What Is Psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior, or how people think, feel, and behave. The psychology field includes different disciplines and subfields of study, including child development, workplace productivity, and rehabilitation psychology. Understanding the types of psychology can help you decide if seeing a psychologist is the next best step for you or a loved one. 

Mature adult therapist listens to mid adult male client
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What It Involves

Psychology has come a long way since the days of lying on the therapist’s couch. Your experience with a psychologist will depend on numerous factors, including your reason for seeing them. Regardless of the reason, though, you will most likely begin by answering some questions about your current situation. 

You may be asked about the following:

  • If you have ever seen a psychologist before
  • What brings you into the appointment (your primary concern)
  • What you think the problem is
  • What you hope to get from meeting with a psychologist
  • How you will be paying for your appointments (insurance or out of pocket)

By the end of your first appointment, you should leave with a general sense of what the psychologist recommends and whether you can work well with this psychologist. 

Types of Doctors Who Practice It

Psychologists with doctoral degrees in clinical psychology can diagnose mental disorders but cannot prescribe medications to treat these disorders.

Doctors and mental health professionals who use psychology in their everyday practice include:

  • Psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy and prescribe medications.
  • Mental health practitioners are licensed therapists who do not prescribe medications.
  • School counselors and childhood educators use their knowledge of psychology to help children and teens.
  • Clinical social workers are trained to evaluate mental health and develop recovery plans that involve referral to community resources.

Conditions Treated

Psychologists may work with people on a short- or long-term basis, and can help you through major life transitions, including coming out to friends and family, becoming a parent, or making a significant career change. People also see psychologists to cope with chronic conditions and terminal illnesses.

Conditions treated by psychologists include:

  • Addiction, including substance use disorder
  • Eating disorders like binge-eating disorder or anorexia nervosa
  • Personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder
  • Psychotic disorders, which affect a person’s sense of reality and cause hallucinations or delusions
  • Mood disorders, where people experience several weeks of mood changes (extreme happiness, extreme sadness, or both)
  • Sleep-wake disorders, including insomnia and excessive tiredness during daylight hours
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder


Psychologists can focus on an area of interest otherwise known as their subspecialty. Each subspecialty can open the door to a different career path and a different way of helping people:  

  • Biopsychologists or biological psychologists are brain and behavior researchers.
  • Consumer psychologists are the people behind what drives your desire to buy some items and support some brands over others. 
  • Environmental psychologists focus on your relationship to your surroundings, whether it’s a community park, school playground, or corporate building. 
  • Counseling psychologists work in clinics with clients using talk therapy to address underlying thought patterns and behaviors. They also help boost confidence and self-trust. 
  • Forensic psychologists work closely with the law as expert resources for criminal cases, child custody evaluations, and civil cases. 
  • Military psychologists and aviation psychologists focus directly on the emotional needs of those in the military or the aviation industry.
  • Personality psychologists focus on how personality forms, whether it is changeable, and what contributes to personality disorders.
  • Social psychologists use their skills to enhance teamwork and productivity or reduce biases that may be contributing to a toxic office culture, for example.


Since psychology is such a broad area of study, different types of practitioners narrow their focus to specific types of people, disorders, or concerns. Some examples include:

  • Cognitive psychology centers on human thinking, memory, reasoning, perception, decision-making, and judgment.
  • Developmental psychology focuses on specific life stages, from prenatal to adolescence to adulthood to end of life.
  • Engineering psychology focuses on product functionality and user-friendliness.
  • Health psychology or medical psychology deals with not only health, sickness, and health care but also the education about and prevention of physical and psychological illness.
  • Organization psychology focuses on workplace environments and increasing morale and productivity.
  • Neuropsychology focuses on brain functioning, such as how the brain reacts and recovers from injury or trauma.
  • Educational psychology deals with how people learn and retain new information, as well as the best methods of helping people with memory.
  • Rehabilitation psychology specializes in individuals with disabilities and chronic health conditions. 
  • Research or experimental psychology is where hypotheses are tested.
  • Social and personality psychology deals with what makes us do the things we do.
  • Sports and performance psychology helps athletes or artists overcome mental blocks and maximize career potential, as well as helps teams improve their chances of success.

Training and Certifications

When you’re looking for a mental health professional, check their training and certifications because the education and practice required for different roles vary. 


A counselor is someone who offers counsel or advice, consultation, or instruction to someone else. While many states require counselors to be licensed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), this may not be the case where you live.

If you see an “L” before their professional title (the letters after their name), it means they are considered clinicians in good standing with state licensing.

Examples include a licensed family and marriage counselor (LFMC), licensed professional clinical counselor of mental health (LPCC), or licensed professional counselor (LPC). Some counselors will also choose to complete additional certifications.


Professional therapists will have completed a bachelor’s degree and generally at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate as well. Therapists can tailor their career path based on their areas of interest and training.

Therapists may focus on:

  • Individuals
  • Couples
  • Families
  • Groups


Psychologists earn their undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field before completing a relevant master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy (PhD) or psychology (PsyD) in clinical or counseling psychology.

Regardless of doctoral status, they are not considered medical doctors and cannot prescribe medications. They do, however, need to comply with state licensure requirements. 


Psychiatrists are medical doctors by definition. They start by completing a bachelor’s degree before going to medical school and earning their MDs or DOs. Afterward, they undergo an additional four years of psychiatric residency training.

During their residency, psychiatrists are exposed to a variety of patients, conditions, and healthcare settings. They can also choose an area of interest where they can undergo additional training, such as child and adolescent psychiatry or addictions. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


Psychology is said to have roots in ancient Greece, but is nevertheless considered a relatively new discipline that emerged in the 19th century (late 1800s).

Psychology’s focus on the conscious mind shifts dramatically with Sigmund Freud, an Austrian doctor who brought the idea of the unconscious and psychoanalysis as a method of treatment to the forefront. Freud believed that mental illness could be treated by talking to the patient, and this formed the basis for significant aspects of clinical psychology as we know it today.

In addition to the psychoanalytic school of thought, there are many others, including:

  • Behaviorism, or the focus on observable behaviors, which brought us the idea that behaviors can be learned through conditioning
  • Humanistic psychology, which focuses on the whole individual and human motivation
  • Cognitive psychology, which focuses on internal cognitive processes and how the brain works


Psychology focuses on how we think, feel, and act. Mental health professionals must complete their studies in psychology before becoming licensed to provide psychotherapy and treatments for mental disorders.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can you do with a psychology degree?

What you can do with a psychology degree depends on the level of degree earned and your specific area of focus. You may perform clinical counseling or psychotherapy or participate in research.

Why is psychology important?

Psychology is important because it explains human behavior, or why we do the things we do. It can also be used to help individuals and organizations make desired changes and excel in their productivity and performance. 

What are the four goals of psychology?

The four major goals of psychology are to describe behavior (what happened), explain behavior (why did it happen), predict behavior (what would happen if), and change or control behavior (what can we do next time).

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Updates to DSM-5 criteria & text.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Mood disorders.

  3. American Psychological Association. Science of psychology.

  4. Mehta N. Mind-body Dualism: A critique from a health perspective. Mens Sana Monogr. 2011;9(1):202-209. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.77436

  5. De Sousa A. Freudian theory and consciousness: A conceptual analysis. Mens Sana Monogr. 2011;9(1):210-217. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.77437

By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.