What is cognitive psychology? Who are its main authors? What are its characteristics? In this article, we will talk about the study of cognitive processes. Discover everything you need to know about cognitive psychology.
Cognitive Psychology: Definition and Importance
Psychology is a heterogeneous science that explores various issues related to our mind and our behavior. This discipline examines us both socially and individually and involves an immensity of challenges.
These issues are often influenced by the subjectivity that inevitably leads people to study other people. In fact, psychology professionals often have trouble reaching an agreement. Its object of study is complex and changing. Also, their discipline is not an exact science. Psychology is still taking its first steps.
The main objective of psychologists is to make us understand ourselves better and to improve our quality of life. However, they are also influenced by their interests and their way of looking at the world. There are different currents that seek an approach to find the truth from different perspectives. However, we are all different and each person is biased from their own experiences.
For example, there are different perspectives on what is mental illness. Some experts focus on the observable aspects of behavior, others look for biological causes and some think society is responsible. These dilemmas may confuse us.
Should we worry about this uncertainty?
We shouldn’t take these dilemmas as nonconclusive problems. In fact, it is possible to combine several perspectives and to elaborate new and more explanatory models. These discussions (in the most scientific sense of the word) drive the growth of psychology and bring us closer to the discoveries that allow us to know how cognitive processes work.
Cognitive psychology studies the mental processes related to knowledge. It is linked to artificial intelligence and analyzes psychological processes such as perception, memory, attention, cognitive distortions or learning.
Cognitive Psychology: Features
Although heterogeneous theories coexist within cognitive psychology, we can observe its main distinctive features.
1. Emphasizes in cognitive processes
Behavior can’t be explained without naming our cognitive processes. These procedures cover a myriad of tasks that we perform in our day to day. For example, memorize the birthdays of our relatives or perceive the typical optical illusions that become viral.
2. The field of study is very complex
It is not easy to study cognitive processes since they are not tangible. In fact, this field has been rejected for years because of its complexity. Nowadays neuroscience allows us to approach cognitive processes in a more scientific and tangible way. Thanks to neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI (Functional MRI) we can see how our brain performs certain tasks such as deciding whether if you prefer coffee or tea. This field has also made it possible for company’s such as CogniFit to measure and train your cognitive skills through specific brain games.
3. Their sources are scattered and varied
Psychologists focused on emotions, processing information, Gestalt or social psychology all dive into cognitive processes with different goals. This makes their sources very scattered and varied, however, they are enriching for psychology.
4. Processing capacity is limited
Our ability to pay attention and process information is affected by several factors. It requires a lot of effort to select the most relevant data at any given time. For example, if we go to the supermarket, we can’t see all the boxes of cereal at a time. Therefore, our brain chooses the most visually striking and we focus on that.
5. Mental processes are organized in a hierarchical way
We face an incredible amount of stimuli (for example the television is on, the telephone rings, the neighbors scream, smoke comes out of the kitchen, we feel like going to the bathroom, our arm itches, etc.) Our brain learns to make priorities and be as efficient as possible. Our brain organizes and controls all the activities we do consciously and much more all at the same time. In fact, we perform activities automatically (walking) and others in a controlled way (adding an event on our agenda). There are tasks that we can carry out simultaneously (detect different elements in the street) and others in serial form (to figure out a mathematical problem). This can only be achieved hierarchically.
6. People understand reality in different ways
We all carry out complex actions through our mental processes. That is, we can memorize data, organize information, have expectations about what we want in the future and countless activities that happen in our brain to adapt to the environment.
However, we are not mechanical robots. The environment and other people influence us. Nonetheless, we make our own decisions, defend our ideology and come to different conclusions while maintaining our own arguments. We make complex judgments and comparisons that are reflected in the great interindividual variability.
For example, a football fan will tend to focus more on any fact related to his team, especially if it is positive. We act based on the information that is accessible to us, our goals, feelings, prejudices and a long list of contents that pass through our mind.
Cognitive Psychology: A Little History
Early thinkers such as William James or Wilhelm Wundt, already theorized about cognitive processes such as consciousness. Nonetheless, cognitive psychology emerged in the middle of the last century.
In the 1950s, behaviorism was the main paradigm in this science. This approach is based on observable behavior, often extrapolating results obtained with animals to people and neglecting cognitive processes. Its main goal was to study human behavior in labs where scientific rigor was at its highest. However, it failed to explain human thought process.
On the other hand, psychoanalysis was the other mainstream perspective. It focused on the subconscious and childhood development. Both perspectives set aside mental processes.
The cognitive revolution
The cognitive revolution brought the fact that the black box, which was the gap between stimuli and behavior could now be opened and explored. Cognitive psychology began to imagine the mind as a computer that processes information through different programs and with certain capacities. This computer metaphor allows us to establish parallels that help us to better visualize the human mind.
However, they do not study all content well, beliefs or expectations are concepts more abstract than the number of elements that we are able to retain. Great strides are now being made from the cognitive perspective and it seems to remain a fundamental approach for psychology to progress.
Cognitive psychology: 10 essential authors and their contributions
Since the last century, there have been several celebrities in this field. Here are a few of the most important authors in the field.
He studied types of memory and memory itself. He observed it in everyday situations and analyzed how we modify it ourselves.
He was a great developmental psychologist. He focused on how we treat information and learning as a process rather than conceiving it as a final product.
He is the creator of the “Turing machine”, which is an abstract device that simulates human thinking. It serves to create representations that allow investigating cognitive processes.
According to this psychologist, the working memory may contain more or less seven information sequences. However, we can group the data to retain more elements. He wrote the cognitive manifesto called Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960).
He is the author of the theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes how important it is for us to maintain our beliefs, the processes we carry out to preserve them and how complex it is to change them.
This cognitive psychologist maintained that our attention processes data serially.
He coined the term “cognitive psychology”.
8. Gestalt Psychologists
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
That is, our mind perceives reality through our senses and gives rise to a new interpretation through perception.
9. Shannon and Weaver
They developed a famous mathematical model that collects the main elements of the communicative process.
His main contribution to the field of cognitive psychology was through linguistics.
Cognitive Psychology Applications
We apply cognitive psychology in almost every aspect of our lives.
Basic psychological processes, such as motivation and perception, are the main area cognitive psychology is applied to. Subsequently, the data obtained is integrated into programs to improve our quality of life.
According to this approach, our thoughts and emotions have a significant impact on our mental health. For example, interpreting negatively every comment they make how we look could lead to an eating disorder.
Through the study of topics such as the theory of mind, we come to better understand interpersonal relationships and our progress as we grow.
Cognitive psychology helps us to understand how our prejudices (however harmful they may be at times) enable us to reduce the amount of data we have to process since we take information for granted and do not analyze it.
All basic psychological processes are elementary when it comes to talking about training. Cognitive psychology has given us Bandura’s theory of social learning, which contrasts with the mechanical explanations of behaviorists. Understanding how we assimilate knowledge or how we perceive external stimuli is dispensable to provide an education to society.
Knowing how the human mind works is the key to developing the technology of the future. Amazing discoveries are being made in this field. The advance of artificial intelligence requires that its professionals work with a great responsibility, but also its technological advances have the capacity of improving our lives.
Their contributions allow us to control better our thoughts and cognitive processes as well as infer the causes of other’s behavior. We can use cognitive psychology to simplify our day to day. For example, after learning that we retain approximately seven elements in our working memory (Miller) and that we can memorize more when grouping, we can take this data into account to draw more effective studying strategies.
Thank you very much for reading this article. What do you think about cognitive psychology? We invite you to comment below.
This article is originally in Spanish written by Ainhoa Arranz Aldana, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.