What Is the Difference between Psychology and Psychotherapy?

Nicole Etolen

Psychology and psychotherapy may sound alike, but they are actually two completely different things. Psychology is a branch of science devoted to the study of the mind and its impact on human behavior. Psychotherapy is a process of treatment that employs the theories developed from psychology research. The treatments rely on talking to patients in accordance with some specific communication techniques, rather than on using medications, although some patients may require both talk therapy and medicinal treatment.

Psychotherapy focuses on talking to patients.
Psychotherapy focuses on talking to patients.

The key difference between psychology and psychotherapy is that psychology — which is theoretical — can exist without the applied psychotherapy, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Psychotherapy only exists because of the lessons learned through the science of studying the mind. All of its practices are based on evidence garnered through years of research. As the research continues, psychotherapy changes to adapt to new discoveries and methods of treatment. For example, when researchers found a link between anger and anxiety, psychotherapy changed to include discussing ways to manage anger to help treat patients with anxiety disorder.

When researchers found a link between anger and anxiety, psychotherapy changed to include ways to manage anger.
When researchers found a link between anger and anxiety, psychotherapy changed to include ways to manage anger.

Another major difference between psychology and psychotherapy is that psychology is a much broader field. Not only do researchers study the link between the mind and behavior, but also the role that society, upbringing, and other external factors play on the overall personality of a person. Psychotherapy is also a broad field, but its sole focus is on helping individuals overcome or prevent particular behavior patterns.

The training required to become a psychologist differs from that required to practice psychotherapy. Psychologists typically undergo at least four years of training, and must earn doctoral degrees, while most continue on to higher degree levels before working in the field. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, do not have to hold a specific degree in psychology to work in the field. They may be licensed social workers or other types of professionals. Typically, they have to pass a licensing exam to practice, but rules vary from place to place.

Psychology and psychotherapy are disciplines that do overlap and inform each other. A psychologist can choose to work with patients instead of in the research field, in which case they may practice effectively the same way that psychotherapists do. Psychotherapists can also choose to work in a research capacity alongside psychologists, helping to develop new theories about human behavior. The fact that psychotherapists work closely with patients actually puts them at an advantage, as they can see how new theories or treatment protocols work up close.

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Discussion Comments


A good psychotherapist doesn't try to diagnose a specific mental disorder as much as he or she allows the client to talk through a problem. A psychologist tends to look at all of the client's behaviors and come up with a matching mental or personality disorder. My psychotherapist never once gave me a textbook definition of my condition, but a psychologist determined I was bi-polar. He put me on medication right away.


I saw a psychotherapist for a few years when I was a teenager. I had just lost my mother to cancer and my family was falling apart around me. I'd have two 50 minute appointments every week. It was mostly talk therapy. We didn't even consider anything like therapeutic drugs, even though Prozac and other medicines were available by that time. He would just let me talk about whatever issue was bothering me at the time, and only interrupt me if I was straying off the subject or not being honest.

I don't know if I would have benefited from seeing a regular psychologist or not. Some of my friends with more serious issues were taking prescription anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications, but I didn't like the idea of dealing with my problems through chemistry. I'd say if someone was suffering from suicidal thoughts or was becoming violent towards others, a psychologist might be a better fit. If the problems are internal and a person just wanted to vent, psychotherapy is probably a better course to follow.

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