Lesson Progress:

Approaches in Psychology

Lesson Content

Inquire: Psychology’s Focus Today


Psychology is a diverse discipline that is made up of several major subdivisions with unique perspectives.

Biological psychology involves the study of the biological bases of behavior. Sensation and perception refer to the area of psychology focused on how information from our sensory modalities is received, and how this information is transformed into perceptual experiences of the world around us. Cognitive psychology is concerned with the relationship that exists between thought and behavior, and developmental psychologists study the physical and cognitive changes that occur throughout one’s lifespan. Personality psychology focuses on individuals’ unique patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion. Social psychology studies how we interact with and relate to others. Many areas of psychology apply psychological principles in specific domains. Industrial and organizational psychology, educational psychology, health psychology, sport and exercise psychology, forensic psychology, and clinical psychology are all considered applied areas of psychology.


Big Question

How diverse is the study of psychology?

Read: Psychology Today


This lesson will provide an overview of the major subdivisions within psychology today. We will first review experimental sub-divisions. This is not meant to be an exhaustive listing, but it will provide insight into the major areas of research and practice of modern-day psychologists.

Biopsychology and Evolutionary Psychology

As the name suggests, biopsychology explores how biology influences our behavior. While biological psychology is a broad field, many biological psychologists want to understand how the structure and function of the nervous system is related to behavior. As such, they often combine the research strategies of both psychologists and physiologists to accomplish this goal (as discussed in Carlson, 2013). Biological psychologists study how the structure and function of the nervous system generate behavior. The research interests of biological psychologists span a number of domains, including but not limited to, sensory and motor systems, sleep, drug use and abuse, ingestive behavior, reproductive behavior, neurodevelopment, plasticity of the nervous system, and biological correlates of psychological disorders.

While biopsychology typically focuses on the immediate causes of behavior based in the physiology of a human or other animal, evolutionary psychology seeks to study the ultimate biological causes of behavior. To the extent that a behavior is impacted by genetics, a behavior, like any anatomical characteristic of a human or animal, will adapt to its surroundings. Evolutionary psychology, and specifically, the evolutionary psychology of humans, has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades. Evolutionary psychologists have had success in finding experimental correspondence between observations and expectations. In one example, in a study of mate preference differences between men and women that spanned 37 cultures, Buss (1989) found that women valued earning potential factors greater than men, and men valued potential reproductive factors (youth and attractiveness) greater than women in their prospective mates. In general, the predictions were in line with the predictions of evolution, although there were deviations in some cultures.

Sensation and Perception

DecorativeScientists interested in both physiological aspects of sensory systems as well as the psychological experience of sensory information work within the area of sensation and perception. As such, sensation and perception research is also quite interdisciplinary. Imagine walking between buildings as you move from one class to another. You are inundated with sights, sounds, touch sensations, and smells. You also experience the temperature of the air around you and maintain your balance as you make your way. These are all factors of interest to someone working in the domain of sensation and perception. The image below gives a visual representation of what sensation and perception researchers focus on.

When you look at this image, you may see a duck or a rabbit. The sensory information remains the same, but your perception can vary dramatically. Our experience of our world is not as simple as the sum total of all of the sensory information (or sensations) together. Rather, our experience (or perception) is complex and is influenced by where we focus our attention, our previous experiences, and even our cultural backgrounds.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the area of psychology focusing on studying cognitions, or thoughts, and their relationship to our experiences and our actions. Cognitive psychologists have research interests that span a spectrum of topics, ranging from attention to problem solving to language to memory. The approaches used in studying these topics are equally diverse. Given such diversity, cognitive psychology is not captured in one chapter of a textbook, per se. Various concepts related to cognitive psychology are covered in relevant portions on sensation and perception, thinking and intelligence, memory, lifespan development, social psychology, and therapy.

Developmental Psychology

DecorativeDevelopmental psychology is the scientific study of development across a lifespan. Developmental psychologists are interested in processes related to physical maturation. However, their focus is not limited to the physical changes associated with aging, as they also focus on changes in cognitive skills, moral reasoning, social behavior, and other psychological attributes.

Early developmental psychologists focused primarily on changes that occurred through reaching adulthood, providing enormous insight into the differences in physical, cognitive, and social capacities that exist between very young children and adults. For instance, research by Jean Piaget demonstrated that very young children do not demonstrate object permanence. Object permanence refers to the understanding that physical things continue to exist, even if they are hidden from us.

While Piaget was focused on cognitive changes during infancy and childhood as we move to adulthood, there is an increasing interest in extending research into the changes that occur much later in life. This may be reflective of changing population demographics of developed nations as a whole.

Personality Psychology

Personality psychology focuses on patterns of thoughts and behaviors that make each individual unique. Early theorists attempted to explain how an individual’s personality develops from his or her given perspective. For example, Freud proposed that personality arose as conflicts between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind were carried out over the lifespan. More recently, the study of personality has taken on a more quantitative approach. Rather than explaining how personality arises, research is focused on identifying personality traits, measuring these traits, and determining how these traits interact in a particular context to determine how a person will behave in any given situation. Personality traits are relatively consistent patterns of thought and behavior, and many have proposed that five trait dimensions are sufficient to capture the variations in personality seen across individuals. These five dimensions are known as the “Big Five” or the Five Factor Model, and include dimensions of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion.

Social Psychology

Social psychology focuses on how we interact with and relate to others. Social psychologists conduct research on a wide variety of topics that include differences in how we explain our own behavior versus how we explain the behaviors of others, prejudice, and attraction, and how we resolve interpersonal conflicts. Social psychologists have also sought to determine how being among other people changes our own behavior and patterns of thinking.

Reflect: What Floats Your Boat?


Of the major approaches within psychology, which are you most interested in learning more about?

Expand: Applying Psychology


Many psychologists practice in subfields that apply the principles in the research subfields to specific areas of interest. Some of these more applied subfields include industrial-organizational psychology, health psychology, sport psychology, clinical psychology, and forensic psychology.

Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Industrial-organizational psychology (I-O psychology) is a subfield of psychology that applies psychological theories, principles, and research findings in industrial and organizational settings. I-O psychologists are often involved in issues related to personnel management, organizational structure, and workplace environment. Businesses often seek the aid of I-O psychologists to make the best hiring decisions as well as to create an environment that results in high levels of employee productivity and efficiency. In addition to its applied nature, I-O psychology also involves conducting scientific research on behavior within I-O settings (Riggio, 2013).

Health Psychology

Health psychology focuses on how health is affected by the interaction of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. This particular approach is known as the biopsychosocial model. Health psychologists are interested in helping individuals achieve better health through public policy, education, intervention, and research. Health psychologists might conduct research that explores the relationship between one’s genetic makeup, patterns of behavior, relationships, psychological stress, and health. They may research effective ways to motivate people to address patterns of behavior that contribute to poorer health (MacDonald, 2013).

Sport and Exercise Psychology

DecorativeResearchers in sport and exercise psychology study the psychological aspects of sport performance, including motivation and performance anxiety, and the effects of sports on mental and emotional wellbeing. Research is also conducted on similar topics as they relate to physical exercise in general. The discipline also includes topics that are broader than sport and exercise but that are related to interactions between mental and physical performance under demanding conditions, such as fire fighting, military operations, artistic performance, and surgery.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the area of psychology that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders and other problematic patterns of behavior. As such, it is generally considered to be a more applied area within psychology; however, some clinicians are also actively engaged in scientific research. Counseling psychology is a similar discipline that focuses on emotional, social, vocational, and health-related outcomes in individuals who are considered psychologically healthy.

As mentioned earlier, both Freud and Rogers provided perspectives that have been influential in shaping how clinicians interact with people seeking psychotherapy. While aspects of the psychoanalytic theory are still found among some of today’s therapists who are trained from a psychodynamic perspective, Roger’s ideas about client-centered therapy have been especially influential in shaping how many clinicians operate. Furthermore, both behaviorism and the cognitive revolution have shaped clinical practice in the forms of behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists take cognitive processes and behaviors into account when providing psychotherapy. This is one of several strategies that may be used by practicing clinical psychologists.

By far, this is the area of psychology that receives the most attention in popular media, and many people mistakenly assume that all psychology is clinical psychology.

Forensic Psychology

DecorativeForensic psychology is a branch of psychology dealing with questions of psychology as they arise in the context of the justice system. For example, forensic psychologists (and forensic psychiatrists) will assess a person’s competency to stand trial, assess the state of mind of a defendant, act as consultants on child custody cases, consult on sentencing and treatment recommendations, and advise on issues such as eyewitness testimony and children’s testimony (American Board of Forensic Psychology, 2014). In these capacities, they will typically act as expert witnesses, called by either side in a court case to provide their research- or experience-based opinions. As expert witnesses, forensic psychologists must have a good understanding of the law and provide information in the context of the legal system rather than just within the realm of psychology. Forensic psychologists are also used in the jury selection process and witness preparation. They may also be involved in providing psychological treatment within the criminal justice system. Criminal profilers are a relatively small proportion of psychologists that act as consultants to law enforcement.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like. Once you are finished taking the quiz, click on the “View questions” button to review the correct answers.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

How to Make Stress Your Friend

A TED Talk in which health psychologist Kelly McGonigal turns the tables on traditional assumptions about the effects of stress

How Reliable is Your Memory?

A TED Talk in which renowned memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus draws into question just how accurate our memories are

What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds

A TED Talk in which neurologist and master storyteller Oliver Sachs explores hallucinations and their diagnoses

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • biopsychology
    study of how biology influences behavior
  • biopsychosocial model
    perspective that asserts that biology, psychology, and social factors interact to determine an individual’s health
  • clinical psychology
    area of psychology that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders and other problematic patterns of behavior
  • cognitive psychology
    study of cognitions, or thoughts, and their relationship to experiences and actions
  • counseling psychology
    area of psychology that focuses on improving emotional, social, vocational, and other aspects of the lives of psychologically healthy individuals
  • developmental psychology
    scientific study of development across a lifespan
  • evolutionary psychology
    study of how human psychology changes as our species evolves
  • Five Factor Model
    dimensions of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion; often used in personality testing
  • forensic psychology
    area of psychology that applies the science and practice of psychology to issues within and related to the justice system
  • health psychology
    study of how the biopsychosocial model affects our overall health and how it can be improved
  • industrial-organizational psychology
    study of psychology in the workplace
  • perception
    after sensation, the body sends messages to the brain telling the brain what is going on; individuals perceive differently from other individuals
  • personality psychology
    study of patterns of thoughts and behaviors that make each individual unique
  • personality traits
    consistent pattern of thought and behavior
  • sensation
    utilization of the body’s senses to detect stimuli in an environment
  • social psychology
    study of how humans relate and interact with each other
  • sport and exercise psychology
    area of psychology that focuses on the interactions between mental and emotional factors and physical performance in sports, exercise, and other activities

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Laura Pople Ph.D., Kody Long for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: Psychology – 1.3 Contemporary Psychology: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeMental Health WellnessWokandapixPixabayCC 0
DecorativeJudge Power CourtPaliGraficasPixabayCC 0
DecorativeSport Push-Up Strength Training5132824PixabayCC 0
DecorativeVintage Brain AdvertisementArtsyBeePixabayCC 0
DecorativeFigure 2OpenStaxOpenStaxPublic Domain