Information-processing Theory

A leading orientation in experimental psychology that focuses on how people select, process, and internalize information and how they use it to make decisions and guide their behavior.

The information-processing theory is associated with the development of high-speed computers in the 1950s. Researchers—most notably Herbert Simon (1916–2001) and his colleagues—demonstrated that computers could be used to simulate human intelligence. This development led to the realization that computer-oriented information-processing models could provide new insight into how the human mind receives, stores, retrieves, and uses information. The information-processing theory was one of several developments that ended the decades-long dominance of behaviorism in American psychology. It emphasizes innate mental capacities, rather than conditioned, externally observable behavior. By enabling experimental psychologists to test theories about complex mental processes through computer simulation, information-processing models helped reestablish internal thought processes as a legitimate area of scientific inquiry.

Cognitive psychology relates the human mind to that of a computer: Both the human mind and a computer process information, and via such processing, each has responses. As an example, a person sees the page of a book, the brain processes the shapes of the letters (the information) on the page into letters and words, and the person takes meaning from those words. The person is therefore accepting input data, which is then stored, utilized, and transformed by the mind so that the person can perceive that information and respond to it.

One of the many areas investigated through the use of information-processing models is human error. Errors that occur during the early stages of processing, such as misunderstandings, are called mistakes, as distinguished from slips, which occur during the selection or execution of responses. The increased understanding of error provided by information-processing models has been useful in eliminating a variety of technical and industrial problems by isolating and addressing their causes. Those problems classified as mistakes often involve the size of an information load and the way it is handled, while slips are commonly remedied by redesigning instruments and equipment so they can be used more efficiently. Many researchers are now interested in the enormous load of information presented through different outlets, including the internet.

Another area that has been investigated using information-processing theory is reaction time—the amount of time needed to respond to a stimulus in a particular situation. Reaction time is an important feature in the design of automobiles and many other products. Factors influencing reaction time include complexity of the decision required before action can be taken; stimulusresponse compatibility (the physical convenience of the reaction); expectancy (it takes longer to respond to an unexpected stimulus); and the relative importance of speed and accuracy in the required response.