Cognitive Psychology

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Cognitive psychology is a division of cognitive science concerning perceptions, memory and learning–in other words, the ways in which the human mind processes, thinks about, and responds to external stimuli. Unlike other divisions of psychology, for which a patient’s subjective perceptions and observations about their behaviors are considered diagnostic criteria, cognitive psychology utilizes the scientific method to understand human cognition. Arising from a school of thought called cognitivism, cognitive psychology is relevant to a number of other disciplines including linguistics, neuroscience, biology, physics, anthropology, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence [1].

Cognitive psychology grew from the idea that the behaviorist approach to psychology was not an adequate means of understanding the human mind. By the early 1960s, cognitive psychology had begun to revolutionize the discipline. Like any transition in academic thought, the emergence of cognitive psychology was accompanied by new ideas that questioned established methods and theories. In the early 20th century, psychologist Edward Tolman contributed significantly to the study of learning and motivation. Tolman used a rat model to determine that an animals actions are controlled by what they anticipate, and also by what they represent based on information their brain has uploaded, processed, categorized, filed, and stored. Based on his discoveries via in vivo testing, Tolman argued that rats use cognitive maps–rather to memorization, which was the current idea of his day–to complete a maze. Other notable influences include B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. According to Skinner’s theory, human behaviors are formed and fine-tuned as a result of positive or negative consequences. In other words, when a particular action is met with an undesirable outcome, the person performing the action will be conditioned to operate in a different way when met with similar circumstances in the future. Using animal models, Skinner determined that the ways in which humans act and speak are determined as a result of conditioned behaviors. Another influential figure is Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who questioned and challenged Skinner’s ideas regarding human language and behavior. According to Chomsky, human behaviors are not simply “stimulus responses,” but the result of a cognitive process. Chomsky argued that the development of languages is far too complex a process to be equated with operant conditioning. [2]

Coined in 1967 by Ulric Neisser, a German-born psychologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, the term cognitive psychology implies that all mental processes (including those apart from pertinent external stimuli) are relevant to the study of psychology. Unlike other branches of the discipline (such as Freudian psychology), cognitive psychology utilizes the scientific method [2]. According to Neisser, in his own words, “every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon” [3].

A key concept in the theory of cognitive psychology is the computer, used as a metaphor for human mental processing. As indicated by the computer-brain metaphor, the human brain is a processing system. In other words, the brain uploads data from its environment and the senses interpret this data, allowing the brain to categorize, file, and store the new information for future use.

Cognitive psychology may be of interest to a variety of students from diverse fields of study because of its relevance to various disciplines such as linguistics, behavioral neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. Cognitive psychology also pertains to a number of disciplines outside academia for which it would be beneficial to understand how the human mind learns and conceptualizes the information it receives.

Traditional sub-categories of cognitive psychology are as follows: perception, attention, learning, memory, concept formation, judgment and decision, problem solving, and language processing. In some cases, cultural and social factors, animal cognition, emotion, consciousness, animal cognition and/or artificial intelligence are also considered.

Individuals studying perception will be interested in learning how human beings construct their interpretations of external phenomena. The perceptual system of a human being is constituted by distinguished senses (visual, auditory, somatosensory), and processing modules (to recognize motion and form, for example) that are involved in gathering/processing stimulus information. While separate, the senses and processing modules interact with each other and integrate to form a coherent perception of reality.


In cognitive processing systems, attention is what inhibits sensory overload when exposed to more than one stimuli at a given time. Scholars disagree about the role of attention in performing well, and how lack of attention can inhibit performance or cause one to perform poorly. Within the theoretical analysis of attention are a number major approaches that include single-detection approach and similarity- choice approach.

Concept Formation

Concept formation is a term used to describe the categorization of information received and processed by the brain. The use of concepts enables human beings to compress broad and/or complex ideas into more understandable, usable ideas. For example, the concept “cat” is a category that consists of all thoughts and ideas about cats. As is the case with many aspects of cognitive psychology, it is argued that concept formation can be tested by or modeled using computers/ artificial intelligence.


Within the framework of the discipline, cognitive functioning is seen in terms of information processing–in words, thinking occurs as information is formulated and categorized.

Cognitive psychology is based on the idea that the human mind is similar to a computer in the way it process information.

The task of cognitive psychologists is to understand the ways in which human beings gather, process and respond to information.

Notable influences of cognitive psychology include Edward Tolman, B.F. Skinner, and Noam Chomsky.

Important publications in the cognitive psychology movement include Ulric Neisser’s (1967), and the first editions of the Journal of Cognitive Psychology (1970) and Cognitive Science (1976).


[1] R. Sun, (ed.), (2008). The Cambridge Handbook of Computational Psychology. Cambridge University Press, New York. 2008.

[2] History of Cognitive Psychology – compiled by the Cognitive Processes Classes, Fall, 1997. psycweb/history/cognitiv.htm

[3] Josephs, Ingrid E. A psychological analysis of a psychological phenomenon: the dialogical construction of meaning. Social Science Information, Vol. 39, No. 1, 115-129 (2000)

Article researched and created by Kelsey Wambold, © 2012

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