Application of Cognitive Psychology

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology


Aaron Beck is generally thought of as the father of cognitive therapy. Beck worked mainly with depression diagnoses. Cognitive therapy has become the most commonly used therapy since 1957. It is based on the cognitive theory of depression which says perceptions of, or thoughts about situations influence perceptions and they are often distorted especially when individual is under stress. This theory postulates that in order to understand the nature of an emotional episode you must focus on the cognitive content of one’s reaction, which is the stream of thoughts.

The therapeutic focus then is on the client’s belief. Once the client has located his/her belief system it can then be analyzed for its value. The therapy would also look at the schema, those synaptic connections. It is thought that the practiced connection create the automatic thought that form our belief system. The cognitive error that are worked on are:

  1. Arbitrary inference- the process of drawing a specific conclusion in the absence of evidence to support it.
  2. Selective abstraction – focusing on detail taken out of context and ignoring the more important information in the situation.
  3. Overgeneralization- is a pattern of drawing general rules or conclusion on the basis or one isolated incident and applying the generalization to broad or unrelated situations.
  4. Magnification and minimization – errors in evaluating the situation causing distortions.
  5. Personalization- relation things to time self with no basis for making such a conclusion.
  6. Dichotomous thinking – sometimes called black and white thinking.  The inability to see anything in the middle gray area.  Everything is right or wrong, hot or cold, big or little and so on.

The goal then of therapy would be to find these thoughts and practice new thoughts to replace them that will serve the clients better in reaction to their world. This requires practice much more than just understanding, as the synaptic connections must be changed.

Cognition in Social Psychology

Social information processing models have been helpful in studying aggression and anti-social behavior. Kenneth Dodge is one of the leaders in this type of research. Dodge believes that children who possess a greater ability to process social information often display higher levels of socially acceptable behavior. This group of scientist look at how the person interprets cues to trigger their reactionary process. The reaction process is stored in the knowledge area of the brain and is practiced until it becomes automatic. The people in Criminal Justice are using a lot of this research to keep officers safer by giving them knowledge to read cues and react appropriately.

Educational Psychology

The areas of cognitive psychology that apply to educational psychology are:

  1. Metacognition: Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It is a broad concept taking in all kinds of thought and knowledge that apply to an individual’s thinking. This in education is called self-monitoring. Students are repeatedly given the opportunity to evaluate their own personal knowledge and apply it in areas where they are lacking.  In the lower grades this is generally about personal behavior and self knowledge and in the upper grades it is in areas of expertise. This allows students to learn how to control their own knowledge, storage and retrieval.
  2. Declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge: Declarative knowledge is information base knowledge and procedure knowledge in performing a particular task. Using what we have learned from cognitive researcher educators are able to augment this learning with their knowledge of how it works in the brain. As a result, education is moving from lecture based teaching to a balance of verbal and performance learning.
  3. Knowledge organization. Understanding how knowledge is organized in the brain, has informed how to teach material so it is organized into brain maps. Brain maps make it easier to retain the process in the student’s memory.

New Areas of Research

Emotion and encoding are and interesting combination. At the encoding level, it seems that the process of encoding mediates emotion and the effect of remembering emotions. Since we know that everything that is stored in the brain is first colored by emotion this is an important area to understand.  There are two schools of thought, one says that emotion does not affect memory. By that they means that a very emotional situation is remembered just as clearly as a benign situation. The other school of thought thinks just the opposite. So far, there is no scientific evidence to show that emotion blocks storage of information of any kind. However, there is evidence that emotion can block retrieval. We do know that if the individual is in a positive state of mind the memory is clearer and more positive than the same memory for someone in a negative state of mind.


The biggest area of research is in how to apply human cognition to artificial intelligence. This area is called Cognitive Science. Thus far psychologists have looked at how the use of artificial intelligence can aid us in teaching and improving human cognition. However, that has more recently been looked at from the opposite perspective. It has become apparent that the human ability to learn and use creativity makes problem solving ability more versatile than that of a computer.  The idea now is how to program those abilities into artificial intelligence. So far man has been set apart because of the incredible abilities of the brain. It will be interesting to see if that can be emulated by artificial intelligence.


Aaron Beck

Kenneth Dodge