What Is Differential Psychology?

Although most specializations in the field of psychology deal with similarities, differential psychology addresses differences between individuals or groups. Research in these areas first began in the late 1800s with Francis Galton’s studies on heredity and individual intelligence. The specialization grew to include studies of genetics and human development as well. Today, differential psychologists perform research on a variety of individual differences to learn about the factors that influence human behavior.

Areas of Research

Differential psychology is critical to research on several different topics. These include:

  • Research on personality
  • Intelligence studies
  • Research of self-perception
  • Understanding of motivation
  • Understanding of values
  • Understanding of individual interests

Differential research is integral to programs in education, industrial and organizational psychology, personality studies, social psychology and developmental social science.

Personality Psychology

One of the most common specializations for a differential psychologist today is personality psychology. Personality theories have been evolving rapidly since the beginnings of modern psychology. Some researchers and theorists focus on the similarities between individuals and across social groups. Differential psychologists, however, focus on the differences that make individuals or groups unique. Gordon Allport studied personalities from a differential stand point when he introduced trait theory. Type theories, another way to look at personalities, also look at the differences between individuals, but they focus on classification of individuals rather than viewing each individual on a continuum. More recently, behaviorists have studied differences in personality based on conditioning models. Biopsychological theorists study differences in personality based on biology and heredity. Today, researchers draw from these and other personality theories as they continue to seek an explanation for human behavior.

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Industrial and Organizational Psychology

One of the fastest growing areas of psychology, I-O psychology, often relies on differential research. Those that specialize in this area study human behavior in the workplace. Industrial and organizational psychologists often consult with companies and help to find ways of improving employee morale and productivity. Researchers in I-O psychology study things such as the differences between happy, productive employees and those who are less productive.

Biological Psychology

Some differential psychologists study human behavior based on biological differences. This type of research explores such things as heredity, physical traits and reactions to medication. Biological differences between individuals may be the key to understanding why people may act differently to the same medications. These differences may also help us to gain a better understanding of heredity and mental illness.

Although there is much to learn from similarities between individuals and groups, we can also learn from the differences. Differential psychology focuses on these differences in order to discover how different types of people react to different situations.