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Cognitive Psychology

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The term cognitive psychology came into use with the publication of the book Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser in 1967.

Cognitive Psychology revolves around the notion that if we want to know what makes people tick then we need to understand the internal processes of their mind.

Cognition literally means “knowing”. In other words, psychologists from this approach study cognition which is ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.’

cognitive psychology sub-topics

Cognitive psychology focuses on the way humans process information, looking at how we treat information that comes in to the person (what behaviorists would call stimuli), and how this treatment leads to responses. In other words, they are interested in the variables that mediate between stimulus/input and response/output. Cognitive psychologists study internal processes including perception, attention, language, memory and thinking.

The cognitive perspective applies a nomothetic approach to discover human cognitive processes, but have also adopted idiographic techniques through using case studies (e.g. KF, HM).

Typically cognitive psychologists use the laboratory experiment to study behavior. This is because the cognitive approach is a scientific one. For example, participants will take part in memory tests in strictly controlled conditions. However, the widely used lab experiment can be criticized for lacking ecological validity (a major criticism of cognitive psychology).

Cognitive psychology became of great importance in the mid 1950s. Several factors were important in this:

  • Dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approach in its simple emphasis on external behavior rather than internal processes.
  • The development of better experimental methods.
  • Comparison between human and computer processing of information.

The cognitive approach began to revolutionize psychology in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, to become the dominant approach (i.e. perspective) in psychology by the late 1970s. Interest in mental processes had been gradually restored through the work of Piaget and Tolman. Other factors were important in the early development of the cognitive approach. For example, dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approach in its simple emphasis on behavior rather than internal processes and the development of better experimental methods.

But it was the arrival of the computer that gave cognitive psychology the terminology and metaphor it needed to investigate the human mind. The start of the use of computers allowed psychologists to try to understand the complexities of human cognition by comparing it with something simpler and better understood i.e. an artificial system such as a computer.

The History of Cognitive Psychology

* Norbert Wiener (1948) published Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, introducing terms such as input and output.

* Tolman (1948) work on cognitive maps – training rats in mazes, showed that animals had internal representation of behavior.

* Birth of Cognitive Psychology often dated back to George Miller’s (1956) “The Magical Number 7 Plus or Minus 2.”

* Newell and Simon’s (1972) development of the General Problem Solver.

* In 1960, Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard with famous cognitivist developmentalist, Jerome Bruner.

* Ulric Neisser (1967) publishes "Cognitive Psychology", which marks the official beginning of the cognitive approach.

* Process models of memory Atkinson & Shiffrin’s (1968) Multi Store Model.

* Cognitive approach highly influential in all areas of psychology (e.g. biological, social, behaviorism, development etc.).

Cognitive Approach Summary

Key FeaturesMethodology
Basic AssumptionsAreas of Application
  • Cognitive psychology is a pure science, based mainly on laboratory experiments.
  • Behavior can be largely explained in terms of how the mind operates, i.e. the information processing approach.
  • The mind works in a way similar to a computer: inputting, storing and retrieving data.
  • Mediational processes occur between stimulus and response.
  • Scientific
  • Highly applicable (e.g. therapy, EWT)
  • Combines easily with approaches: behaviorism + Cog = Social Learning Biology + Cog = Evolutionary Psy
  • Many empirical studies to support theories
  • Ignores biology (e.g. testosterone)
  • Experiments - low ecological validity
  • Humanism - rejects scientific method
  • Behaviorism - can’t objectively study unobservable behavior
  • Introspection is subjective
  • Machine reductionism

Critical Evaluation

B.F. Skinner criticizes the cognitive approach as he believes that only external stimulus - response behavior should be studied as this can be scientifically measured.  Therefore, mediation processes (between stimulus and response) do not exist as they cannot be seen and measured. Skinner continues to find problems with cognitive research methods, namely introspection (as used by Wilhelm Wundt) due to its subjective and unscientific nature.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers believes that the use of laboratory experiments by cognitive psychology have low ecological validity and create an artificial environment due to the control over variables. Rogers emphasizes a more holistic approach to understanding behavior.

The information processing paradigm of cognitive psychology views that minds in terms of a computer when processing information. However, there are important difference between humans and computers. The mind does not process information like a computer as computers don’t have emotions or get tired like humans.

Behaviorism assumes that people are born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and are not born with cognitive functions like schemas, memory or perception.

The cognitive approach does not always recognize physical (re: biological psychology) and environmental (re: behaviorism) factors in determining behavior.

Key Studies

Peterson and Peterson (1959) - Duration of Short Term Memory

Piaget and Inhelder (1956) - The Three Mountains Task

Loftus and Palmer (1974) - Car Crash Study


Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information.Psychological Review, 63 (2): 81–97.

Neisser, U (1967). Cognitive psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts: New York

Newell, A., & Simon, H. (1972). Human problem solving. Prentice-Hall.

Tolman E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men.Psychological Review. 55, 189–208

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Paris, (Hermann & Cie) & Camb. Mass. (MIT Press).

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Cognitive Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive.html

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Further Information


Theories of Forgetting

Perception Theories

Selective Attention

Information Processing

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Language Acquisition

Jean Piaget

Lev Vygotsky

Jerome Bruner

Cognition: How Do You Think? Audio Broadcasts cognitive psychology

Case Study: HM - The Man Who Couldn't Remember Audio Broadcasts cognitive psychology

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