What is Applied Psychology? A Guide for 2021 and Beyond

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The value of applied psychology in helping to solve society’s most complex problems has only increased as life has become more complicated. In fact, the American Psychological Association opened a new Office of Applied Psychology in 2019 “to elevate the association’s focus on applied psychology.”

The organization cites beneficial outcomes when applied psychology is leveraged across “business and industry, design and engineering, education, law, natural and built environments, sports and technology.”


What is Applied Psychology?

Applied psychology is a combined study of human behavior, consumer psychology and organizational psychology. The research and principles behind the discipline address workplace and business challenges from various perspectives to identify core issues and find viable solutions.

  • Human Behavior

Human behavior studies explore social and cultural influences, developmental experiences, personality aspects, risk and reward systems, and neurobehavioral considerations.

  • Consumer Psychology

Consumer psychology delves into why and how people buy, whether for personal or business purchases. It looks at individual factors, as well as behaviors of defined demographic and audience groups.

  • Organizational Psychology

Organizational psychology considers the entire ecosystem of the workplace – from training and development to performance and productivity to work/life balance.


Applied Psychology Trends for 2021 and Beyond

2020 created many unforeseen challenges for businesses and consumers. Norms and behaviors changed overnight as lives and livelihoods were upended across the globe. New trends took hold in response as the world looked for ways to address the first global pandemic in a century – while also getting work done, creating business solutions and accelerating emerging technologies.



The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) PubMed Central® (PMC) released an article entitled “The Corona Crisis: What Can We Learn from Earlier Studies in Applied Psychology.” It’s an insightful overview of previous work in the study of social distancing, telecommuting and virtual teams, the intersection of work and home, job insecurity, and the unique concerns of healthcare workers. There is an understanding that while this research was not conducted in today’s highly fraught environment, the studies can still provide guidance to policy makers, public health advocates, business leaders, the media, and other stakeholders and problem solvers.

A new study conducted in March of 2020, at the advent of stay-at-home orders, focused on human resilience in rebounding to normalcy under these conditions. The findings, as described in Forbes, relied on self-reported data over a two-week period. What was most surprising was that the participants regarded as most “neurotic” were those who recovered to a sense of normalcy quicker than their peers. At least over the short term. This is good news regarding the potential for adaptability to drastically new situations during and beyond coronavirus.


Workplace Culture

Workplace psychology has always been a complex study. However, in 2020, there is much more at play when we consider an environment permeated by coronavirus anxiety, racial unrest and political divide. Employees bring their thoughts and feelings on life, work and society into their workplaces each day – helping to create an atmosphere that is positive, toxic or somewhere in between.

Human resources compliance firm Emtrain helps businesses understand and change the human behaviors that define a company’s culture. Their “2020 Workplace Culture Report’ identifies three people indicators that are central to workplace psychology: pre-existing mindsets and behaviors, unconscious bias, and social intelligence.

It is human nature to accept our own perspective as the one that is right and true and be less likely to appreciate the stance of others. Yet, within an increasingly diverse multigenerational workforce it is more important than ever that we become aware and accepting of our differences. Whether that means learning a new technology, wearing masks at work, empathizing with an anxious coworker, or any of the myriad of situations that can arise during these stressful times.


People-Friendly Technology

Among the APA’s “Top Trends to Watch in 2021” is the psychological study of user experience in the design and development of people-friendly technology. This trend has far-reaching impact on consumers with applications for retail, travel, entertainment, healthcare and academia. It also impacts workers around the world as companies deploy new technologies throughout the entire employee experience.

Today, job candidates are contacted by chatbots to set up a video interview using self-scheduling technology. The video interview is evaluated by humans as well as by artificial intelligence (AI) and facial analysis software. Once hired, the new employee receives a handful of apps to track everything from their productivity to payroll to paid time off. Some workers may even be tracked by their location on the road, inside a warehouse, or elsewhere on company property.

To be accepted, these types of advancements must have people at the center of their design. User-experience and organizational psychologists need to understand attitudes, perceptions and emotional drivers, along with cognitive behaviors and human factors.


HCI in Healthcare

Applied psychology is also serving an important role in the adoption of human-computer interaction (HCI) in the healthcare industry. This can mean creating forms that are easier and more intuitive for clinicians to complete, studying how surgeons and surgical techs interact with robotic technologies, or designing healthcare apps that help patients better manage their own health.

IBM is a major presence in the HCI field, researching how certain features can increase trust and understanding in using AI-enabled systems. One of their findings resulted in a visualization tool that made processes more transparent to the user. Areas under continued study include behaviors related to the use of speech recognition technology, the experience of device “alert fatigue” based on personality and context, and the overall adoption of AI in terms of meeting end user goals.



The Future of Applied Psychology

The faster the world changes, the more opportunities emerge for the study of applied psychology. The pace at which society is experiencing new challenges warrants an equivalent effort to find solutions to those challenges. All to help make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others.

To see more, visit USC’s Applied Psychology Masters degree online program.



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