Psychology: Definition, Branches, Use Cases, and History

The human mind is the most complex thing in the known universe. However, studying the human mind can be challenging as it’s often tough to observe directly. Psychology is all about trying to understand how we humans think and behave.

But “what is psychology?” And why is it important? Let’s dive right in and explore what it is, different types of psychology, its evolution, and how it can be used to help multiple facets of society, including businesses.

What Is Psychology?

Psychology is the science of behavior and mind, how we think, feel, and act. This science has its roots in philosophy from ancient times.

It examines a wide range of human activities, including thought, emotion, sensation, communication, physical behavior, learning, memory, motivation, perception, consciousness, and some behaviors of human interaction. Psychology also studies various mental disorders.

Branches of Psychology

Psychology encompasses several major fields/branches of study. Many subfields focus on specific populations or ages, while others focus on understanding a particular group of people. Here’s a rundown of some significant areas of psychology, in rough order of time from the field’s origins to its present-day focus.

Basic Field

The primary field of psychology deals with describing, analyzing, and predicting the behavior of humans. Psychologists seek to understand and explain behavior in terms of the environment, biology, cognitive processes, and social influences in this field. Here’s a rundown of sub-fields of Basic Psychology:

1.1. Biological psychology: Biological psychology is the scientific study of how biological processes influence behavior and cognition. This field is closely linked with neuroscience because neurologists can better study brain structure and function to understand human behavior patterns.

1.2. Cognitive psychology: Cognitive psychology revolves around thinking, reasoning, memory, information processing, acting, and so forth. It attempts to understand these processes and behavior through a scientific approach. Cognitive psychology is an interdisciplinary science that field studies cognitive functions in humans.

1.3. Cultural psychology: Cultural psychology studies how culture, subculture, and ethnic group membership affect human behavior in given environments. This includes the influence of a society’s culture, values, norms, beliefs, and symbols on individual behavior and how humans meaningfully interact with each other to achieve these goals.

1.4. Experimental psychology: Experimental psychologists are interested in psychological processes, including perception, learning, and motivation. Because experimental psychologists use controlled experiments to study these processes, they are often called “experimental psychologists.”

1.5. Gender psychology: Gender psychology is the scientific study of basic processes and phenomena associated with gender. It covers gender identity and gender role development, sex differences, human reproductive behavior (including mating patterns and sexual orientation), and, more recently, the origins and development of sexual orientation.

1.6. Learning psychology: Learning psychologists study how and why people learn to develop methods for effective learning. Their goal is to find the most effective strategies for learning new information. These psychologists use various research methods such as cognitive modeling, classroom observation, surveys, questionnaires, and mobile recording devices.

1.7. Personality psychology: Personality psychology is the study of personality, including the origin and development, structure and dynamics, and the relationship of the individual’s personality to their environment. Personality psychologists attempt to describe a person’s characteristics, including temperament, intelligence, motives, and interests.

1.8. Physiological psychology: Physiological psychology is about how bodily systems like pain, vision, touch, hunger, and thirst function due to changes in our nervous system. Indeed, the job of a physiologist involves studying the neurochemistry of the brain and body to analyze how different stimuli affect our physical functions.

1.9. Sensation and perception psychology: Sensation and perception psychology is essentially the study of the five senses, vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. This particular discipline of psychology looks at how we perceive things and make decisions. This category explains how we perceive the world around us and the reasons for individual differences in perception.

Applied Field

The applied psychology field requires applying psychological theories and techniques to real-world problems. It is a hands-on approach that will allow you to impact people’s lives with your professional knowledge and skills. Here’s a rundown of sub-fields of Applied Field:

2.1. Social psychology: Social psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how individuals, groups, and institutions relate to one another. Social psychologists study collective behavior, social interaction, social cognition, leadership, group dynamics, and social influence.

2.2. Clinical psychology: Clinical psychology is a specialty field of psychology that deals with the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. This begins with a thorough evaluation of the client’s history and symptoms. The clinical psychologist then devises an appropriate treatment plan that may include individual or family therapy or a combination of both.

2.3. Community psychology: Community psychologists are social reformers concerned about community well-being. They apply psychological principles and research findings to solve social problems, eliminate sources of unnecessary stress in the lives of individuals and groups, promote mental health, and help people adapt to their physical and cultural environment.

2.4. Consumer psychology: The field of consumer psychology is generally concerned with how cognitive, affective, and biological mechanisms influence purchasing decisions. Individual differences in personality, self-concept, and value systems are important determinants of how consumers process information and make decisions.

2.5. Counseling psychology: Counseling psychology studies counseling methods, behavior disorders, & personal problems. Counseling psychology involves understanding the emotions of individuals & helping them cope with psychological issues. It offers to counsel individuals or groups about various issues like stress, self-esteem, relationships, etc.

2.6. Educational psychology: Educational psychology is the scientific study of how humans learn in educational settings, the effectiveness of educational interventions, the psychology of teaching and learning, and cognitive development in children and adolescents. Educational psychologists can work with teachers to improve classroom instruction or develop and evaluate new school curricula or programs.

2.7. Engineering psychology: Engineering psychology applies psychological principles to the design of products, systems, and processes. Engineering psychologists work across the whole life cycle of product design. They are early on to help design for performance and safety. They might, for example, be involved in the project when designers create task scenarios that outline how a method should be used.

2.8. Forensic psychology: Forensic psychology is an applied field of psychology and law specializing in using psychological science in the legal system. Their main goal is to assess various areas such as violence risk, competency to stand trial, testify or plead guilty, prosecution, defense, civil litigations, driving impairment, and clinical practitioners.

2.9. Industrial/Organizational psychology: Industrial Psychology deals with the behavior of employees in an organization and its influence on organizational goals and objectives. It also includes the study of human factors like worker motivation, working conditions, job satisfaction, leadership, etc.

2.10. Medical psychology: Medical psychology is a clinical discipline that applies psychological concepts and methods to diagnosing and treating medical patients. It involves understanding patients’ behaviors before, during, and after an illness or trauma, especially their disease’s emotional responses and cognitive aspects.

2.11. School psychology: School psychologists have a wide range of responsibilities, including conducting individual and group therapy sessions with children, offering help on academic subjects, serving as liaisons between families and schools, helping teachers design curricula to accommodate the needs of specific students, and assessing and treating students with learning problems.

Both – Applied and Basic Branch of Psychology

Some psychology fields are categorized under both basic and applied fields, such as:

3.1. Developmental psychology: Developmental psychology studies how people change physically, cognitively, and socially over the entire life span. Developmental psychologists research human beings from before they are born (prenatally) to after they die (post mortem), trying to understand how and why we change so much as we live from birth to death.

3.2. Environmental psychology: Environmental psychology is a field that studies the relationship between the environment and our psychological processes. Environmental psychologists study a wide range of issues and topics such as the effects of noise on behavior, the relationship between crowding and aggression, attitudes toward the environment, and the impact of weather conditions on mood and behavior.

3.3. Health psychology: Health psychology is the study of conscious and non-conscious processes underlying the maintenance and improvement of health, and the prevention or remediation of ill health, through health care. Health psychologists study stress, coping with illness, exercise behavior, sexuality, eating behavior, substance abuse, diabetes prevention, and doctor-patient relationships, among many others.

3.4. Positive psychology: Positive psychology has come out of the shadows recently, as we have realized that people can learn skills to lead happier and more successful lives. More specifically, positive psychologists attempt to identify and encourage the things that help people thrive and feel abundant, content, and fulfilled in their lives.

Uses of Psychology

So what exactly does a psychologist do?

In the past, psychologists focused on applying theory to create a treatment plan for clients’ mental health. Today, they’ve learned many therapeutic practices based on scientific research, and psychology is already being applied in several other areas, such as law enforcement and education. It can soon be applied to many fields, from business law to nursing. In addition, psychologists do:

  • Ergonomics – a science that is concerned with designing and optimizing the human environment
  • Performance enhancements
  • Self-help
  • Informing and designing public policy
  • Understanding a child’s development
  • Personal well-being and health

What Isn’t Psychology?

Confusion abounds when it comes to what psychology is and what it is not—mainly because there are many disciplines of psychology, many mental health interventions, and a plethora of individuals who identify as ‘therapists’ who are not mental health professionals. These professionals are known as ‘pseudo-psychologist.’

Here are a few examples of pseudo-psychologist:

1. Palmistry: Palmistry is the art of predicting a person’s future by studying the palm’s lines, mounts, and other features.

2. Phrenology: Phrenology is a pseudoscience that attempts to assess a person’s personality, behavioral tendencies, and overall mental level based on the shape of their head.

3. Graphology: Graphology is focused on the science of handwriting analysis and uses a specialized form of handwriting analysis. Graphology is used to read personality characteristics, emotional states, intelligence levels, memory potential, and creative abilities.

4. Numerology: Numerology studies the occult or mystical relationship between number symbolism and human affairs. Some use numerology to predict the future romantic, creative, financial, and spiritual ramifications of such correspondences in an individual’s life.

5. Astrology: Astrology is a pseudoscience that studies the positions and aspects of stars and planets to predict future events, societal developments, and a person’s personality or character.

History of Psychology

Psychology is derived from the Greek words’ psyche’ and ‘logos.’ ‘psyche’ refers to the human soul or mind, while ‘logos’ refers to reason or understanding. Psychology’s tendency is not just to analyze the brain but also to study mental phenomena. The history of psychology has been determined by the prevailing theories of the time.

For example, psychology only emerged after philosophers in Ancient Greece started asking questions about how people reasoned and perceived the world. During this period, their inquiries were described as “logical” or “physical” due to the prevailing knowledge at that time (Aristotle believed that everything in the world could be compared to a natural element).

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, an increasing need for scientific rigor demanded that psychology be viewed as an emerging discipline in its own right. The establishment of an experimental psychology lab in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879 was a defining moment for psychology. It set a standard for empirical research and ensured that the field would be productive.

During the 20th century, a diverse set of schools of thought formed within academic psychology. Each school of thought derived its basic tenets from the epistemology of its founders. The diversity within each school produced different research techniques and methods and divergent theories. Let’s have a quick rundown of primary schools of thought:

1. Structuralism: It was the most predominant school of thought in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The first social scientist who claimed that structures were essential to our lives was Wilhelm Wundt in the late nineteenth century.

2. Functionalism: William James was a psychologist and philosopher who became an active member of the functionalist school of thought. It is an approach in the philosophy of mind that emphasizes function or purpose in mental states.

3. Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud’s work changed how we view the conscious world. His theories and writings have revolutionized our understanding of thought and behavior. One of his most enduring theories is that the unconscious mind guides human behavior.

4. Behaviorism: Behaviorism was the first school of thought to challenge functionalism. It started as a philosophy that held the course of action as the only source of knowledge. It then went to behavior, observable concrete actions of people instead of hidden mental conditions.

5. Humanistic psychology: Humanistic psychology has two basic movements, emphasizing an individual’s drive toward self-actualization. Proponents of humanistic psychology place a focus on subjective experience rather than observation.

6. Cognitive psychology: The cognitive revolution refers to a paradigm shift from a behaviorist approach to an emphasis on mental processes (such as memory, language, perception, etc.) and mental structures (such as the mind, mental disorders, and intelligence) that took place during the 1960s through 1970s.

Final Thoughts

So it’s no surprise that people tried to define such a complicated phenomenon as “human behavior.” They have been interested in behavior for a long time but couldn’t define psychology properly. Only recently have people realized that psychology is much bigger than the sum of behaviors on which people used to work before.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.