Applied vs. Clinical Psychology: The Power of Real-World Solutions

Human behavior is the catalyst for our most pressing issues, from inequality and health to sustainability and the future of work. Applied psychologists and clinical psychologists are leaders strategizing real-world solutions to some of the biggest problems humanity faces.

To learn more, explore the infographic below, created by USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) program.

The similarities and differences of applied psychology versus clinical psychology.

Clinical Psychology vs. Applied Psychology

Clinical psychology assesses and treats mental, behavioral and emotional problems, whereas applied psychology applies psychological science and theories to address real-world issues.

When considering clinical psychology versus applied psychology, the two often look similar. Each focuses on human cognition and human behavior, and clinical and applied psychologists share a mission to foster equity, diversity and inclusion.

In contrast, a key difference in clinical psychology versus applied psychology lies in the practices of each. Clinical psychology aims to change maladaptive behaviors, including self-harm, passive-aggressiveness, substance use, avoidance and withdrawal, uncontrolled anger, and sexual aggression.

On the other hand, applied psychology analyzes normative behavior (norms are social expectations). Examples of problematic normative behavior found in recent studies include the observation of Black employees who adopt white norms to be seen as more professional; rudeness becoming a pervasive workplace norm, with a majority of employees reporting workplace incivility; and nurse-on-nurse bullying in health care growing in prevalence.

What Is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology brings scientific research to bear on individuals’ psychological problems, making it a rewarding helping profession.

In the late 19th century, U.S. psychologist Lightner Witmer introduced the term clinical psychology. He opened the first psychology clinic in 1896, treating children with learning disabilities. Clinical psychologists of the early 20th century primarily studied intelligence, motivation and delinquency.

After WWII, the call to treat veterans with psychological distress spurred a boom in the field, especially in psychotherapy (talk therapy). Today, clinical psychology therapies include:

  • Psychodynamic therapy, which uses free association (one word or image suggesting another) to investigate unconscious motivations
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, which endeavors to change thoughts and feelings contributing to psychological symptoms
  • Humanistic therapy, which builds on the ideas of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers to help people realize their full potential

Recent studies in clinical psychology investigated topics such as attitudes toward older adults and aging, potentially harmful psychological therapies, the impact of expected fear on experienced fear, and college student mental health.

What Is Applied Psychology?

Applied psychology, an outgrowth of clinical psychology, draws from the findings of scientific psychology to address everyday problems in behaviors, emotions and social interactions. Historically, during the 1970s cognitive revolution, applied psychologists employed research on social cognition to address issues of social communication and behavior.

Areas of applied psychology include business, education, law, engineering and technology.

Applied Psychology and Consumer Behavior

Consumer psychologists work with companies to study how people’s thoughts, beliefs, feelings and perceptions influence how they interact with products and services, focusing on aspects of psychology, society, culture and economics.

Recent studies in the Journal of Consumer Psychology investigated topics such as the influence of cognitive clues on consumer behavior, AI tracking and consumer choices, consumer psychology and repeat consumption, and consumer reactions to inauthenticity.

Applied Psychology and Organizational Success

An organizational psychologist analyzes workplace behavior and advises companies how to improve it.

Applying organizational psychology to the workplace benefits businesses and employees in many ways, including by helping to create efficient and equitable employee recruitment strategies, higher employee productivity, enhanced job satisfaction, better work-life balance, and improved team building.

Duties of an organizational psychologist typically include helping companies recruit qualified job candidates; onboarding and training new employees; analyzing worker performance and productivity; helping management and staff achieve work-life balance; and ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Recent trends in organizational psychology focus on social concerns, such as racism in the workplace, equity and inclusivity practices, toxic work environments, and organizational compassion.

Applied and Clinical Psychologists Strategize Real-World Solutions

Psychologists can be researchers employed by universities to study troubling and divisive human behavior and how to alleviate it. They can work for businesses to foster more equitable and just workplaces. They can help merchants serve customers as trusted partners who anticipate consumer needs. Around the globe, people are striving to thrive; it’s the rewarding task of applied psychologists and clinical psychologists to help us understand each other as we build a better world.



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