Cognitive psychology is the area of psychology that focuses on internal mental processes. Such processes include thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, language, attention, and memory. This field 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.
The core focus of cognitive psychology is on how people acquire, process, and store information. Cognitive psychologists are interested in studying the things that go on inside people’s minds.
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What Is Cognitive Psychology? A Definition
While cognitive 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. According to Neisser, 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.”
Reasons for the Cognitive Revolution
Some factors that contributed to the rise of cognitive psychology included:
- Dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approach, which 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, cognitive psychology 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.
How Do Psychologists Study Cognition?
Cognitive psychologists 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.
For example, a memory experiment might involve having randomly assigned participants taking 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 are able to accurately determine that it is the independent variable causing the changes rather than some other factor.
Important Topics and Theories In 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.
As you might imagine, studying what’s happening in a person 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 focus on their internal states and write down what they were feeling, thinking, or experiencing. As you might imagine, this approach was extremely subjective so it did not last long as a cognitive research tool.
To study the human mind, cognitive psychologists have developed different models to represent how thinking works. One of the most popular of these is the information-processing approach.
In this approach, the mind is thought of much like a computer. Thoughts and memories are broken down into smaller units of knowledge. As information enters the mind through the senses, it is then manipulated by the brain which then determines what to do with the information. 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 that 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.
Attention is another major topic studied by the field of cognitive psychology. Attention is a state of focused awareness on 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.
How people form, recall, and retain memories is another important focus in the study of cognitive psychology. The two major types of memory that researchers tend to look at are known as short-term memory and long-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.
If this information is actively rehearsed and attended to, it may be moved over into what is known as long-term memory. This type of memory is, as the name suggests, 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.
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 even can 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 people who are more intelligent 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.
Reasons to Study Cognitive Psychology
Because cognitive psychology touches on many other disciplines, this branch of psychology is frequently studied by people in some different fields. Even if you are not a psychology student, it can be helpful to learn some of the basics of cognitive psychology.
The following are just a few of those who may benefit from studying cognitive psychology.
- Students who are 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 Psychology:
- Cognitive psychology 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.
- Cognitive 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 to our understanding of learning, memory, moral development, attention, decision-making, problem-solving, perceptions, and therapy approaches including cognitive-behavior therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy.
Legg S, Hutter M. A collection of definitions of intelligence. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications. 2007;157:17-24.
Miller GA. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review. 1956;63(2):81–97.
Neisser U. Cognitive Psychology. Meredith Publishing Company; 1967.
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