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1.5: Experimental and Clinical Psychologists

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Define the clinical practice of psychology and distinguish it from experimental psychology.
    2. Explain how science is relevant to clinical practice.
    3. Define the concept of an empirically supported treatment and give some examples.

    Who Conducts Scientific Research in Psychology?

    Experimental Psychologists

    Scientific research in psychology is generally conducted by people with doctoral degrees (usually the doctor of philosophy [Ph.D.]) and master’s degrees in psychology and related fields, often supported by research assistants with bachelor’s degrees or other relevant training. Some of them work for government agencies (e.g., the Mental Health Commission of Canada), national associations (e.g., the American Psychological Association), non-profit organizations (e.g., the Canadian Mental Health Association), or in the private sector (e.g., in product development). However, the majority of them are college and university faculty, who often collaborate with their graduate and undergraduate students. Although some researchers are trained and licensed as clinicians—especially those who conduct research in clinical psychology—the majority are not. Instead, they have expertise in one or more of the many other subfields of psychology: behavioral neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, personality psychology, social psychology, and so on. Doctoral-level researchers might be employed to conduct research full-time or, like many college and university faculty members, to conduct research in addition to teaching classes and serving their institution and community in other ways.

    Of course, people also conduct research in psychology because they enjoy the intellectual and technical challenges involved and the satisfaction of contributing to scientific knowledge of human behavior. You might find that you enjoy the process too. If so, your college or university might offer opportunities to get involved in ongoing research as either a research assistant or a participant. Of course, you might find that you do not enjoy the process of conducting scientific research in psychology. But at least you will have a better understanding of where scientific knowledge in psychology comes from, an appreciation of its strengths and limitations, and an awareness of how it can be applied to solve practical problems in psychology and everyday life.

    Scientific Psychology Blogs

    A fun and easy way to follow current scientific research in psychology is to read any of the many excellent blogs devoted to summarizing and commenting on new findings. Among them are the following:

    You can also browse to http://www.researchblogging.org, select psychology as your topic, and read entries from a wide variety of blogs.

    Clinical Psychologists

    Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. But it is also the application of scientific research to “help people, organizations, and communities function better” (American Psychological Association, 2011)[1]. By far the most common and widely known application is the clinical practice of psychology—the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders and related problems. Let us use the term clinical practice broadly to refer to the activities of clinical and counseling psychologists, school psychologists, marriage and family therapists, licensed clinical social workers, and others who work with people individually or in small groups to identify and help address their psychological problems. It is important to consider the relationship between scientific research and clinical practice because many students are especially interested in clinical practice, perhaps even as a career.

    The main point is that psychological disorders and other behavioral problems are part of the natural world. This means that questions about their nature, causes, and consequences are empirically testable and therefore subject to scientific study. As with other questions about human behavior, we cannot rely on our intuition or common sense for detailed and accurate answers. Consider, for example, that dozens of popular books and thousands of websites claim that adult children of alcoholics have a distinct personality profile, including low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and difficulties with intimacy. Although this sounds plausible, scientific research has demonstrated that adult children of alcoholics are no more likely to have these problems than anybody else (Lilienfeld et al., 2010)[2]. Similarly, questions about whether a particular psychotherapy is effective are empirically testable questions that can be answered by scientific research. If a new psychotherapy is an effective treatment for depression, then systematic observation should reveal that depressed people who receive this psychotherapy improve more than a similar group of depressed people who do not receive this psychotherapy (or who receive some alternative treatment). Treatments that have been shown to work in this way are called empirically supported treatments.

    Empirically Supported Treatments

    An empirically supported treatment is one that has been studied scientifically and shown to result in greater improvement than no treatment, a placebo, or some alternative treatment. These include many forms of psychotherapy, which can be as effective as standard drug therapies. Among the forms of psychotherapy with strong empirical support are the following:

    • Cognitive behavioral therapy. For depression, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
    • Exposure therapy. For post-traumatic stress disorder.
    • Behavioral therapy. For depression.
    • Behavioral couples therapy. For alcoholism and substance abuse.
    • Exposure therapy with response prevention. For obsessive-compulsive disorder.
    • Family therapy. For schizophrenia.

    For a more complete list, see the following website, which is maintained by Division 12 of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Clinical Psychology: http://www.div12.org/psychological-treatments

    Many in the clinical psychology community have argued that their field has not paid enough attention to scientific research—for example, by failing to use empirically supported treatments—and have suggested a variety of changes in the way clinicians are trained and treatments are evaluated and put into practice. Others believe that these claims are exaggerated and the suggested changes are unnecessary (Norcross, Beutler, & Levant, 2005)[3]. On both sides of the debate, however, there is agreement that a scientific approach to clinical psychology is essential if the goal is to diagnose and treat psychological problems based on detailed and accurate knowledge about those problems and the most effective treatments for them. So not only is it important for scientific research in clinical psychology to continue, but it is also important for clinicians who never conduct a scientific study themselves to be scientifically literate so that they can read and evaluate new research and make treatment decisions based on the best available evidence.

    Key Takeaways

    • Scientific research in psychology is conducted mainly by people with doctoral degrees in psychology and related fields, most of whom are college and university faculty members. They do so for professional and for personal reasons, as well as to contribute to scientific knowledge about human behavior.Most psychologists are experimental psychologists and they conduct research.
    • The clinical practice of psychology—the diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems—is one important application of the scientific discipline of psychology.
    • Scientific research is relevant to clinical practice because it provides detailed and accurate knowledge about psychological problems and establishes whether treatments are effective.

    Exercises

    1. Discussion: Some clinicians argue that what they do is an “art form” based on intuition and personal experience and therefore cannot be evaluated scientifically. Write a paragraph about how satisfied you would be with such a clinician and why from each of three perspectives:
      1. a potential client of the clinician
      2. a judge who must decide whether to allow the clinician to testify as an expert witness in a child abuse case
      3. an insurance company representative who must decide whether to reimburse the clinician for his or her services
    2. Practice: Create a short list of questions that a client could ask a clinician to determine whether he or she pays sufficient attention to scientific research.

    References

    1. American Psychological Association. (2011). About APA. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about
    2. Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
    3. Norcross, J. C., Beutler, L. E., & Levant, R. F. (Eds.). (2005). Evidence-based practices in mental health: Debate and dialogue on the fundamental questions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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