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What is applied psychology? Definition, history, degrees and careers

At a glance

  • 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.”
  • The modern field of applied psychology grew out of developments spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Clinical psychology, educational psychology and industrial-organizational psychology are some of the major types of applied psychology.
  • Learn more about psychology degrees from UOPX and how they can help build the foundations of a career in psychology.

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.

Origins of applied psychology

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.

Into the 20th century

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.

Types of applied psychology

Clinical psychology

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:

  • Resolving issues of emotion, thinking and behavior
  • Helping patients develop healthy responses to stress or conflict
  • Treating long-term conditions, such as PTSD and addiction
  • Conducting research to develop new treatments for mental illnesses

Educational psychology

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:

  • Improving learning outcomes within schools
  • Outlining and improving the educational development of students with special needs
  • Conducting experiments to develop learning theories and improve student outcomes

Industrial-organizational psychology

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:

  • Improving employee motivation within a company
  • Evaluating and improving business protocols and employee training
  • Surveying employees to determine their psychological needs and well-being
  • Enhancing hiring processes for businesses

What is industrial-organizational psychology?

Climate and environmental psychology

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:

  • Uncovering psychological relationships between people and environmental factors such as changing seasons or the time of the day.
  • Researching how best to communicate environmental concerns and solutions
  • Developing methods to improve environmentally sustainable practices within a population

Forensic and public service psychology

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:

  • Assessing the threat a paroled inmate may have on society at large
  • Providing testimony relating to the mental condition of an involved party
  • Determining who is the best fit for public service positions, such as police officers and firefighters
  • Working with veterans suffering from trauma-related mental health challenges

Media psychology

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:

  • Implementing new technologies into education and traditional clinical practice
  • Studying the effects of media technologies on human behavior, cognition, development and society as a whole.
  • Producing laws, standards and regulations governing media
  • Working with media personnel to better connect with an audience

Degrees and careers in applied psychology

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.

Bachelor’s degrees in applied psychology

What you’ll learn:

  • Applying industrial/organizational psychological principles in managing human work performance and interactions.
  • Developing a working knowledge of psychology's content domains and their application.
  • Applying scientific reasoning to psychological research of the human experience
  • Integrating diversity and ethical considerations to psychological practices

What can you do with a bachelor’s in industrial organizational psychology?

A BSIOP can prepare you to be a: 

  • Training and development specialist
  • Human resources specialist 
  • Program manager
  • Employee development specialist
  • Personnel analyst

Topics you’ll learn about:

  • Technology and society
  • Social media and human interaction
  • Cyber communication
  • Digital learning

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:

  • Market research specialist
  • Communications specialist
  • Compliance coordinator

Master’s degrees in applied psychology

What you’ll learn:

  • Integrating industrial/organizational psychological principles in human work performance and interactions
  • Evaluating the implications of psychological research on the human experience
  • Evaluating considerations related to ethics and diversity
  • Synthesizing appropriate personal and professional communication in psychology

What can you do with a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology?

A MSIOP can prepare you to be a:

  • Employee relations manager
  • Human resources operations manager
  • Development manager
  • Management consultant
  • Organizational consultant
  • Psychology instructor

What you’ll learn:

  • Integrating psychological principles and practice in the context of human interactions
  • Assessing the implications of psychological research on the human experience
  • Evaluating professional considerations related to ethics and diversity
  • Synthesizing appropriate tactics for personal and professional communication in psychology

What can you do with a Master's in Psychology degree?

An MSP can prepare you to be a:

  • Psychology instructor
  • Compliance manager
  • Regulatory affairs manager

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.

Learn more about psychology degrees from University of Phoenix and build skills to make an impact on your community.