Application of Cognitive 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

Cognitive Psychology:
Learning, Emotion, and Cognition

Cognitive Learning

When this writers talks about cognition it is inevitable that someone will ask, “How does learning work?”  The truth is that learning is a part of cognition but cognitive neuroscience breaks it down in a way that is unfamiliar to us so we often do not make the connection. Cognitive learning goes back to Wilhelm Wundt (the father of psychology) and then it was picked up with Edward Tolman in the 1930’s. Today cognitive learning is very helpful in explaining both animal and human behavior. It is necessary for our understanding of neuroscience which is the modern version of cognitive learning. Cognitive learning involves the mental processes of attention and memory. It says that learning can occur through observation and imitation. It may or may not involve external rewards or be directly involved with a behavior.

B.F.Skinner (1950s and 1960s) believed the study of cognition was to be the downfall of psychology. He believed that psychology should only study observable behaviors not the cognitive process. However, researchers soon showed that cognitive processes played a big role in both human and animal activities and that these activities could not be understood or explained from must observing them. Today a major goal of psychology is studying cognitive processes.

Edward Tolman was exploring the hidden mental process at about the same time that Skinner was looking at behaviors. He developed the concept of the cognitive map. The cognitive map is a mental representation of an environmental layout or a process.  Albert Bandura (1986) picked up the idea of cognitive mapping which he applied to social learning. He says we observe and form a map in the brain that can be reused in the same or similar situations.  This was the early explanation of learning – forming a cognitive concept (map) storing it for future retrieval or problem solving.

The process of learning involves some biological factors. The first is innate tendencies or predispositions that facilitate learning.  For humans, an example is play.  Children just seem to know how to play and do it whenever or where ever they are. There are also sensitive periods in which it is easier to learn something because of the brain’s predispositions. Learning language is an example. There is a center in the newborns brain for learning language. By their fourth birthday that center is taken over to be used by other synaptic connections. That is why it is easy to learn a language when you are young but more difficult when you are older. Using PET scans we are able to see locations of different types of learning in the brain. That is considered neural science. Cognition is about the process of how all this learned information is stored and retrieved for problem solving.

Emotions and Cognition

The cognitive appraisal theory says understanding or appraisal of a situation, object, or an event can contribute to, or cause the experience of different emotional states. If you were to see a dangerous snake on a nature walk you would immediately experience fear. That fear is there to protect you. Affective neuroscience studies the underlying neural bases of mood and emotion. It looks at the brain’s neural circuits that are involved in evaluating stimuli and that produce or contribute or experiencing and expressing different emotional states. We are faster at detecting targets with emotional content, positive or negative. However we are fastest at detection emotional stimuli that are threatening. It is believed this is a survival technique built into the brain’s basic circuitry.

The amygdala is located in the top of the temporal lobe. It receives input from all of the senses. The amygdala uses this data to monitor and evaluate stimuli. The amygdala is also responsible for storing the memories that have emotional content. It remembers what happy looks like, what anger looks like and it becomes quite sophisticated in detecting emotional lying. If you do not trust someone but you are not sure why it is likely because your amygdala notices something and is trying to protect you. People in the criminal justice actually train their amygdala to detect these tiny ambiguities in facial expressing and body language.

The neural process of emotions is (1) information is taken in by your senses which codes it and sends it to your (2) thalamus. The thalamus sends the information to the brat of the brain that breaks down they type of code.  So, for example if you see something it will go to the visual cortex to break the code and give it meaning. The information is then sent to the (3) amygdala to interpret the meaning. There is some evidence that is the case of serious danger the amygdala will get the code directly and act directly for the immediate safety. This action is not understood verbally. Once you are safe the visual cortex will give understandable meaning to the code. (4) From there the information goes to the prefrontal cortex where your complex cognitive functions lay. Immature neural connections can cause faulty functioning of the system resulting in impulsivity, aggression, violence and phobias.

It should be noted that all cognitive functioning passes through the amygdala as some point or another. There is no memory that is free of emotion. Emotions are stored with the memory and when the memory is recalled the emotion is also re-experienced.


B.F.Skinner (1950s and 1960s)

Edward Tolman

Albert Bandura (1986)

Cognitive Psychology: Language and Cognition

There is a significant amount of evidence that supports the hypothesis that language has an effect on the way in which we think and/or on the way in which we perceive the world. More than language, we are really talking about linguistics. Linguistics is the field concerned with characterizing our linguistic competence, which is our abstract knowledge about the structure of language. This is different from the psychologist’s concern with language performance, which is how we use language. We will be combining both for the purposes of this paper. It has been debated for a long time whether language is dependent on thought or whether thought is dependent on language or whether they work independently.

History of Linguistics

Knowing whether language is really a system different from human cognition began with John Watson’s (1930) explanation that all humans did was to emit responses that had been conditioned by stimuli. Watson thought thinking was just sub-vocal speech. It was this belief that stimulated research in the field. Whorfian (1956) followed with this belief in language determinism. He said that language determines or strongly influences the way a person thinks or perceives the world. He said that a rich variety of terms would cause the speaker of the language to perceive the world differently from a person who had only a single word for a particular concept. Present day evidence finds Whorfian to be closer than was Watson but today we know it is just not that simple.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that people’s ability to think was present before the ability to use language evolved. On the other side of the argument we know that propositional structures constitute an important type of knowledge structure representing information that comes from language and pictures. Every language has a phrase structure and it is the phrase units of language that tend to convey propositions. This really is an evolutionary concept as to what came first, since both are dependent on each other it is not necessary to know which came first to know thinking and language are connected. What we know is that language and knowledge are interconnected.

Acquisition of Language.

Humans beings begin learning language before birth. We know that children learn grammar first before they start learning words. The child has a center in the brain just for learning language. It is universal so it can learn any language that is modeled for the child. It is shortly after birth that the child begins to develop and learn how to use its vocal chords and mouth formation to reproduce sounds, that stage being “babbling”. Somewhere around one year the child will speak its first word. By the second birthday the child has a vocabulary of about 50 words, by the age of three or somewhere in the third year of life the child is speaking in full sentences.  It is before the age of four years that the area in the brain designed to learn language begins to be used by other synaptic connection until it is completely reclaimed.  That is why it is easy for a child to learn language and harder for an adult. By four years, language is found throughout the brain. It is the only one of our human processes that can be found in many areas in the brain.

Language and Cognition

Language is learned implicitly indicating that cognition has a need for language.  It is not something like reading that is schooled later. It has been argued that children’s acquisition of language is guided by innate knowledge about the possible forms of natural language. While human languages do obey certain regularities called universals, it is unclear whether these universals reflect language-specific knowledge of constraints imposed by the nature of cognition generally.

Until about thirty years ago we had no idea of how cognition and language worked together. It is now clear that language and thought work together and at this point in our evolution cannot be separated. The theory of linguistic relativity states that the differences among languages result in similar differences in how people think about and perceive the world. We know for example that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow because their survival depends on it. Research now indicates that language does influence out thinking and is beginning to show that it can influence our personalities.

We know that what we say to our children repeatedly changes their behavior and even their image of themselves.  Psychologists have known for a long time that our self- talk (what we say to ourselves about ourselves) changes out behavior and our perception of the world. This is a staple in cognitive therapy.  With the onset of PET scans we can watch were language is processed in the brain.  Processing is different for men and women, however, in both cases the processing involves our memory and knowledge portions of the brain. We learned early that language is used for problem solving in all people indicating Language is a necessary part of higher level cognition. It appears that language is essential in brain processing both in storage and retrieval. It seems to be that language is another of the uniquely human qualities that allows us the brain capacity of which we have not yet seen the limits.


Keith Alan (2001,), Natural Language Semantics, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.

Alan Cruse (2004, p.), Meaning in Language. An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics. Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York

Cognitive Psychology of Reasoning

Reasoning is broadly defined as the process of drawing conclusions.  It is related to psychology, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, logic, probability theory and artificial intelligence.

There are several theories of reasoning. The most commonly used is that people rely on mental logic, which includes inference rules. There are several theories of cognitive process that are the underpinnings of understanding human reasoning. One idea is that people rely on a logic using formal inference rules much like logicians use in propositional calculus. Another theory is that people use domain-specific or content specific rules of inference. The last idea is that people rely on mental models. And finally it may be that people compute probabilities.

Deductive Reasoning

Research on deductive reasoning has frequently compared human reasoning with eh prescriptions of a logical system. A logical system consists of rules of inference that produce true conclusion to be derived from true beliefs. This is the rule of modus ponens. It looks like this:

1. If it rains tomorrow, then the game will be canceled.
2. If the game is canceled, then our team will surely lose the pennant.
3. It will rain tomorrow.

The idea is that given the proposition A implies B. And given A we can infer B. So from 1 and 3 we can infer 4 by modus ponens

4. The game will be canceled.

From 2 and 4 we can infer 5

5. Our team will surely lose the pennant.

Conditional Reasoning

Conditional reasoning is reasoning by conditional statements

Example: If the maid hid the gun, then the butler was not at the scene of the crime.

It is easy to make a mistake with this kind of reasoning. Example:

1. If the ball rolls left, the green light comes on.

2. The ball rolls left,

3. Therefore, the green lamp comes on.

Also an error in reasoning:

1. If God exists, life will be beautiful

2. God does not exist.

3. Therefore, life is not beautiful

Reasoning about qualifiers

We have to be careful about reasoning with words like all or some. There must always be a qualifier in a categorical statement such as, All doctors are rich or No politicians trustworthy. This is where it is important to remember that your brain does not understand sarcasm. It takes what you tell it at face value. So when qualifiers are present the brain must be taught to process it skeptically. Many people make errors when dealing with categorical syllogisms, particularly errors that involve the acceptance of invalid conclusions. This pattern of errors is partially described by atmosphere hypothesis, which asserts that people are inclined to accept conclusions similar to the premises.

Inductive Reasoning

The components of the inductive reasoning process are hypotheses formation and hypotheses evaluation. For an agreement to be inductively valid. The conclusion must be probable if the premises are true. This criterion contrasts with that for deductive valid argument, in which the conclusion must be certain if the premises are true.


Bonnefon, J-F. & Hilton, D. (2002). The suppression of modus ponens as a case of pragmatic preconditional reasoning. Thinking and Reasoning, 8, 21-40.

Byrne, R.M.J., Espino, O. & Santamaria, C. (1999). Counterexamples and the suppression of inferences.” Journal of Memory & Language”, 40, 347-373.

Johnson-Laird, P.N. and Byrne, R.M.J. (1991). Deduction. Hillsdale: Erlbaum

Cognitive Psychology: Expertise Development

Research into expertise attempts to understand the relation between expert knowledge and exceptional performance in terms of cognitive structures and processes. The fundamental research is targeted at understanding how expert knowledge is acquired or honed, to describe what it is that experts know, and how they use their knowledge to achieve performance that most people assume requires extreme or extraordinary ability.

The development of expertise has implications beyond pure human cognitive psychology, “expert systems” are an integral part of the Artificial Intelligence field.

Stages of Acquisition

Skill learning occurs in three stages:

  1. Cognitive stage which is where the description of a procedure is learned.
  2. The associative stage is where the method of preforming the skill is learned.
  3. An autonomous stage which is where the skill becomes more and more rapid and automatic.


Time to perform a task speeds up based on the amount of practice an individual has. However, after a certain amount of practice the benefit of practice diminishes per the time involved. There are a number of other factors that change the effects of practice. They include that spacing of practice increases learning, skills can be learned better if independent parts are taught separately, people learn faster if they are given immediate feedback.


Proceduralization is the name of the process by which people convert their declarative, factual knowledge of a specific area into a more efficient procedural representation. If an individual is learning to drive a car he/she must learn the procedure. One must memorize where the gears are and for what they are used. The correct sequence must be memorized, rehearsed and a skill is learned. The skill is then practiced until it becomes automatic.

Tactical Learning

Tactical learning is the improvement that comes because people learn familiar sub-sequences of problem-solving steps that appear in multiple problems. To use the driving metaphor, if the shifting sequence is learned and becomes automatic then a sub sequence is learned when the individual needs to go in reverse or parallel park. That too is rehearsed and becomes part of the skill.

Strategic Learning

This is the improvement that comes because people learn the optimal way to organize their problem solving for a specific area of knowledge. This has to do with how an individual organizes material so it can be recalled for problem solving. A novice may solve a problem by working backward because they have no expertise, process, or skill. An expert starts with quantities that can be directly computed, such as gravitational force and then works toward the desired velocity.

Abstraction of Features

Problem solving improves in a specific area of knowledge because the solver learns how to represent problems in abstract terms rather than surface-level terms. Abstract representation facilitates the problem solving. Problems that are completely different on the surface are seen as similar based on previous exposure.

Problem Memory

As people become experts in a field, their memory for problems and for past problem solving patterns improve so their knowledge base for problem solving increases. People that are experts seem to display special enhanced memory for information about problems in their area of expertise. They tend to remember not in individual pieces but in patterns.  These patterns seem to be stored in long term memory giving them more space in the working memory to hold information. So, as people become expert in a field their memory for problems involves two areas. They learn the patterns that appear in these problems and because they have committed to memory prominent patters in a problem, they can assimilate more detail of a current problem in working memory.

Transfer of Skills

A decreasing number of educational psychologists subscribe to what is called the Doctrine of Formal Discipline which said that studying general subjects such as Latin, or geometry was of significant value because it served to discipline the mind. That is why many of your general education classes were required. However, Thorndike’s research has challenged that view. He found the mind was not composed of general faculties but rather of specific habits and associations, which provided a person with a variety of narrow responses to very specific stimuli. He found there was no transfer of knowing between diverse skills only between two skills that have the same logical structure. He also found there was no negative transfer between skills. So learning a new skill does not damage what you know in another field.


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Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.