Clinical Psychology Research

clinical psychology research

Clinical psychology research is as important to the nation’s health and well being as medical research. In the same way that medical scientists work to understand the prevention, genesis, and spread of various genetic and infectious diseases, scientists conduct rigorous psychological research studies to understand, prevent, and treat the human condition as it applies psychologically to individuals, couples, families, cultures, and diverse communities.

Empirical results gathered from psychological research studies guide practitioners in developing effective interventions and techniques that clinical psychologists employ – proven, reliable results that improve lives, mend troubled relationships, manage addictions, and help manage and treat a variety of other mental health issues. Clinical psychology by definition marries science with practical knowledge, integrates the two, and produces a field that encourages a robust, ongoing process of scientific discovery and clinical application.

Trained at how to evaluate this large body of research, clinical psychology students continue to make significant professional contributions to the field even after graduation, staying current and up-to-date with psychological research taking place at universities and research labs across the world. Some decide to stay in research, investigating new ways to understand the human mind, and developing solutions to enrich the lives of all others.

Research in the area of clinical psychology is vast, containing hundreds if not thousands of topics. However, most of these research studies generally fall within one of three main areas integral to clinical psychology:


A large part of a clinical psychologist’s job, and therefore clinical psychology research, involves assessment – or developing valid and reliable tests. Assessments take the form of written tests, such as intelligence and achievement tests, vocational tests, and other tests designed to measure aptitude and skill levels for specific jobs, careers, interests, and personality types.

Clinical psychologists also interview individuals, review their medical records, and conduct clinical observations as part of the assessment process. A comprehensive assessment approach ensures that psychologists apply the most effective and appropriate psychological treatments and interventions.

In addition, assessment research in clinical psychology also involves developing valid and reliable ways to measure the outcome of specific treatments and interventions. Michael C. Roberts and Stephen S. Hardi state in their article, “Research Methodology and Clinical Psychology: An Overview,” that improvements in therapy and psychotherapeutic effects rest on targeted research informed by scientific methodologies.

“Measurement of treatment procedures, treatment integrity, behavioral changes, functional performance, objective measurements, perceptions of change, and satisfaction from a variety of sources, follow-up assessment, etc., are needed to establish the ‘scientific credentials’ of each therapeutic approach,” Roberts and Hardi state.

They also stress the importance of robust research assessments to measure the costs and benefits associated with psychotherapeutic outcomes and prevention interventions.


After gathering assessment data, psychologists consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-R), which lists criteria and standardized definitions for mental illnesses and conditions. Categories of symptoms differentiate one mental illness from another, and the usual course of each illness.

Beyond the DSM-IV-R, however, research in the area of diagnosing mental health problems remains one of the most exciting research areas in the field today – thanks to rapid advances in technology. Numerous brain imaging techniques that map brain structure and function now give researchers “images” of both normal and abnormal brain functioning. Scientists are using computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) to come up with greater precision and accuracy in diagnosing various mental illnesses.


The number of psychotherapies – a set of procedures or techniques that evaluate psychological problems, and come up with alternative ways of thinking, behaving, or feeling – has exploded in popularity since the middle of the last century. Most psychotherapies fall within one of the four main psychotherapeutic frameworks:

What is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy explores an individual’s unconscious, seeking reasons or explanations for the individual’s current behavior. This therapy, also called insight-oriented therapy, attempts to bring underlying factors grounded in early life to the individual’s attention, increasing self-awareness and self-understanding.

Psychodynamic therapy stems from Sigmund Freud’s focus on psychoanalysis, making it the oldest form of psychotherapy. As a result, a large body of research exists to either support or refute the effectiveness of this approach.

Because the results of psychoanalysis research are harder to measure than behavioral-oriented therapies, research methodologies and outcomes of treatment have been questioned – especially those of the earliest studies. Psychodynamic therapy requires long-term treatment, sometimes a year or more, also complicating the research process. However, researchers today apply the most rigorous scientific processes, including meta-analysis studies completed over a number of years, to study of efficacy of psychodynamic practice and techniques, and many studies report significant positive outcomes.

In 2008, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) used a meta-analysis process to examine studies published between January 1, 1960, and May 31, 2008, identifying the possible effects of long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy. JAMA reported positive outcomes – especially for those with complex mental disorders, such as patients with personality disorders, chronic mental disorders, multiple mental disorders, and complex depressive and anxiety disorders.

Current Sample Topics in Research Psychodynamic Therapy Include:

  • Psychodynamic therapy with addicted individuals.
  • Childhood neurosis and adult mental health.
  • Dreams and emotions in situations of childhood abuse.
  • Psychodynamic psychology and sexuality.
  • Structure and function of the psyche.
  • Psychoanalytic play therapy.
  • Psychic suffering.
  • The practice and art of psychotherapeutic dialogue.
  • Treating schizophrenia with psychodynamic therapies.
  • Individuation and wholeness.
  • Psychodynamic psychology and human development.
  • Transference and psychodynamic psychology.

What is Humanistic Therapy?

According to the Association of Humanistic Psychology (AHP), humanistic psychology today emphasizes “the independent dignity and worth of human beings and their conscious capacity to develop personal competence and self respect. This value orientation has led to the development of therapies to facilitate personal and interpersonal skills, and to enhance the quality of life.”

Humanistic therapy, founded by psychologist Carl Rogers, grew out of a reaction to psychoanalysis and behaviorism, two schools of thought that Rogers considered too “pessimistic.” Through psychoanalysis, Freud dwelled on unconscious motivators for behavior, while behaviorism, which followed developments in psychoanalysis, attributed behaviors to learned conditioning processes.

Instead, Rogers believed in downplays the pathological dimensions to an individual’s life, and alternatively, focusing on healthy aspects or behaviors. Rogers emphasized human potential, inherent goodness, the ability to self-direct by making choices; his form of psychotherapy came to be known as client-centered therapy. Self-actualization and developing a strong “sense of self” became the groundwork for this psychological framework and area of research.

AHP also acknowledges that negative and destructive forces in society can affect the mind, causing harm and dysfunction. Therefore, many humanistic psychologists also stress the importance of social change, modifying institutions and organizations to support human development, and acknowledging and building connectedness throughout a globally interdependent world.

Research, therefore, in humanistic psychology focuses not only on finding appropriate interventions toward helping individuals find their purpose and meaning in life, but also on peace and social justice issues within communities, nations, and the world. Transpersonal and quantum psychology, metaphysics, politics, economics, neuroconsciousness, and the environment are examples of topics explored in humanistic psychology research.

Some of the Current Research Topics in Humanistic Therapy and Theory:

  • Feminism and psychology.
  • Issues of Identity.
  • The self and authenticity.
  • The connection between people, the environment and spirituality.
  • The psychology of climate change.
  • Diet: physiological, psychological, and spiritual growth.
  • Creative, empathetic, and critical thinking with self-reflection.
  • Finding meaning in one’s work and career.
  • Finding meaning in suffering.
  • The psychology of creativity.
  • Community-building.
  • Evolving consciousness.
  • Spirituality and personal growth.
  • Existential psychotherapy.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

As the name implies, this therapy addresses both cognition – thoughts, feelings, emotions – and behaviors, attempting to change dysfunctional ways of thinking or misguided thought patterns that often lead to dysfunctional and sometimes harmful behaviors.

The therapy focuses on the present, current thought patterns, identifying distortions, and applying interventions that specifically target those errant thoughts. These interventions and techniques are problem-solving solutions, first guiding individuals in how to evaluate and modify beliefs, and then, how to change correspondingly unhealthy behaviors and interactions. Metaphorically, CBT interventions resemble a step-by-step “how-to” manual, giving instructions, and then empowering the individual to follow the steps, observe how they feel, and report back to the therapist the successes or challenges encountered. Typically, this type of therapy is short-term and goal-oriented, with occasional “checkups” to gauge progress and help in correcting any missteps.

CBT is “evidence-based” therapy, meaning that psychologists seek interventions that have been proven empirically through rigorously controlled experiments. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists bases its definition of evidence-based therapy on the following explanation by Aldo R. Pucci, MA, DCBT:

  • an approach to therapy that emphasizes the pursuit of evidence on which to base its theory and techniques, as well as encourages its patients or clients to consider evidence before taking action; or
  • an approach to therapy is supported by research findings, and those findings provide evidence that it is effective.

Because cognitive behavioral therapists base their applications on evidence-based research, the amount of CBT research surpasses the amount of psychotherapeutic research in nearly all other areas.

Some of the Popular Research Topics that CBT Addresses:

  • Controlling chronic pain
  • Treating anxiety and panic disorders
  • CBT techniques for criminal offenders
  • Using CBT for substance abuse and addiction disorders
  • Eating disorders

**In addition, CBT research often addresses the management and treatment of a number of medical conditions through cognitive behavioral therapies and interventions, including: side effects of cancer; sickle cell; disease pain; irritable-bowel syndrome; obesity; asthma; rheumatic disease pain; temporomandibular disorder; erectile dysfunction; infertility; chronic fatigue syndrome; pre-menstrual syndrome.

What is Family Systems Therapy or Family Therapy?

Family systems therapy is psychotherapy that treats families, couples, and close-knit groups of people or extended families, as a system. This means that the psychologist treats the family, couple, or group as a unit, which scientists believe function as one organism or system, operating with a distinct set of communication and interaction patterns, and internal rules – all directly affecting behaviors. Rather than focus on the dysfunction or problems of one individual, the entire system receives therapy.

Over the past 20 years, this form of psychotherapy that began with a focus on the traditional family unit has expanded to include therapy for all types of familial relationships, including gay and lesbian couples and families, extended families related through divorce and re-marriage, and other groups that resemble family systems, such as church or religious groups.

For this reason, researchers of family systems theory and therapy have experienced an exponential growth in the number of topics and issues for study and investigation.

Family systems research projects fall within the following categories:

  • Eating disorders
  • School and learning difficulties
  • Adjustments to bereavement
  • Adjustments to geographical location
  • Adjustment to physical or mental illness or disability
  • Marital or relationship problems
  • Divorce issues
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorders
  • Nutritional, physiological and health issues

Within each research category, researchers study specific issues, issues that often cross into other categories as well. Below are some additional research topics studied today in family systems therapy

Eating Disorders Research:

  • Is family therapy or individual therapy most effective for treating adolescent anorexia nervosa?
  • Does dysfunctional family communication and relationship patterns cause eating disorders? Or does the stress associated with raising a child with an eating disorder cause dysfunctional family problems?
  • What is the impact of eating disorders on families?
  • How do family dynamics affect individuals with eating disorders?
  • How does the mother-infant relationship affect future eating disorders?
  • How does the Maudsley Method of treating eating disorders work compared to other more traditional forms of family systems therapy? (Maudsley takes a behavioral approach of giving all family members responsibility of ensuring that the suffering individual eats, finishes each meal, and receives incentives and rewards for eating.)

School and Learning Research:

  • How do learning disabilities of one family member affect the entire family? Parents? Other siblings? And how the family functions?
  • Should the assessment and treatment of a person with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) occur in the context of an individual’s family system?
  • What are effective family therapies for childhood behavioral disorders?
  • What are the psychological effects on parents and families of autistic children?

Adjustments to Bereavement Research:

  • What are the needs of bereaved families?
  • What are the long-term effects of a child’s death on a family?
  • How do social/cultural influences affect how families cope with the loss of a family member?
  • How does disenfranchised grief affect families? (Disenfranchised grief is grief not acknowledged by society, such as loss of a pet, an aborted or miscarried pregnancy, the loss of a child to adoption, the death of a celebrity, or a fictional character.)

Adjustments to Geographical Location Research:

  • Re-location effects on military children and spouses.
  • Re-location effects on civilian children: social, behavioral and cognitive development.
  • Immigration and family emotional process.

Marital or Relationship Research:

  • Does emotion-focused couples therapy work and facilitate forgiveness?
  • Does a couple-based approach work to reduce the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (ptsd)?
  • How can couples restore emotional intimacy and passion?
  • What are the most effective interventions for aiding better communication between couples?
  • The interplay between healthy relationships and reproduction.
  • Genetics, physiology and relationships

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorders Research:

  • How does family structure and functioning affect drug abusers?
  • How does drug abuse by a family member affect siblings/parents/family functioning?
  • What is the importance of parent-child relationships on preventing drug use and abuse?

Adjustment to Physical and Mental Illness or Disability Research:

  • Family involvement in the treatment of mentally ill relatives.
  • Multimedia interventions for families where one or more members suffer with a genetic disease.
  • What are the effects of family network support and mental health recovery?
  • Family functioning and depression in low-income Latino families and couples.
  • Implications of violence and abuse on the family.
  • The effect of AIDS on the family.

Nutritional, Physiological and Health Research:

  • Cancer prevention for families.
  • Family functioning and the effects of obesity.

Divorce Research:

  • Does therapeutic divorce mediation work? (Divorce mediation is a therapeutic intervention for helping highly conflicted parents resolve disputes about their children.)
  • What are the effects of divorce on young children, adolescents, and young adults?
  • Reconciliation issues after divorce.
  • Inter-parental conflict and its effects on children of divorce.
  • How to establish healthy co-parenting roles.

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