Monday, February 28, 2011

Defining Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is often compared to behaviorism because of the sharp contrast of the perspectives (Willingham, 2007). Whereas behaviorism fails to address mental processes, cognitive psychology aims to create a coherent description of these processes characteristic of humankind. Unlike other perspectives in psychology, cognitive psychology's reputation is based in experimentation and the scientific method (Willingham, 2007). Its main goal is to explain how humans transform input into thoughts and actions by the complex and often-mysterious process of cognition (Eysenck, 2004, Willingham, 2007)).

Cognitive psychology addresses the unobservable nature of the human psyche and uses abstract constructs to produce observable behavior resulting in a more accurate understanding of these processes (Willingham, 2007). This branch of psychology came to life during the fall of behaviorism with the help of new technology, the application of abstract concepts, and neuroscience (Willingham, 2007). The cognitive approach has permeated contemporary psychology with its scientific representation of the complex human psyche, and has provided the opportunity to apply this knowledge in the treatment of human disease and dysfunction (Eysenck, 2004).

Defining Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology is a psychological perspective that addresses mental processes such as thinking, problem solving, perceiving, remembering, believing, and speaking, and seeks to identify behavior by characteristics other than its obvious properties ("Cognitive psychology," 2009). It includes mental representations and the use of abstract constructs to find relationships between brain structures and their functions (Willingham, 2007). Unlike behaviorism, cognitive psychology acknowledges internal states, although rejects introspective techniques employed by other perspectives (Cherry, n.d.).

Key Milestones in the Development of Cognitive Psychology

The Crumbling of Behaviorism

Several problems have been implicated in the fall of behaviorism, especially in accounting for reasoning in language and memory (Willingham, 2007). Although entrenched in a scientific method exclusively designed for observing overt behavior, most behaviorist observations were on animals, which many thought could not possibly explain human language and other abilities (Willingham, 2007). Behaviorism could not and would not account for internal mental processes and intrinsic drives such as those addressed by Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis or Wundt's and James' introspection (Wickens, 2005). Ultimately, psychology had to embrace all aspects of the human psyche, which definitively included that which transpires within the individual, yet remains unseen. Behaviorism could not accommodate this need (Willingham, 2007).

The Computer Metaphor and Information Processing

The metaphor that bound information processing to the human mind was a powerful force in the beginnings of cognitive psychology. This metaphor became a composite of characteristics shared by humankind and machine (Willingham, 2007). These similarities included the way humans process information, the nature of human language processes and the transfer of information into memory (Willingham, 2007). The similarities between the two systems gave rise to new ways of thinking somewhat abstract and more complex than the prevalent behaviorist views of the time (Willingham, 2007). Whereas Descartes likened the mind to mechanistic garden statues, and behaviorists observed the mechanistic tendencies toward predictable human behavior, cognitivists began thinking of the mind as a computer (Willingham, 2007). Although the analogy was not complete in all of its explanations, it did promote further study along these lines.

Abstract Constructs of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence became far more sophisticated with programs that influenced contemporary thoughts on logic and behavior and supported the idea that abstract constructs could be useful in the scientific process (Willingham, 2007). Computers were being programmed to think and solve problems as did humans, and these programs used abstract strategies in their programming (Willingham, 2007). Recall, behaviorists were not fond of unobservable phenomena, and any observation other than the direct measurement of overt behavior was considered unscientific (Willingham, 2007). Artificial intelligence offered a glimpse into how we can infer the existence of unobservable processes based on the product of behavior.


Neuroscientists became better equipped to study the mind in a scientific manner by using abstract constructs to piece together definitive links between brain structure and function (Willingham, 2007). Behaviorists adamantly believed that only studying behavior was scientific but neuroscientists observed brain-damaged individuals and associated damaged areas to specific observable cognitive problems, which helped them further define functions (Cacioppo, 2004, Willingham, 2007). Observations, such as that of the famous patient H.M., provided a more accurate assumption of the relationship between brain structures and their functions (Wickens, 2005). Cognitive psychology uses the technique of localization to identify areas of the brain that enable specific functions (Willingham, 2007).

Importance of Behavioral Observation in Cognitive Psychology

Behavioral observation enables cognitive psychologists to evaluate theories and inferences and test their predictions about behavior (Willingham, 2007). Because there is no way to observe mental processes directly, cognitive psychologists infer their existence based on behavior and its observation (Willingham, 2007). According to Willingham (2007), the complexities of this undertaking include designating how observable manipulations affect the unobservable abstract concepts of the theory. These behavior-observing experiments help cognitivists evaluate whether the inferences and predictions are legitimate and a true relationship exists between the abstract concept and the variables (Cherry, n.d.). Willingham (2007) states that it is essential in cognitive psychology to use unobservable abstract constructs and determine how they affect observable behavior. Three types of behavioral research serve cognitive psychology including descriptive, relational, and experimental research (Willingham, 2007). These methods describe, find relational factors, and experiment with variables and observation to provide valid foundations for psychological theories (Willingham, 2007).


Traditional wisdom says only by embracing each of the elephant's parts: his trunk, ears, tail, torso, and legs can one gain clear insight into the whole elephant. Similarly, cognitive psychology plays a significant role in understanding and treating the human psyche in both its observable and unconcealed behaviors and its often ambiguous and sometimes mysterious functioning (Cacioppo, 2002). Whereas behaviorism could neither explain nor define the entirety of the human brain, cognitive psychology addresses and provides perspective on the human psyche complete with its internal drives and processes (Willingham, 2007). With its reputable scientific methods, cognitive psychology has found ways to make the traditionally unobservable observable (Willingham, 2007).


Cacioppo, J. (2002). Social neuroscience: Understanding the pieces fosters understanding the whole and vice versa. American Psychologist. 57(11). 819-831. Retrieved November 18, 2010. EBSCOhost.

Cherry, B. K. (n.d.). What Is Cognitive Psychology? Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved November 18, 2010, from

Cognitive psychology. (2009). In The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from

Eysenck, M. W. (2004). Applied cognitive psychology: Implications of cognitive psychology for clinical psychology and psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(4), 393-404. Retrieved November 18, 2010, from EBSCOhost.

Wickens, A. (2005). Foundations of Biopsychology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

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