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Applied Psychology

The area of psychology in which basic theory and research are applied to the actual problems faced by individuals on a daily basis.

Applied psychology can be best understood by comparing it to the area of psychology known as basic psychology, which is concerned with answering questions about behavior through psychological theory and research. Applied psychology utilizes this knowledge to actively intervene in the treatment of individuals with mental or emotional disorders, and is also employed in business, education, and government.

Approximately two-thirds of American psychologists work in applied fields. Many are involved in clinical or counseling psychology, diagnosing and treating individuals with various problems of adjustment. Approximately one-third of the psychologists in practice in the United States today are clinical psychologists, and most people are referred to them for treatment of a wide range of problems, including developmental, medical, and rehabilitative as well as psychiatric. These professionals use a wide range of therapies, ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to Rogerian client-centered therapy to newer cognitive approaches. Clinical psychologists may go into private practice, either alone or in groups, or work in hospitals or clinics. They may also practice in a variety of other settings, including community mental-health centers, university medical schools, centers for the mentally and physically handicapped, prisons, state institutions and hospitals, judicial courts, and probation offices. A subfield within clinical psychology is community psychology, which investigates environmental factors that contribute to mental and emotional disorders. Health psychologists deal with the psychological aspects of physical illness, investigating the connections between the mind and a person's physical condition.

Applied psychology also includes the areas of school and educational psychology. School psychologists are state certified and work in public school settings, often with children who have learning, behavioral, and emotional problems. They perform individualized assessments of each child, consult with his or her parents, and advise the school system on methods to best facilitate the child's education. Educational psychologists, by comparison, study the process of education itself; how people learn and which educational methods and materials are most successful. Applied research in this field focuses on how to improve teaching, solve learning problems, and measure learning ability and progress. Educational psychologists may devise achievement tests, evaluate teaching methods, develop learning aids and curricula, and investigate how children of various ages learn. They often serve as researchers and educators at teacher training institutions, in university psychology departments, and on the staffs of educational research organizations. Educational psychologists also work in government agencies, business, and the military.

Applied psychology has many applications in business and industry. Organizational and industrial psychologists are concerned with the relationships between people and their jobs. They study and advise employers in such areas as employee morale, job-related stress, job enrichment, leadership qualities, and the effects of flex time in productivity. Personnel psychologists screen job applicants, assess job performance, and recommend employees for promotion. Consumer psychologists study the preferences and buying habits of consumers as well as their responses to advertising, often working together with advertising copywriters, public relations experts, and statisticians. They are employed not only by business but also by government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

Engineering psychology applies information about human behavior to the design of machines, tools, jobs, and work environments to provide the best possible match with the abilities and limitations of the human beings who will use them. It is part of a broader area known as human-factors engineering (also called ergonomics) that has links to anatomy, anthropometry, environmental medicine, and toxicology. One very specific work environment that provides the arena for another specialization is the military. Military psychologists applying psychological research to the operations of the armed forces are involved in personnel selection, testing, and training; evaluating morale; analyzing job performance; studying social interaction among troops; and exploring the dynamics of combat situations. Psychology has also contributed to the exploration of space in areas including the selection and training of astronauts; the study of alterations in work-rest cycles; the design of space vehicles, space suits, and equipment used in space; and research on the operational problems of space flight.

A relatively new specialty is forensic psychology, which involves the application of psychology to law enforcement and the judicial system. While some forensic psychologists perform research in academic settings, others work in police departments, participating in officer training and assisting in criminal investigations. Forensic psychologists may help create personality profiles of criminals; formulate principles for jury selection; hypnotize victims, eyewitnesses, or defendants to enhance their memories; or study the problems involved in eyewitness testimony. Yet another emerging area is program evaluation, whose practitioners evaluate the effectiveness and cost efficiency of government programs for the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and other government offices and agencies.

Like psychologists engaged in research, the majority of those who practice applied psychology hold Ph.D. degrees in the field. Doctoral programs generally require completion of a four- to six-year program offered by a university psychology department. The course of study includes a broad overview (including courses in such areas as statistics, personality theory, and psychotherapy), as well as specialization in a particular subfield and completion of a practicum, internship, and dissertation. Some clinical psychologists hold a Psychology Doctorate (Psy.D.), a degree that was introduced at the University of Illinois in 1968 and is geared exclusively toward the training of clinicians rather than researchers. Offered at universities and at independent, "free-standing" professional schools of psychology, the Psy.D. program stresses course work in applied methods of assessment and intervention and eliminates the dissertation requirement.

Further Reading

Beck, Robert C. Applying Psychology: Critical and Creative Thinking. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

Wise, Paula Sachs. The Use of Assessment Techniques by Applied Psychologists. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1989.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology