By Michael Feder
From nearly the beginning, human beings have devoted much thought to questions of the mind. How we think, how we learn and how we understand the world around us are questions that ancient philosophers from Egypt to Greece to China to India have pondered.
In the last 200 years, these philosophical meditations of the mind took on a more formal shape, developing into the scientific field of psychology that we know of today. Over time, psychologists took their theories of human cognition, behavior and perception out of the textbook and into clinics, offices and schools.
In this way, the field of applied psychology was born (though the story, as you will see, is a bit more complicated than that).
What is applied psychology? A definition.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines applied psychology as “the use of methods and findings of scientific psychology to solve practical problems of human and animal behavior and experience.”
Even the Britannica editors acknowledge that this definition is far from complete. The broad and varied types of applied psychology make a single definition elusive.
That being said, the important element here (and what ultimately defines applied psychology within psychology as a whole) is the use of psychology to “solve practical problems.” Though their work depends upon theory, clinical psychologists work in practical terms, not theoretical ones. They attempt to solve real issues that affect real people in the real world.
As stated before, thinking about thinking is not a new thing. The development of psychology (and therefore applied psychology) into a formal discipline would require a textbook-sized explanation covering millennia.
For the sake of brevity, then, the origin of applied psychology can be safely placed in the 18th century. Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, which transformed a largely feudal agrarian European population into city-dwelling factory workers, psychology arose in a similar vein. Much like the industrialists of this time period, early psychologists attempted to assert human order and control over the natural world.
It would not be until the 19th century that psychology would become a formal, empirical, scientific discipline based on hypotheses, experiments and studies.
Wilhelm Wundt is considered one of the fathers of modern psychology. In the psychological lab he founded at Leipzig University, he attempted to find physical origins of mental phenomena through experiments in senses, reflexes and memory.
Soon other psychological labs began springing up, and it was not long before psychologists translated the results of their experiments to applications beyond the laboratory.
Applied psychology truly came into its own during the 20th century, determined largely by the challenges of that era. War, population growth and the growth of industrial economies were the main drivers.
From veterans returning from the traumatic fronts of World War I to the educational needs of growing nations, there was ample opportunity for psychology to become applied on a large scale. Two major journals devoted to the specific field of applied psychology developed during this period: the German Zeitschrift für angewandte Psychologie and the American Journal of Applied Psychology, still in print today.
During this period, applied psychology largely fell into three types:
1. Clinical psychology
2. Educational psychology
3. Industrial-organizational psychology
These were the first types of applied psychology, though many more were to follow.
The focus of clinical psychology is to use psychological theories and practices to change how a person thinks or behaves. Though this work originated in private practice, it has since grown to applications in public health and social welfare organizations.
Aspects of clinical psychology include:
Tasked with guiding students through their education, teachers depend in part on educational psychology to help them develop their curriculum. With an understanding of learning theories, educators can better understand the psychology of their students to make lessons stick. Educational psychology, however, has applications far beyond the classroom.
Aspects of educational psychology include:
It may seem obvious, but the mental health of a company, big or small, can greatly affect productivity and therefore overall success. Industrial-organizational psychology studies how humans behave in a workplace, delving into the challenges and opportunities that develop when human beings work together.
Aspects of industrial-organizational psychology include:
Human beings have had a profound effect on the world around them, and it certainly goes both ways. Climate and environmental psychology studies the ways humans react to the environment around them, and how human behaviors affect that environment.
Aspects of climate and environmental psychology include:
While much of the law deals with the physical world, the mental world certainly has a major role to play. Forensic and public service psychology is a wide-ranging field focusing on legal issues that require psychological expertise.
Aspects of forensic and public service psychology include:
It’s no exaggeration that media, which encompasses everything from social media to news television to radio broadcasts, plays a major role in the world today. As a discipline, media psychology represents an attempt to uncover the relationship between media technologies and the human mind.
Aspects of media psychology include:
A career in applied psychology can be a rewarding way to help others in the community, while making new discoveries to further the discipline.
Here are some educational options available to those interested in applied psychology, as well as possible career paths in the discipline.
What you’ll learn:
What can you do with a bachelor’s in industrial organizational psychology?
A BSIOP can prepare you to be a:
Topics you’ll learn about:
What can you do with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Media and Technology?
A BSAP/MT can prepare you to be a:
What you’ll learn:
What can you do with a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology?
A MSIOP can prepare you to be a:
What you’ll learn:
What can you do with a Master's in Psychology degree?
An MSP can prepare you to be a:
Though it may not be obvious, applied psychology has changed major aspects of the way we live. From education to healthcare to law, the insights developed by applied psychologists continue to change and grow.
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