the 1990s, Aaron Beck had published a book that described applying both approaches when counselling, creating the basis for cognitive behavioural therapy, which remains one of the most popular methods of treating psychological problems to date.

7. Forensic Psychology

The application of psychology to law making, law enforcement,the examination of witnesses, and the treatment of the criminal lies in thefield of forensic psychology. Essentially, the application of any knowledgefrom a field of psychology to the law could be considered forensic psychology.

Forensic psychology became increasingly popular astelevisions portrayed FBI agents and detectives employing the services ofpsychologists to profile and catch serial criminals or to battle the wits ofvillains such as Hannibal Lector. In reality, forensic work in psychology willrefer to psychologists who are well versed in providing expert testimony oropinion in legal proceedings, especially where mental health is a factor. Thismight be suggesting whether someone is fit to stand trial, advising in childcustody cases and making sentencing recommendations.

Other important applications of psychology and law isgenerally concerned with how to best deal with criminality in society. Thismight include producing research that explains criminal behaviour, providingpsychological services to offenders and designing programmes to divert youngpeople from incarceration.

8. Social Psychology

As much as our own thoughts, emotions and personalities affect what we think, feel and do, so do our connections with people around us! An underpinning aspect of social psychology is that our behaviour is influenced by other people who are part of our broader social context. Accordingly, social psychology might seek to explain how our image of ourselves is affected by others, why we conform to social norms and what causes us to be loving or aggressive.

As a field, social psychology has also made contributions tothe understanding of discrimination, through theories that describe how groupsof people relate to each other. It is also a field that is very interested inculture and how it is expressed through social learning.

As a student, social psychology is an interesting field tostudy because it points out many common biases that people tend to hold. Anexample? Have you noticed that when we witness someone else make a mistake,we’ll usually say it is because of their individual capacity, but when we makea mistake, we’ll tend say it is because of our circumstances?

9. Industrial Psychology

This branch of psychology applies psychological theory to our workplaces and is interested in how people function in their work or occupational life. For example, this field is particularly interested in motivation, job satisfaction and work environments and creating healthier, happier and more productive employees.

Psychology is a useful tool in the world of work and as such organisational or industrial psychologists can capacitate organisations in a number of interesting ways. They might screen applicants for skills and aptitudes that are crucial to a particular position, develop employee wellness programmes or devise training and development strategies.

Following the completion of an accredited master’s degree, it is possible to register as an industrial psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

10. Health Psychology

Health psychology is a field that investigates the ways in which behaviour, biology and social context influenceillnessand health. This means that health psychologists see both physical and mental health is inextricably linked and recognise the value that improving one has on the other.

Health psychology is an important field because a lot of thework that it does is in prevention and health promotion. So rather than tryingto deal with health problems once they already arise, health psychologyconsiders what puts people at risk in the first place and combats those risksby promoting healthier behaviours. In other words, it tries to trace ill-healthback to its roots and eliminate it before it becomes a much more seriousproblem.

Very often, extremely common problems like being overweight,stress or smoking are risks for an enormous number of other physical and mentalhealth problems. So much so, that even achieving the tiniest positive lifestylechanges at a population level could prevent thousands and thousands of peoplefrom ever developing serious problems like cancer, diabetes and cardiovasculardisease.

11. Research Psychology

If the discipline of psychology had a heartbeat, it wouldlie in the field of research (or experimental) psychology. Why? Because despitethe enormous diversity of fields in psychology, research is one thing that theyall have in common. All psychologists are trained in the skills andcompetencies necessary to conduct research and need to be able to continuouslyengage with current research in their fields in order to stay on top of theirgame.

Most psychologists are trained in a scientist-practitionermodel, which means that they are expected to be in a constant cycle of engagingwith current research in their field and then applying their learning to theirown practice. The decisions that psychologists make can have profound effectson people’s lives so being highly informed and conversant on topics relevant toyour field is expected.

There are some psychologists, however, that dedicate theircareers solely to expanding our body of psychological knowledge. Researchpsychologists are trained in different scientific methods to answer all mannerof questions that we have about human beings. Research psychologists are highlyvalued, given their transferrable skillset and can be found in a myriad oforganisations where they conduct experiments and trials, develop and evaluateprogrammes and consult for other researchers in various fields.

12. Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is a large field with a longhistory of studying the human throughout our various life stages. While it hadstarted out looking at child and adolescent development, it was later expandedto include the entire lifespan. Developmental psychology investigates threemain domains, namely physical, emotional and social development to build a fullpicture of human development throughout the life stages.

Developmental psychology is especially interesting because of how staggeringly large the field is. Because it studies how phenomena emerge in children and how they develop over a lifetime, a developmental approach often forms the basis of many other fields, because it investigates where the subject under study came from and how it changes over time. As a result, developmental psychology has contributed immensely to child psychology, educational psychology, cognitive psychology and many other related areas.

13. Community Psychology

Rather than trying to solve psychological problems one at time, community psychology is interested in how communities and their resources can be mobilised to solve problems that they face collectively. It takes the position that most problems that people have are a connected to their social conditions and that psychology relies too much on professionals to solve everyday problems. As such, community psychology recognises that communities know the most about their own problems and that with considered facilitation and training, they can be empowered to solve them.

In places where people experience many social ills, likepoverty or discrimination, solving problems one at a time with a psychologist doesn’twork well, because of how common issues like anxiety, depression, substanceabuse and trauma are. By working with communities to identify these issues andbuild on their own skills and capacities to address them, a communitypsychology approach is more efficient. And since the community decides on thesolution, it is also likely to be more culturally appropriate.

14. Psychometry

Psychometry is the field dedicated to the development andadministration of psychological tests and the measurement of psychologicalphenomena. The results from these tests help psychologists make importantdecisions in many different situations. For example, whether a strugglingstudent should move forward to the next grade, what career someone is well suitedto, or even if someone is at risk of depression. Other popular areas of humanmeasurement include skills and knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personalitytraits, and educational achievement.

One of the biggest challenges in this field is creating astandard way of measuring things which are largely intangible or ensuring thatyou are actually measuring the thing that you are trying to measure! Peoplehave enormously diverse ways of expressing their inner worlds, so trying toneatly categorise behaviours for measurement, is extremely challenging. As anexample, although this field has been interested in measuring intelligence fora hundred years, it remains an area of contentious debate.

15. Personality Psychology

A personality is generally defined as a set ofcharacteristics that each individual possesses that shape their thoughts,feelings and behaviour and personality psychology is a field that investigatesthese characteristics. The history of personality psychology is closelyentwined with psychometry, given early scholars attempts to measure varioustraits that make up people’s personalities. Some believed that there werethousands of personality traits, although todays personality tests measure muchfewer. Like all psychometric measures, personality tests are not very useful ontheir own and used by psychologists to develop a bigger, fuller picture of anindividual.

16. Critical Psychology

Critical psychology is a fascinating field of psychologythat turns its gaze inwards, and interrogates the beliefs and practices of thediscipline itself. This might sound a bit strange, but as a helping profession,it is crucial to constantly reflect on what the discipline is doing and whetheror not it is actually really helping. For example, psychology is often thoughtof as a science which makes it seem like the knowledge that it produces is“objective” or true. More often however, this is not the case and that becausepsychology is done by people, power and politics always play a role. Criticalpsychology seeks to lay these omissions bare and ensure that the role ofhistory, culture and power in the discipline of psychology are examined.

If you’ve been mulling over the prospect of studying psychology, why not consider the South African College of Applied Psychology? SACAP’sBachelor of Applied Social Science degreeis a comprehensive undergraduate psychology degree programme, providing a perfect springboard for those wishing to progress toHonoursand Masters in order tobecome a psychologist. The college’sBachelor of Psychologyprofessional degree, meanwhile, has a “built-in” Honours equivalent which will provide you with an internationally recognised pathway to obtaining your Master’s Degree in Psychology and, ultimately, to becoming a qualified psychologist. For more information,enquire now.


What are the different types of Psychology?
  • Biopsychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Behavioural Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Industrial Psychology
  • Health Psychology
  • Research Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Community Psychology
  • Psychometry
  • Personality Psychology
  • Critical Psychology

If you are interested in studying Psychology, SACAP offers a range of Applied psychology courses. Find out more here

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