The Five Psychological Domains

Learning Objectives

  • List and define the five major domains, or pillars, of contemporary psychology

Introduction to Contemporary Psychology

Contemporary psychology is a diverse field that is influenced by all of the historical perspectives described in the previous section of reading. Reflective of the discipline’s diversity is the diversity seen within the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA is a professional organization representing psychologists in the United States. The APA is the largest organization of psychologists in the world, and its mission is to advance and disseminate psychological knowledge for the betterment of people. There are 56 divisions within the APA, representing a wide variety of specialties that range from Societies for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality to Exercise and Sport Psychology to Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology. Reflecting the diversity of the field of psychology itself, members, affiliate members, and associate members span the spectrum from students to doctoral-level psychologists, and come from a variety of places including educational settings, criminal justice, hospitals, the armed forces, and industry (American Psychological Association, 2014).

Link to Learning

Please visit this APA divisions website to see a list of all the divisions and to learn more about them. Student resources are also available through the APA.

Psychologists agree that there is no one right way to study the way people think or behave. There are, however, various schools of thought that evolved throughout the development of psychology that continue to shape the way we investigate human behavior. For example, some psychologists might attribute a certain behavior to biological factors such as genetics while another psychologist might consider early childhood experiences to be a more likely explanation for the behavior. Many expert psychologists focus their entire careers on just one facet of psychology, such as developmental psychology or cognitive psychology, or even more specifically, newborn intelligence or language processing.

While the field of study is large and vast, this text aims to introduce you to the main topics with psychology. You’ll get exposure to the various branches and sub-fields within the discipline and come to understand how they are all interconnected and essential in understanding behavior and mental processes. The five main psychological pillars, or domains, as we will refer to them, are:

  1. Domain 1: Biological (includes neuroscience, consciousness, and sensation)
  2. Domain 2: Cognitive (includes the study of perception, cognition, memory, and intelligence)
  3. Domain 3: Development (includes learning and conditioning, lifespan development, and language)
  4. Domain 4: Social and Personality (includes the study of personality, emotion, motivation, gender, and culture)
  5. Domain 5: Mental and Physical Health (includes abnormal psychology, therapy, and health psychology)
Image of five pillars, showing the biological, cognitive, developmental, social and personality, and mental and physical health.
Figure 1. The five pillars, or domains, of psychology. Image adapted from Gurung, R. A., Hackathorn, J., Enns, C., Frantz, S., Cacioppo, J. T., Loop, T., & Freeman, J. E. (2016) article “Strengthening introductory psychology: A new model for teaching the introductory course” from American Psychologist.

These five domains cover the main viewpoints, or perspectives, of psychology. These perspectives emphasize certain assumptions about behavior and provide a framework for psychologists in conducting research and analyzing behavior. They include some you have already read about, including Freud’s psychodynamic perspective, behaviorism, humanism, and the cognitive approach. Other perspectives include the biological perspective, evolutionary, and socio-cultural perspectives.

Helpful Hints

A neat way to remember the major perspectives in psychology is to think about your hand and associate each finger with a prominent psychological approach:

  • Index Finger: Tap your finger to the temple of your head as if you were thinking about something. This is the cognitive perspective.
  • Middle Finger: If you stuck up your middle finger to flip someone off, that would be bad behavior in many cultures. This represents the behavioral perspective, which falls under the developmental domain.
  • Ring Finger: This is typically where you would wear a wedding band. For some people this is a healthy lifestyle choice, and for others this is a cause of stress. For some, the thought of marriage causes anxiety, which may lead to therapy. This represents the mental and physical health domain.
  • Pinky Finger: This little finger was born this way—short. You can thank your biology for that. This represents the biological perspective.
  • Palm of hand: In many cultures, giving a high-five is an acceptable greeting. This represents the social and personality domain.
  • Bonus: Thumb: your thumb can move around in psycho ways—it’s so versatile! This is the psychodynamic perspective, which is not its own pillar but represents a prominent historical perspective and school of thought in psychology, as explained earlier.
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