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Cognitive psychology: definition, theories and main authors

Cognitive psychology: definition, theories and main authors

May 6, 2021

Every time we talk about what psychology is and what "psychologists say", we are simplifying a lot. Unlike what happens in biology, in psychology there is not only a unified theory on which the whole discipline is based, but also the different psychological currents that are based on largely irreconcilable positions and many times they do not even share an object of study.

However, this does not mean that today there is no dominant current that has been imposed on the others. This current of psychology is, in our days, the cognitivism , on which cognitive psychology is based.

What is cognitive psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the aspect of psychology that is dedicated to the study of mental processes such as perception, planning or extraction of inferences . That is, processes that historically have been understood as private and beyond the scope of the measurement instruments that have been used in scientific studies.


Cognitivism and cognitive psychology have been a blow on the table by a community of researchers who did not want to give up the scientific study of mental processes, and approximately since the 60s have formed the current of hegemonic psychology throughout the world .

To explain the origins of cognitive psychology, we must go back to the middle of the last century.

Cognitive psychology and the computational metaphor

If in the first half of the twentieth century the dominant schools in the world of psychology were the psychodynamics initiated by Sigmund Freud and the behaviorist, from the 1950s the world of scientific research began to live in a time of accelerated changes caused by the irruption of progress in the construction of computers.


From that moment it became possible to understand the human mind as an information processor comparable to any computer , with its data entry and exit ports, parts dedicated to storing data (memory) and certain computer programs in charge of processing information in an appropriate manner. This computational metaphor would serve to create theoretical models that allow formulating hypotheses and trying to predict human behavior to some extent. Thus, the computer model of mental processes was born, which is widely used in psychology today.

The cognitive revolution

At the same time as technological advances were taking place in the field of information technology, behaviorism was increasingly criticized. These criticisms were focused, basically, because it was understood that its limitations did not allow to properly study the mental processes , by simply drawing conclusions about what is directly observable and what has a clear impact on the environment: behavior.


In this way, during the 50s a movement arose in favor of a reorientation of psychology towards mental processes . In this initiative participated, among others, followers of the ancient psychology of Gestalt, memory and learning researchers interested in the cognitive, and some people who had distanced themselves from behaviorism and, especially, Jerome Bruner and George Miller, who They led the cognitive revolution.

It is considered that cognitive psychology was born as a result of this stage of claims in favor of the study of mental processes, when Jerome Bruner and George Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies of Harvard in the year 1960. A little later, in 1967, the psychologist Ulric Neisser provides a definition about what is cognitive psychology in his book Cognitive psychology. In this work he explains the concept of cognition in computational terms, as a process in which information is processed in order to use it later.

The reorientation of psychology

The irruption of cognitive psychology and the cognitivist paradigm supposed a radical change in the object of study of psychology. If for BF Skinner's radical behaviorism what psychology should study was the association between stimuli and responses that can be learned or modified through experience, cognitive psychologists began to hypothesize about internal states that allowed memory to be explained, attention , the perception, and infinity of subjects that until that moment had only been touched timidly by the psychologists of the Gestalt and some investigators of end of century XIX and principles of the XX.

The methodology of cognitive psychology, which inherited many things from behaviorism, consisted of making assumptions about the functioning of mental processes, making inferences from these assumptions, and testing what is taken for granted through scientific studies, to see if the results fit with the assumptions from which they start. The idea is that the accumulation of studies about mental processes would outline how it could work and how the mind does not work human being, this being the engine of scientific progress in the field of cognitive psychology.

Criticism to this conception of the mind

Cognitive psychology has been strongly criticized by psychologists and researchers associated with the behavioral current. The reason is that, according to his perspective, there is no reason to consider that mental processes are anything other than behavior, as if they were fixed elements that remain inside people and that are relatively separated from what happens around us.

Thus, cognitive psychology is seen as a mentalist perspective that, either through dualism or through metaphysical materialism, confuses the concepts that are supposed to help understand behavior, with the object of study itself. For example, religiosity is understood as a set of beliefs that remain within the person, and not a willingness to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.

As a result, the current heirs of behaviorism consider that the cognitive revolution, instead of providing strong arguments against behaviorism, he just made me see that he had refuted , by passing in front of the scientific reasoning the own interests and treating the attributions done on what can be happening in the brain as if it were the psychological phenomenon to study, instead of the own behavior.

Cognitive psychology to this day

Currently, cognitive psychology remains a very important part of psychology, both in research and in intervention and therapy . Its progress has helped discoveries in the field of neuroscience and the improvement of technologies that allow scanning the brain to obtain images about its activation patterns, such as the fMRI, which provides extra information about what happens in the head of human beings and allows to "triangulate" the information obtained in the studies.

However, it should be noted that neither the cognitivist paradigm nor, by extension, the cognitive psychology are free of criticism. The investigations carried out within cognitive psychology rest on several assumptions that do not have to be true, such as the idea that mental processes are something different from behavior and that the first causes the second. For something is that, even today, there is behaviorism (or a direct descendant of this, rather, and not only has not been fully assimilated by the cognitive school, but also criticizes harshly.

Bibliographic references:

  • Beck, A.T. (1987). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Eysenck, M.W. (1990). Cognitive Psychology: An International Review. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Malone, J.C. (2009). Psychology: Pythagoras to Present. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Quinlan, P.T., Dyson, B. (2008) Cognitive Psychology. Publisher-Pearson / Prentice Hall.

Suspicious Minds: The Social and Cognitive Psychology of Conspiracy Theories - Rob Brotherton (May 2021).


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