Difference Between Cognitive Psychology and Clinical Psychology

Psychology is the study of human behavior. In particular, psychologists study the influence of the environment and brain function on behavior. All psychologists are involved in one form of behavioral study or another. But the study of environmental and brain-based behaviors is done in very different ways depending on the field of psychology one practices.

The American Psychological Association identifies 15 sub-fields of psychology. Cognitive psychology and Clinical Psychology are just two of those subfields. While each of these areas of psychology has much in common, many differences also make them unique areas of study.

This guide examines the differences between cognitive psychology and clinical psychology, including how these sub-fields address the question of “why do humans behave the way they do?”

Cognitive Psychology Vs. Clinical Psychology – Key Differences

Cognitive psychologists study the brain and behavior. To do so, they focus on aspects of brain science and the influence of brain structures in certain behaviors, including sensation, perception, language acquisition, and memory. Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, tend to focus less on the physiological mechanisms that cause behavior and more on applying therapeutic interventions to address the behavior.

Cognitive psychology is very much a scientific pursuit – that’s why cognitive psychologists are often referred to as brain scientists. How the brain acquires, processes, and stores information are further areas of interest to cognitive psychologists.

If we define clinical psychology more, it would be the practice of applying clinical or counseling services to treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. While clinical psychology is still a scientific pursuit – clinical psychologists use psychological science to treat their clients – it is much more an applied psychology than cognitive psychology.

In other words, a clinical psychologist might use counseling techniques to help a client work through a mental, emotional, or behavioral issue, but might not focus much on the etiology of the issue as a cognitive psychologist might.

For example, a cognitive psychologist might study how the brain changes when someone has Alzheimer’s disease. This type of study is likely to occur in a lab setting, perhaps examining the changes in the brains of lab animals or even examining data from longitudinal studies of humans with Alzheimer’s.

Conversely, a clinical psychologist might use psychotherapeutic techniques to help address the emotional difficulties of having been diagnosed with the disease. So, if you’ve recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it’s safe to assume you might become depressed, anxious, or both. A clinical psychologist can use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help you manage those symptoms.

From these general examples, you can see how cognitive psychology and clinical psychology differ. However, these examples only explore part of the differences in the approach of these two disciplines. Let’s examine additional examples to better understand how cognitive psychologists and clinical psychologists approach their craft.

What Would a Cognitive Psychologist Do?

To have the greatest degree of job prospects, cognitive psychologists should have a Ph.D. In many cases, cognitive psychologists work in research settings. However, some cognitive psychologists work in applied settings.

For example, a cognitive psychologist might apply their understanding of the relationship between the brain and behavior to make adjustments to a workplace environment that increases worker productivity. In this instance, this work is in the industrial-organizational realm of psychology, which is a common application of cognitive studies.

Another common application of cognitive psychology is in academia and education. With the proper education and some real-world experience under your belt, you can move into a teaching role in a college or university’s psychology department. College professors also typically conduct original research, so you could have the opportunity to explore areas of interest in addition to your teaching duties.

Let’s use an applied psychology example as well.

Assume that you are a cognitive psychologist and that you work in private practice. One of your clients, Annie, is struggling in her college classes, even though she’s very bright and never had problems in school before.

Using your background in cognitive psychology, you might assess Annie using various psychological instruments, like a questionnaire on preferred learning styles. Upon examining the results of the questionnaire, it might become evident that Annie is a much stronger visual learner than auditory learner. Since most of her classes are lecture-based, this could explain her struggles in class.

Based on this information, you might then work with Annie to identify mechanisms she can use to improve her school performance. For example, you might suggest that she takes detailed notes during lectures. Doing so allows her to hear what the professor is saying, see the written words in her notes, and see them again when reviewing the notes at a later date. Using flashcards – another visual form of learning – might also be suggested.

Of course, this is just one of many ways that cognitive psychology can be applied in everyday life. But this example shows how brain scientists can have a positive impact on people’s behavior and functioning.

What Would a Clinical Psychologist Do?

Like cognitive psychologists, clinical psychologists need a Ph.D. (or a PsyD) to have the greatest number of job opportunities. In fact, many states require that to become licensed a clinical psychologist, you need to have a doctoral degree.

When you think of psychologists, you probably think of a professional in an office talking with a client about their problems. This is one of the most common applications of clinical psychology. Some clinical psychologists specialize in treating certain groups of people (e.g., children or economically disadvantaged people) or specific mental health issues, like schizophrenia or depression.

Likewise, clinical psychologists work in many different fields. Some are self-employed in private practice, while others work in residential mental health facilities. Still other clinical psychologists work in school settings, while some use their expertise to provide services in a non-profit community mental health setting.

For example, a clinical psychologist might specialize in working with geriatric clients. Elderly people have a special set of circumstances with which they must navigate, like physical illness, the death of loved ones, and their own impending death.

A clinical psychologist might provide counseling services to a widow after the death of her husband. Likewise, a clinical psychologist in this field might lead a support group for older individuals with depression.

Related Reading: How to Become a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT)

As another example, a clinical psychologist might work for the Department of Health and Human Services to guide the development of educational programs for people with diabetes. While diabetes isn’t a psychological issue, there are many psychological issues related to the disorder, like anxiety, depression, and even eating disorders.

Using our applied example with Annie from earlier, we can compare and contrast how a clinical psychologist’s approach might differ from the cognitive psychology approach. From a clinical perspective, a psychologist might wonder if Annie’s struggles have something to do with another mental health issue.

For example, suppose that Annie’s struggles in college aren’t just the result of her learning styles not aligning with the delivery of information, but that Annie might also be homesick. Her homesickness might lead to depression or anxiety, which can reduce her ability to pay attention in class and have the energy to study. A clinical psychologist might evaluate Annie for depression or anxiety, then develop a treatment plan to address those issues, such as short-term individual therapy.

Again, these are just a few examples of how clinical psychologists might address these situations. The application of clinical psychology is much broader and more complex, but these simple examples should give you insight into the differences in how clinical and cognitive psychologists approach their work.

Can a Cognitive Psychologist Be a Therapist?

Yes. To be a therapist, one must have a Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology. Most states don’t stipulate the sub-field of psychology that’s studied, so long as the program meets the state’s requirements for licensure.

For example, it’s common for states to require therapists to graduate from an accredited doctoral program that features clinical training. In many cases, prospective therapists must also complete post-doctoral supervised training in a psychology setting as well. Usually, states also require that psychologists pass an examination before a license is conferred.

An example of a cognitive psychologist working as a therapist is in the treatment of brain disorders. As the American Psychological Association notes, cognitive psychologists might use music therapy to help clients heal from a brain condition, such as speech and language difficulties, motor dysfunctions, or sensory issues related to a neurological event.

Is There a Demand for Cognitive Psychologists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the change in employment for all psychologists is expected to be about six percent through 2031. This represents average growth. However, the BLS doesn’t include data specifically for cognitive psychologists.

We can infer the potential for demand for some types of cognitive psychologists from this data, though. For example, the BLS notes that jobs in industrial-organizational psychology will grow at a four percent rate over the next ten years. This represents even slower growth than all psychology jobs combined.

Cognitive psychologists that work in applied settings, such as counseling, can expect much more robust job growth – about 10 percent, according to the BLS. Of course, your individual job prospects also have to do with your training, level of experience, and any areas of expertise.

For example, if you are a research psychologist with a specialty in dementia research, it stands to reason that your services might be in demand as the population gets older and dementia becomes more common. On the other hand, if your specialty is in a very niche area, like conducting comparative analyses of animal cognition and human cognition, the potential for job growth might not be as robust.

How Many Years Does it Take to Become a Cognitive Psychologist?

As discussed above, cognitive psychologists typically need a Ph.D. to have the best job prospects. A Ph.D. program usually lasts at least five years. This includes the time it takes to get a master’s degree before completing the requirements of the Ph.D.

However, you must first complete undergraduate studies in psychology or a related field. Most undergraduate programs take about four years to complete. So, from start to finish, you can expect to spend nearly a decade getting the appropriate schooling to become a cognitive psychologist.

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