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Define Cognitive Psychology: Meaning and Examples

Cognitive psychology is defined as the study of internal mental processes. Such processes include thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, language, attention, and memory. The cognitive approach in psychology is often considered part of the larger field of cognitive science. This branch of psychology is also related to several other disciplines, including neuroscience, philosophy, and linguistics.

To define cognitive psychology , it is important to understand the core focus of the cognitive approach, which is to psychology is on how people acquire, process, and store information. Cognitive psychologists are interested in studying what happens inside people’s minds.

How Do We Define Cognitive Psychology?

While the cognitive approach to psychology is a popular branch of psychology today, it is actually a relatively young field of study. Until the 1950s, behaviorism was the dominant school of thought in psychology.

Between 1950 and 1970, the tide began to shift against behavioral psychology to focus on topics such as attention, memory, and problem-solving.

Often referred to as the cognitive revolution, this period generated considerable research on subjects, including processing models, cognitive research methods, and the first use of the term “cognitive psychology.”

The term “cognitive psychology” was first used in 1967 by American psychologist Ulric Neisser in his book Cognitive Psychology. Neisser went on to define cognitive psychology by saying that cognition involves “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used.” Neisser also suggested that given such a broad and sweeping definition, cognition was involved in anything and everything that people do.

Essentially, all psychological events are cognitive events. Today, the American Psychological Association defines cognitive psychology as the “study of higher mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, and thinking.”

Understanding How We Define Cognitive Psychology

Some factors that contributed to the rise of the cognitive approach to psychology. These include:

  • Dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approach: Behaviorism largely focused on looking at external influences on behavior. What the behavioral perspective failed to account for was the internal processes that influence human behavior. The cognitive approached emerged to fill this void.
  • The increased use of computers: Scientists began comparing the way the human mind works to how a computer stores information on a hard drive. The information-processing model became popular as a result.

Thanks to these influences, the cognitive approach became an increasingly important branch of psychology. Behaviorism lost its hold as a dominant perspective, and psychologists began to look more intensely at memory, learning, language, and other internal processes.

Research Methods Used in Cognitive Psychology

Psychologists who use the cognitive approach rely on rigorous scientific methods to research the human mind. In many cases, this involves using experiments to determine if changes in an independent variable result in changes in the dependent variable.

Some of the main research methods used in the cognitive approach include:

Experimental Research

This involves conducting controlled experiments to manipulate variables and observe their effects on cognitive processes. Experiments are often conducted in laboratory settings to maintain control over extraneous variables.

For example, a memory experiment might involve randomly assigning participants to take a series of memory tests to determine if a certain change in conditions led to changes in memory abilities.

By using rigorous empirical methods, psychologists can accurately determine that it is the independent variable causing the changes rather than some other factor.

Cognitive Neuropsychology

This approach studies cognitive function by examining individuals with brain injuries or neurological disorders. By observing how damage to specific brain areas affects cognitive processes, researchers can infer the functions of those areas.

Neuroimaging Techniques

Cognitive neuroscientists use techniques to examine brain activity during cognitive tasks. Some of these neuroimaging tools include:

  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)
  • Electroencephalography (EEG)

Eye-Tracking Studies

Eye-tracking technology is used to study visual attention and perception by recording eye movements as participants view stimuli. This method provides insights into how people process visual information and allocate attention.

Areas of Study in the Cognitive Psychology

As mentioned previously, any mental event is considered a cognitive event. There are a number of larger topics that have held the interest of cognitive psychologists over the last few decades. These include:


As you might imagine, studying what’s happening in a person’s thoughts is not always the easiest thing to do.

Very early in psychology’s history, Wilhelm Wundt attempted to use a process known as introspection to study what was happening inside a person’s mind. This involved training people to focus on their internal states and write down what they were feeling, thinking, or experiencing. This approach was extremely subjective, so it did not last long as a cognitive research tool.

Cognitive psychologists have developed different models of thinking to study the human mind. One of the most popular of these is the information-processing approach.

In this approach, the mind is thought of as a computer. Thoughts and memories are broken down into smaller units of knowledge. As information enters the mind through the senses, it is manipulated by the brain, which then determines what to do with it.

Some information triggers an immediate response. Other units of information are transferred into long-term memory for future use.

Units of Knowledge

Cognitive psychologists often break down the units of knowledge into three different types: concepts, prototypes, and schemas.


A concept is basically a larger category of knowledge. A broad category exists inside your mind for these concepts where similar items are grouped together. You have concepts for things that are concrete such as a dog or cat, as well as concepts for abstract ideas such as beauty, gravity, and love.


A prototype refers to the most recognizable example of a particular concept. For example, what comes to mind when you think of a chair. If a large, comfy recliner immediately springs to mind, that is your prototype for the concept of a chair. If a bench, office chair, or bar stool pops into your mind, then that would be your prototype for that concept.


A schema is a mental framework you utilize to make sense of the world around you. Concepts are essentially the building blocks that are used to construct schemas, which are mental models for what you expect from the world around you. You have schemas for a wide variety of objects, ideas, people, and situations.

So what happens when you come across information that does not fit into one of your existing schemas? In some cases, you might even encounter things in the world that challenges or completely upend the ideas you already hold.

When this happens, you can either assimilate or accommodate the information. Assimilating the information involves broadening your current schema or even creating a new one. Accommodating the information requires changing your previously held ideas altogether. This process allows you to learn new things and develop new and more complex schemas for the world around you.

The Cognitive Approach to Attention

Attention is another major topic studied in the field of cognitive psychology. Attention is a state of focused awareness of some aspect of the environment. This ability to focus your attention allows you to take in knowledge about relevant stimuli in the world around you while at the same time filtering out things that are not particularly important.

At any given moment in time, you are taking in an immense amount of information from your visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and taste senses. Because the human brain has a limited capacity for handling all of this information, attention is both limited and selective.

Your attentional processes allow you to focus on the things that are relevant and essential for your survival while filtering out extraneous details.

The Cognitive Approach to Memory

How people form, recall, and retain memories is another important focus in the cognitive approach. The two major types of memory that researchers tend to look at are known as short-term memory and long-term memory.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memories are all the things that you are actively thinking about and aware of at any given moment. This type of memory is both limited and very brief.

Estimates suggest that you can probably hold anywhere from 5 to 9 items in short-term memory for approximately 20 to 30 seconds.

Long-Term Memory

If this information is actively rehearsed and attended to, it may be transferred to what is known as long-term memory. As the name suggests, this type of memory is much more durable. While these longer-lasting memories are still susceptible to forgetting, the information retained in your long-term memory can last anywhere from days to decades.

Cognitive psychologists are interested in the various processes that influence how memories are formed, stored, and later retrieved. They also look at things that might interfere with the formation and storage of memories as well as various factors that might lead to memory errors or even false memories.

The Cognitive Approach to Intelligence

Human intelligence is also a major topic of interest within cognitive psychology, but it is also one of the most hotly debated and sometimes controversial. Not only has there been considerable questioning over how intelligence is measured (or if it can even be measured), but experts also disagree on exactly how to define intelligence itself.

One survey of psychologists found that experts provided more than 70 different definitions of what made up intelligence. While exact definitions vary, many agree that two important themes include both the ability to learn and the capacity to adapt as a result of experience.

Researchers have found that more intelligent people tend to perform better on tasks that require working memory, problem-solving, selective attention, concept formation, and decision-making. When looking at intelligence, cognitive psychologists often focus on understanding the mental processes that underlie these critical abilities.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development refers to the changes in cognitive abilities that occur over the lifespan, from infancy through old age. Cognitive psychologists study the development of perception, attention, memory, language, and reasoning skills.

Research in cognitive development explores factors that influence cognitive growth, such as genetics, environment, and social interactions.


Language is a complex cognitive ability that enables communication through the use of symbols and grammatical rules. Cognitive psychologists study the cognitive processes involved in language comprehension, production, and acquisition.

Research in language examines topics such as syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and the neurobiological basis of language processing.

Reasons to Study Cognitive Psychology

Because cognitive psychology touches on many other disciplines, this branch of psychology is frequently studied by people in different fields. Even if you are not a psychology student, learning some of the basics of cognitive psychology can be helpful.

The following are just a few of those who may benefit from studying cognitive psychology.

  • Students interested in behavioral neuroscience, linguistics, industrial-organizational psychology, artificial intelligence, and other related areas.
  • Teachers, curriculum designers, instructional developers, and other educators may find it helpful to learn more about how people process, learn, and remember information.
  • Engineers, scientists, artists, architects, and designers can all benefit from understanding internal mental states and processes.

Key Points to Remember About Cognitive Approach

  • The cognitive approach emerged during the 1960s and 70s and has become a major force in the field of psychology.
  • Cognitive psychologists are interested in mental processes, including how people take in, store, and utilize information.
  • The cognitive approach to psychology often relies on an information-processing model that likens the human mind to a computer.
  • Findings from the field of cognitive psychology apply in many areas, including our understanding of learning, memory, moral development, attention, decision-making, problem-solving, perceptions, and therapy approaches such as cognitive-behavior therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy.


Airenti G. (2019). The place of development in the history of psychology and cognitive scienceFrontiers in Psychology10, 895.

Legg S, Hutter M.  A collection of definitions of intelligence. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications. 2007;157:17-24.

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

Neisser U. Cognitive Psychology. Meredith Publishing Company; 1967.

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