Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is an approach to psychology that focuses on associations between cognitive processes and behavior.

Cognitive psychology is the study of mental or thought processes, including perceiving, recognizing, remembering, imagining, conceptualizing, judging, reasoning, and processing information. Humans apply these cognitive processes mainly for the purpose of planning and problem solving. Cognitive psychology determines how the processes function to produce responses. Some cognitive psychologists may study how internal cognitive functions transform signs and symbols derived from the external world, and others may focus on the interplay between human genetics and environmental influences in determining individual cognitive development and capabilities. Still other cognitive psychologists may investigate how the mind detects, selects, recognizes, and verbally represents features of a particular stimulus. Specific topics investigated by cognitive psychologists are language acquisition; visual and auditory perception; information storage and retrieval; altered states of consciousness; cognitive restructuring (how the mind mediates between conflicting, or dissonant, information); and individual styles of thought and perception.


—The mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thoughts, experience, and the senses.
—In psychology, psychological conflict that results from incompatible beliefs and attitudes existing at the same time.
—An immediate internal understanding of something without conscious reasoning.
—Awareness and understanding of one's own thoughts and thought processes.
Psychoanalytic method
—A method of psychiatric therapy developed by Sigmund Freud that relies on dream interpretation, free association between thoughts, and analysis of transference and resistance to investigate someone's repressed or unconscious impulses, anxieties, and internal conflicts.
—In psychology, any basic cognitive process in which some entity stands for or represents something else.

The study of human cognition is complicated by the fact that the mind must process the simultaneous and sometimes conflicting information presented in daily life through internal and external stimuli. For example, an individual may feel hunger pangs, the external heat of the sun, and sensations of bodily movement produced by walking while simultaneously talking, listening to a companion, and recalling past experiences. Quite clearly, complex cognitive processing is required to help humans give attention to multiple stimuli at the same time.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, the behaviorist approach to psychology combining philosophy, methodology, and theory was the dominant way of studying cognition as a route to behavior. Behaviorists, including John B. Watson (1878–1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), believed that psychology should only be concerned with observable events rather than the socalled mentalist approach of Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) and others who focused on psychoanalytic approaches to behavior. During the second half of the twentieth century, however, behaviorism was replaced by the cognitive revolution. During those decades, psychologists began to focus more on cognitive processes by evaluating the ways in which people's needs, motivations, and expectations (or mental sets) affected their perceptions. The studies of Jerome Bruner (1915–) increased psychologists’ understanding of children's cognitive development and related issues of education. Bruner studied individuals’ responses to stimuli and their internal interpretation, which initiated a more holistic cognitive approach to psychology. He later developed a cognitive learning theory that focused on the effects of environmental and experiential factors on individual development patterns. In his study of child development, Bruner described three types of representation: actionbased enactive representation, image-based iconic representation, and language-based symbolic representation, which work together to allow an individual to acquire knowledge.

In 1957, Leon Festinger (1919–1989) advanced the theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes how people manage conflicting cognitions about themselves, their behavior, or their environment. Festinger posited that conflict or dissonance among such cognitions make people uncomfortable enough to actually modify one of the conflicting beliefs to bring it into line with the other belief. For example, the conflicting thoughts “I smoke” and “smoking is bad” may lead a smoker either to alter the first statement by quitting or the second one by maintaining that smoking is not bad. In 1960, Bruner and George A. Miller (1920–2012) established the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which became influential in the cognitive revolution.

Language became an important area of study for cognitive psychologists, and the term psycholinguistics was coined to designate an emerging area of common interest, the psychology of language. Noam Chomsky (1928–), a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became its most famous proponent, arguing that the underlying logic, or deep structure, of all languages is the same and that human mastery of it is genetically determined, not learned. His work was highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Other well-known studies in cognitive psychology include the work of D. E. Berlyne (1924–1976) on curiosity and information seeking; the theory of personal constructs by George Kelly (1905–1967); and investigations by Herman Witkin (1916–1979), Riley Gardner (1921–2007), and George Klein (1917–1971) on individual perceptual and cognitive styles.

The emergence of cybernetics and computer science have been central to contemporary advances in cognitive psychology, including computer simulation of cognitive processes for research purposes and the creation of information-processing models. Despite skepticism that computer-generated thought will ever match human cognition, the study of artificial intelligence has helped scientists learn more about the human mind. In turn, this type of psychological research is expected to aid in the development of more sophisticated computers through links between the psychological study of cognition and research in electrophysiology and computer science. This subfield of cognitive engineering focuses on the application of knowledge about human thought processes to the design of complex systems for aviation, industry, and other areas. The information-processing approach to human cognitive functioning is being investigated in light of other, more advanced approaches to psychology such as embodied cognition and dynamic systems theory.

Modern cognition theory has been described as a dual process, a theory advanced by Jonathan Haidt (1963–) in 2006 and advanced by the work of Daniel Kahneman (1934–) in 2011. Dual process theory explains how something can occur in two different ways or result from two different processes, usually an unconscious or automatic process and a more controlled conscious process. In cognitive psychology, the two processes are intuition, a fast and automatic process with emotional aspects, and reasoning, a slower but more volatile process associated with conscious judgment and attitudes.

See also Abnormal psychology ; Artificial intelligence ; Cognitive behavior therapy; Cognitive development ; Information-processing approach.



Sobel, Carolyn P., and Paul Li. The Cognitive Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 2nd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013.


Pennycook, Gordon. “What Makes Us Think? A Three stage Dual-process Model of Analytic Engagement.” Cognitive Psychology 80 (August 2015): 34–72.


Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, GSB Bldg., 1 Belmont Ave., Ste. 700, Bala Cynwyd, PA, 19004-1610, (610) 664-3020, Fax: (610) 664-4437, info@beckinstitute. org, .