What is Cognitive Psychology?

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Cognitive psychology is an understanding of the process by which we use our intelligence. In other words, it is about brain processing not about individual ability. It takes into consideration all mental processes, including how you think, perceive, remember and learn. It does not consider how good you are at any of these things; that is in the study of intelligence. The scientific study of cognition has increased greatly since its beginnings in the early 1950. The information gleaned has been used primarily to provide a foundation for other fields in the social sciences and more recently for the development of artificial Intelligence. Presently, the understanding of cognitive psychology is dominated by the information-processing approach. This approach analyzes cognitive process into sequential stages. Each stage reflects a step in processing cognitive information. We are, however, on the precipice of much deeper understandings of the process.

Why we study Cognitive Psychology

It is always interesting to look at why we study certain things. It is always basically the desire to know, but cognitive psychology is the desire to understand the human mind.  It is unique in that it is the human mind that makes us different from all animals. But of all the things psychologists study cognitive psychology has as much to do with other disciplines as it does with psychology. Behavioral neuroscience, linguistics and artificial intelligence look to the study of cognition to function in their own fields. Teachers, educators and curriculum designers benefit by learning about how people process the information taken in, learn from it and then remember the information. Engineers, scientists, artist architects and designers benefit from understanding internal processes.

All of these fields benefit because cognitive psychology tries to understand the basic mechanisms controlling human thought. These methods of governing thought are important in understanding the types of behaviors studied or used by other fields. For example, understanding how people think is important to understand how thought malfunctions occur, causing inappropriate behavior. It helps us understand how persuasion works or economic decisions are made, why certain organizing groups are more stable than others or why natural languages have certain constraints. Most recently understanding how the mind works has become important as more sophisticated artificial intelligence is desired.

History of Cognitive Psychology

In the Western world, we can trace the interest in human cognition back to the ancient Greeks and the Romans.  Plato and Aristotle in the discussion of the nature and origin of knowledge speculated about language and thought. The interest intensified in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with British philosophers such as Lock, Hume and Mill arguing for the empiricist view and the continental philosophers as Descartes and Kant insisting upon the nativist view. Their arguments boiled down to a discussion of what human cognition functioned. For these groups, it seemed inconceivable that the workings of cognition could be scientifically determined. It was not until about 100 years ago that cognitive psychology became a respected science rather than philosophy. In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt, touted as the father of psychology turned the discipline into a science when he established the first scientific laboratory in Leipzig Germany. Researchers began with free association tests giving subject a word to see what popped into their head. These were introspective tasks that did not get too far. It was in the United States that Thorndike worked with reward and punishment to chart differences in brain functioning. Still the working of the brain could only be crudely replicated. It is not until the 1970s that scientists detached themselves from the subject and approached it much as they would any other complex system.

Today’s View of Cognitive Psychology

There are three main influences that account for the modern development of cognitive psychology.

  1. The first is information-processing, which grew out of the human factors theory right after World War II. Information processing focuses on how people attend, encode, store and retrieve information. Thus as learners we are then seen as active seekers and processors of information.
  2. The second influence is linguistic. Norman Chomsky a linguist in Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a new way of analyzing the structure of language. It allowed psychologist to place the concept of language into an understanding of Cognition. Chomsky connects language to creativity a uniquely human ability.
  3. The third factor that led to the information processing theory was Ulric, Neisser who integrated perception and attention with language and the publication of his book also gave credibility to the modern Cognitive Psychology’s information procession theory.

Methods of Cognitive Psychology

It is not easy to study about human cognitive functioning. Because the entire brain is used in just about any problem solving it is difficult to study. We cannot talk about every cell and what it is doing; we need a more abstract way to look at the brain.  In many ways the understanding of computers has helped us do that. Most recently the development of computers has looked to psychology as computers need to be more complex, but earlier cognitive psychology looked to computer methods for the needed abstract perspective. Understanding a cognitive theory should be like a computer program, that is, it should be precise specification of the behavior, be offered in terms sufficiently abstract to provide a conceptually tractable framework for understanding the phenomenon. So the information-processing model was developed.

Information- Processing model

Here is an analogy of how the information processing model works:

Let’s take a letter we will be sending to our friend. First we must identify where our friend lives, next you must search your memory for the correct answer. You then must formulate a plan for putting the answer into words and then transform the plan into the actual answer.

Here is an example of the top down information processing theory. It is intended to inform students as to how the process works using a study situation. John Anderson is trying to teach his students how to study a chapter in a text book. This is done in the form of an information-processing flow chart.


( Anderson, 2009)

When we talk about information processing we are talking a very organized process the brain follows to solve a problem. It is completely about process in the brain broken down into its individual parts and then following the pathway. Hypothetically everything the human does, says, thinks, daydreams and experiences goes through such a process and in order to study process it must be put with an individual flow chart for everything in a person’s experience. Our brains seem to manage this pretty well, when this gets complicated is when something goes wrong, for example, mental health concerns, behavioral concerns and intellectual concerns or when we try to replicate it in artificial intelligence.

The study of cognitive psychology is motivated by scientific curiosity, and by the desire and need for practical applications, as well as the need to provide information for other fields. The human mind is one of the most complicated areas to study and we only now are finding the tools to do so. The study of cognitive psychology is truly in its infancy but its value has now been discovered which will allow for much faster progress in this field in the future.


Anderson, J.R. (2009). Cognitive psychology and its implications. New York. NY. W.H. Freeman and Company.

Plotnik, T. Kouyoumdjian, H. (2013). Psychology, Belmont Ca., Wadsworth.

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