1.6 Psychological Specializations: Cognitive, Humanistic, Social, Developmental & Clinical

Jan 16, 2020 | ch1 History & Approaches in Psychology, Courses, Intro to Psychology

Psychologists today study behavior through five main specializations: cognitive, humanistic, social, developmental and clinical. In this lesson, you’ll focus on the central ideas behind each approach.

Cognitive Psychology

Behaviorism, or the idea that you can be conditioned to respond in certain ways, dominated psychology in the 1950s. Since then, psychologists have developed alternative models for explaining how you learn and act. These models differ from earlier ones that reduce you to a machine with no free will. Modern psychology is the science of behavior, human needs and creative thinking. Let’s review five important ways of understanding behavior used by psychologists today.

Cognitive psychology developed as a backlash to the behaviorist stance that we have no free will. Behaviorists believe that cognitive processes are predetermined and that the mind works (or should work) in linear, rational ways. For the behaviorist, people put in similar situations should react in similar ways. The variations in how we act can be explained by previous experience. For behaviorists, the mind is not mysterious.

The cognitive branch of psychology takes a very different approach. It’s concerned with how you see yourself and your environment. Having a rational perspective on the world around you is a healthy outlook. Cognitive psychologists study how you learn, solve problems and make decisions. Cognitive psychology is much more focused on processes of change and takes into account internal processes.

Yet the cognitive and behavioral schools of thought are not completely at odds. Cognitive behavioral therapy integrates the two, teaching patients how to consciously change their cognitive states in order to modify both behavior and mood.

Humanistic Psychology

Whereas cognitive psychologists focus on how you think, humanistic psychologists look at what you think. Each of us has our own feelings and personal aspirations that drive us. Humanistic psychology works from the assumption that self-actualization, or the will to be the best that we can be, motivates us.

Humanistic psychology has led to some important breakthroughs, like models for understanding and addressing personal needs. Such models begin at the bottom with the things you need to live and work up the scale to self-actualization. If you’re worried about basic survival, you’re probably working on different needs than someone who already has taken care of that.

Humanistic psychologists tend to be optimistic about human potential. They’re interested in studying how people flourish through happiness, spirituality and motivation.

Social Psychology

The sociocultural perspective focuses on how social expectations and cultural norms influence your actions. While sociology looks at social structures as a whole, social psychologists zoom in on individual behavior. According to this perspective, your attitudes are largely affected by what your social group believes and teaches you. Your family and friends influence your opinions on what behaviors are right or wrong.

Social psychology affects your daily life every time you see an advertisement. Have you ever felt the urge to buy something because the sale was ending soon? Consumer psychologists create a sense of scarcity in potential buyers.

Social psychology has been applied to management, too. Industrial and organizational psychologists attempt to improve job satisfaction and performance levels by examining how an employee’s behavior and motivation is influenced by the workplace setting.

Developmental Psychology

A fourth subfield of modern psychology is developmental psychology, which is concerned with how you change over your lifetime. Changes might involve learning to communicate, broadening your perception of the world and forming your self-identity.

This branch of psychology seeks to understand the stages of change that we go through as we develop into adults and beyond. Have your parents or teachers ever accused you of ‘just going through a phase’? According to developmental psychology, you are. And more than likely, so are they.

Developmental psychology has been incredibly important in designing age-appropriate school curriculum. It’s also used to identify struggling students, assess their challenges and assist them in achieving their goals.

Clinical Psychology

Finally, clinical psychologists diagnose and treat mental health. They work directly with patients. Psychologists are licensed counselors, whereas psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in treating mental health. The majority of psychologists in the field today are clinical psychologists.

If you go to see a psychologist because something is bothering you, this is probably the branch of psychology you are depending on to illuminate your problem and give you the tools to solve it. Whether it is counseling, drug therapy, a combination or other approaches, the clinical psychologist is most often the professional we depend on.


You’ve learned that cognitive psychologists look at how you think about yourself and the world around you, and humanistic psychologists are concerned with what you think and how it drives you. Social psychologists assess how your family and friends influence your attitudes and behavior. How your thinking develops over the course of your lifetime is the realm of developmental psychologists. You may see a clinical psychologist if you have a mental disorder that requires treatment. So you see, there are many different psychological approaches used today, and psychologists can employ more than one approach.

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