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Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making

Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making. How is the legal profession changing? What cognitive challenges should modern lawyers meet? How can cognitive psychology help to improve legal decision making? All of these aspects are covered below. The relevance of the study is extremely high because, so far, there are very few that address legal decision making from the cognitive psychology perspective.

Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

Modern lawyers have to work on their cognitive skills to improve legal decision making.

Nowadays, many jobs are facing major changes and legal jobs are no exception. The market demands from lawyers more cognitive abilities compared to the times before the widespread use of computers. With the help of modern search engines, information is becoming more and more available. So, people find answers to most of their legal questions themselves and ask lawyers for help only on the particularly difficult cases.

Analyzing a case is complicated given the number of individual circumstances, it is not an easy task. Especially, when the decisions need to be made at very short notice. Clients usually pay for the number of hours the lawyers have been working on their case. Both to save money and because some business decisions need to be made urgently, the clients prefer to get legal advice as soon as possible. They believe that lawyers can provide the available information in the first meeting and deem it “good enough.”

Perhaps, modern lawyers desperately want to satisfy their clients’ requests. They try to be always available on websites or by cell phones and ready to give online-advice. 

Unfortunately, people’s cognitive abilities impose limits on how fast decisions of high quality can be made. As a result, modern lawyers tend to be in over their head, not taking into account their cognitive abilities.

The process of legal decision making is supposed to be impartial and objective, but in practice,it is not always the case. It is often influenced by subjective judgments resulting from systematic errors in our thinking, known as cognitive biases. All participants of the legal decision-making process can suffer from such cognitive biases. A client, for example, may incorrectly convey the circumstances of the case, on the basis of which the lawyer has to make a legal decision. Another example is when a client overestimates or underestimates the consequences of the legal decision and, hence, forces the lawyer to make a biased decision. Lawyers are also human beings and they are vulnerable to cognitive biases, which can sometimes lead to choosing the wrong strategy and, as a result, losing the case. 

Robot processes and AI are gaining momentum. So, there is a possibility that lawyers will be replaced by unbiased artificial intelligence, which can make quality decisions much quicker than human lawyers and identify clients’ biases.

To summarize, there are two challenges the lawyers should accept:

  • Challenge 1. Modern lawyers have to make quality legal decisions within short time limits.
  • Challenge 2. Lawyers have to eliminate cognitive biases (both clients’ and their own) in order to improve legal decision making.

Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making- Challenge 1

To understand cognitive psychology and legal decision-making we need to know the basics of the decision-making process, in particular, the dual-process theory.

The dual-process theory was developed by several different scientists, including Keith Stanovich, Richard West, and the Noble Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. According to their research, our thinking process is an interplay between two systems, called System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is responsible for quick, almost subconscious decisions. It can be thought of as an automatic brain mode. We use System 1 when we perform simple tasks, such as driving a car on an empty road or inferring a person’s mood from their facial expression.

System 2 is responsible for conscious decisions. It is a slow, thoughtful and thorough process. We use System 2 when System 1 fails to produce quick and accurate results. For example, when we face a non-trivial problem. Nevertheless, System 2 is a “lazy” system, which requires time to turn on and some additional time for the analysis.

When we need to make a quick decision, we are most likely to use System 1. This system has helped us survive as a species: it helps us in emergency situations to make quick decisions.

The modern world requires lawyers to be good System 1 decision-makers without compromising the quality of legal advice. However, the limits of our thinking do not allow us to make decisions that are both as fast as if we were to use System 1 and as quality as if System 2 was engaged. Since lawyers cannot cheat their nature, they are deemed to fail meeting Challenge 1.

Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making- Challenge 2

Cognitive biases can be thought of as errors in our thinking process, which happen due to the interaction between System 1 and System 2. This means that one of the systems take other system’s task and, as a result, the person perceives a distorted view of reality. 

Nowadays, there are at least 175 different types of cognitive biases. According to Buster Benson, cognitive biases are based on four main causes of their origin: (i) the excess of information, (ii) the difficulty of understanding, (iii) the demand for an urgent response, (iv) the limits of our memory and the necessity to remember only important things. All these causes serve the main goal of cognitive biases, which is to reserve energy of our brain. These four causes manifest themselves as follows:

(i) It is safe to assume that cognitive biases are positive consequences of our evolution. We are surrounded by massive amounts of data, which we are not able to process fully.

(ii) The world is too complex and our knowledge can cover only a small piece of it. However, in order to choose the right strategy for survival, we need to have a complete picture of the world. Cognitive biases help our brain to fill all these gaps.

(iii) Our brain is designed to make quick decisions and draw fast conclusions, which are helpful when there is no time to think in danger.

(iv) The abilities of our memory are limited. So, we should select and remember only potentially useful information that can be helpful for us in the future.

Being essential for survival, cognitive biases have become obstacles for effective decision-making.  As a result, in order to simplify the information and save some energy for our brain, we tend to:

  • make judgments on something/someone based on our observations or beliefs;
  • generalize and apply patterns to specific things or events, ignoring their individual properties;
  • perceive changing things in comparison to their previous image in our brain, not examining them on their own merits;
  • believe that we know what everyone is thinking;
  • simplify numbers and probabilities to better understand them;
  • convince ourselves that our judgments are correct to save time that would otherwise be spent on considering other alternatives;
  • avoid changing strategy and finish what has been started in order to make already spent energy worth;
  • make decisions in favor of simple, familiar and safe options that do not need additional analysis and do not lead to irreversible changes;
  • simplify events and remember only their key moments;
  • evaluate past and future events based on our current experience. So, our interpretation of the same things changes with time and sometimes might not coincide with the true situation.

To sum up, even though the evolution creates cognitive biases with the best intentions, they seem to be serious obstacles that prevent us from being rational. Unfortunately, lawyers, as all humans, are prone to cognitive biases and are unable to eliminate them. So, regarding Challenge 2, lawyers are also helpless.

Below you find a description of 10 cognitive biases that occur frequently in legal decision making. For your convenience, all biases are divided into two categories based on whether these biases have a greater impact on lawyers or clients. Please, remember that these biases have been grouped quite broadly for the purposes of the general review. In practice, they should be revised on a case-by-case basis.  

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Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making -Top 5 cognitive biases


  1. Availability Heuristic is a tendency to overestimate/underestimate the frequency or probability of events based solely on the information that quickly comes to mind. For example, when there is not much time to determine a strategic plan for a particular case, a lawyer often makes a decision by recalling the outcomes of the most vivid and memorable cases that he or she remembers. This, in turn, can lead to dismissing important judicial statistics on similar cases and ultimately losing the case. 
  2. Confirmation Biases is a tendency to pay more attention to pieces of evidence that support our own point of view. In legal decision making, this phenomenon manifests itself in situations when a lawyer attributes weight only to the statements of a client that prove the lawyer’s hypothesis about that case. The facts that contradict the lawyer’s ideal version of the events are ignored.  Ambiguous evidence is often interpreted as supportive of the lawyer’s hypothesis.
  3. Anecdotal Fallacy is a tendency to base arguments on someone’s personal experience, which for obvious reasons cannot be generalized to everyone and every circumstance. Professional lawyers often suffer from this bias. They rely on their experience and, as a result, neglect some specific circumstances of the considered case.
  4. Transparency Illusion is a tendency to overestimate how much we know about other people. In legal decision-making practice, it is not uncommon to see lawyers making judgments about their clients after the first meeting. Such first impression judgments lead to lawyers believing that they know exactly what their clients want. And therefore, the lawyers’ perception of the clients’ arguments may be twisted. 
  5. Just-world Fallacy (a.k.a. Blaming the Victim) is a tendency to believe that if someone is punished or under investigation, they must be guilty; while a person who seems to be good all his life has to be innocent. This bias is common among lawyers with conservative views.


  1. Framing Effect is a tendency to perceive information differently based on its presentation (positive or negative). The proverbial question “is the glass half empty or half full” is a great example of this bias. Since clients are prone to perceive facts as good and bad, the lawyers should be careful when providing legal advice.
  2. Anchoring Biases is a tendency to make key decisions based on the initial piece of information received. In legal decision making, it is particularly important for a lawyer not to make an assessment of the outcome of the case during the first meeting with the client. Otherwise, the client may rely on such preliminary evaluation too heavily. And as new important facts appear, the client may fail to consider them since they contradict the original assessment of the case.
  3. Ambiguity Bias is a tendency to choose options for which the probability of the positive outcome is known over options with poorly defined winning chances. In legal decision making, clients favor low-risk strategies with well-defined probabilities of success. The lawyers should take this effect into account when making recommendations to the clients.
  4. Attentional Bias is a tendency to focus on things that matter for us. In legal decision making, clients may be inclined to present facts that seem important for them and dismiss other information. The lawyers must be aware of this bias, and make their best efforts to receive all facts relevant to the case (regardless of how important the clients considers them to be).
  5. Attribution Bias is a tendency to evaluate differently our own and other people’s behavior. In legal decision making, this can be observed as clients trying to justify their actions by putting the blame on other people or circumstances of their cases. The lawyers need to understand this effect and take it into account when they make the analyses of the clients’ statements. 


To sum up, it seems that lawyers have no chances to meet the main cognitive challenges posed by the modern world: making quality legal decisions within short time limits (Challenge 1) and eliminating cognitive biases for improving legal decision making (Challenge 2). 

Lawyers do not possess superhuman abilities that would allow them to masterly use System 1 and System 2 at their own discretion.  They are prone to a number of cognitive biases that they cannot cope with. On top of that, clients have their own biases too. And not all present-day lawyers can correctly identify their clients’ biases and collect full and accurate information from their statements.

Even though lawyers cannot make quality decisions in a amount of time, they can work on their cognitive skills to improve legal decision making. Also, they should strive to collaborate more with each other because teamwork helps both to save time and reach high-quality legal decisions. Finally, it is better for lawyers to specialize in only one field of law rather than try to be experts in everything.

Although lawyers cannot eliminate all cognitive biases (especially the ones of their clients), they can minimize these biases by reflecting on their judgments and questioning them every time. Regarding clients’ cognitive biases, lawyers can only learn how to ask questions that help their clients to present an objective view of the case.

As the famous proverb says “forewarned is forearmed.” In the context of legal decision making this should be read as follows:

Lawyers who understand human cognitive abilities and their limitations are one step ahead of their colleagues remaining in ignorance of such important things.


Benson, Buster. “Cognitive bias cheat sheet.”, https://medium.com/better-humans/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18 . 1 Sep. 2016. Accessed 21 Jul. 2019.

Grady, Ken. “Welcome to Your Brain: Cognitive Psychology and Legal Decision-Making.”, https://medium.com/rethink-the-practice/welcome-to-your-brain-cognitive-psychology-and-legal-decision-making-2ccabcebfc17 . 3 Feb. 2016. Accessed 21 Jul. 2019.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. “Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk.” Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I. 2013. 99-127.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” science 185.4157 (1974): 1124-1131.

Weinstein, Ian. “Don’t Believe Everything You Cognitive Bias in Legal Decision Making.” Clinical L. Rev. 9 (2002): 783.

Projective tests: A complete guide with everything you need to know

A complete guide to projective tests. Discover in this article, what are projective tests, how they work, the types and classification of the different projective tests and graphical examples. Discover how do these tests work in a recruitment interview? Their advantages, disadvantages and much more. Keep reading!

Projective tests: 

Ink stains, house, tree, human figure. There are many types of projective tests that are still in use today. What are they really? What are they used for? How many are there? Are they useful? Find out all about the projective tests here.

What are projective tests?

Projective tests are a type of personality test in which the individual must respond to ambiguous scenes, words or images or in some cases even draw. It differs from objective tests in that the answers can be very varied, there are no correct or incorrect answers. Although there are guidelines for correcting projective tests (and even extensive training is necessary), it can happen that two experts come to different conclusions from the same tests. This, however, is almost impossible in objective tests.

The purpose of projective tests is to know the structure and functioning of the person, in addition to discovering emotions or internal conflicts that the individual is going to project in the answers. After this, the therapist can lead psychotherapy to help the person.

This personality evaluation came from the psychoanalytic school, which suggested that people have unconscious thoughts and impulses. Through the psychoanalyst’s interpretation of the answers, it was possible to bring to light those feelings, desires, and conflicts that are hidden in our unconscious that were causing problems in the patient.

Despite the controversy surrounding the application of projective tests, the use of these techniques continues to be widespread, both in the clinical and forensic fields (assessment of offenders). In fact, the Rorschach Test is the third most used technique by Spanish psychologists.

Although the projective tests can be very different from each other, we could find some basic assumptions, common to most:

  • Projective tests assume that the person has a basic and stable personality structure. This structure is made up of dimensions, features or constructions organized in a unique way. This will be studied through the responses to projective tests
  • There is a relationship between the unobservability of the structure and the behavioral manifestations of the person so the analysis of the structure will allow predicting future behavior.
  • Any response to projective tests is significant and will be understood as a sign of the person’s personality.
  • The more ambiguous the properties of the projective test, the more the person’s personality is reflected.
  • The person is not aware of the relationship between his answers and the inner world, so it is difficult to misrepresent.
  • The analysis of the responses is global.

How do projective tests work?

In many projective tests, the participant has to respond to very ambiguous stimuli, such as images, words, etc. The answers are often unstructured, there are no response options, but you can answer the first thing that comes to mind.

This is the key to these tests: the ambiguity of the stimulus. According to the theories underlying the projective tests, the more ambiguous it is, the more it will be able to reflect the inner world of the subject. The more structured the questions and answers are, the more you will be able to interfere with the conscious mind and mask the result.

In objective personality assessment techniques, in many cases, we can know the most socially acceptable or desirable answers and it can lead to misleading answers. However, many of these tests do have a measure to assess that social desirability.

According to the supporters of projective tests, by relying on unclear stimuli, the person doesn’t know what the answer is socially “desirable”, therefore will respond according to their deepest motivations and attitudes. It’s going to be very difficult to fake the answer.

Types of projective tests

Projective tests can be classified into:

  • Structural. Very abstract visual material that the person must define by saying what he sees or suggests (Rorschach)
  • Thematic. Visual material with different degrees of definition, human or parahuman content whose objective is to tell a story (TAT: Test of Thematic Perception)
  • Expressive. Instruction to draw (test of the tree, the human figure, the house)
  • Constructive. Concrete material is provided with which the subject must construct something.
  • Associations. The subject must verbally associate or complete words, phrases or stories according to certain instructions.

Below we will list the most common projective tests.

Rorschach Projective Test

Rorschach ink stains are one of the first projective tests and continue to be well-known and widespread. It was developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921.

It consists of 10 different cards that illustrate ambiguous ink stains and ask the participant to say what they see there, and what characteristics of the image has led the person to think about it.

Rorschach Projective Test

The answers are written down as thoroughly as possible, or even recorded. Gestures, the tone of voice and other reactions are taken into account. The responses are then analyzed according to certain criteria.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

In the Thematic Apperception Test, the person is asked to observe a series of images and describe a story in each one of them, try to reconstruct what has happened, what is happening now and what he believes will happen next. The person also has to describe how the different characters think and feel.

The examiner then scores the test based on the needs, motivations, and anxieties of the main character and how the story ends.

According to the TAT manual: This technique allows us to know the impulses, emotions, feelings, and conflicts of the person some inhibited and underlying aspects or tendencies of the person that he would not admit or recognize because he is not aware of them.

This test is based on the idea that people will create stories or interpret the scenes shown according to their past experiences, current desires, feelings, and needs, both conscious and unconscious.

Expressive or graphical projective tests

Like other projective tests, expressive tests have been criticized for lack of validity. Within this group are the drawing tests. While one examiner may suggest that certain aspects of the drawing indicate specific psychological trends, others may argue that the subject has few drawing skills.

In all these types of expressive tests, the most important thing is the specific characteristics and features of the drawings. In no case is the quality of them valued. The most commonly used expressive or graphical tests are the following:

Projective test of the tree

The tree test provides us with information about the person’s vision of themselves, their resources and the structure of their personality.

As its name suggests, it consists of drawing a tree. From there the examiner evaluates it by looking at the shape of the trunk, roots, soil, fruits, branches, leaves, knots in the wood, attention to detail.

Projective test of the human figure

This graphical test requires drawing a person, as its name suggests. The drawing is then evaluated by the examiner, who will look at the size of different body parts, specific features, level of detail and overall shape of the figure.

The projective human figure test has been commonly used to measure intelligence in children, but research shows that compared to the Wechsler Intelligence test there is little relationship between scores. This suggests that it is not possible for the human figure test to be able to evaluate intelligence, but it may be useful for other aspects.

Graphic projective test of the animal

According to psychoanalysis, the animal represents our unconscious impulses and desires. This projective test of the animal is usually used when the human figure tests make the person anxious, or when they simply are blocked and can’t draw a person. Therefore, the animal test allows them to take more distance and project their inner world into the animal.

The person is asked to draw any animal, and then write down the name, age, sex, and type of animal it is. You may also be asked to make a list of other animals that you thought or would have liked to draw. Finally, you can also tell us a story about that animal.

Projective Test Home – Tree – Person or HTP Test

Very much in line with the previous graphical tests, the home-tree-person test (also known as the HTP test) asks for the drawing of a house, a tree, and a person, in order to evaluate them together and globally.

From the drawing, the examiner asks questions like:

  • Person: Who is a person, how old he is, what does he do best, what does he like least, if someone has tried to hurt him, who loves him.
  • Home: Who lives there, if they are happy, what is inside, how it is at night.
  • Tree: What kind of tree it is, how old it is, what season it is, has someone tried to cut it down, who waters it, does it have enough light to grow.

Projective family test

The graphical family test is a way of knowing the relationships within the family, the place each one has, their role and how each member is seen by the person taking the test. With this test, aspects such as dependence, rivalry, conflict, attachment are evaluated.

The examiner will take into account the position of each member of the family, if anyone is absent, the congruence with reality, the absence of body parts, etc.

Projective tests of the kinetic family

The kinematic family test emerged as an extension of the family test. It consists of drawing yourself and your family doing something. It is this “doing something” that gives it the kinetic aspect.

Projective tests of the couple

The projective test of the couple is used to evaluate the type of bond that the person needs. It also evaluates the image the person has of himself and the other. The current situation, past situations or ideal situations are usually captured, all very useful for exploring possible conflicting experiences.

In this case, the person is asked to draw any two people on the same sheet.  Later he is asked to name and age them, to create a story with these two people, and to give a title to their story. Later on, she is asked questions about the couple, such as what brought them together, what can separate them, and so on.

Projective tests person under rain

To perform the projective test of a person in the rain, the person being tested is asked to draw a person in the rain. Some studies suggest that it may be effective in assessing depression levels and stress management.

Projective tests for children

The projective tests that are most often used with children are the expressive ones, that is, in which they have to draw the tree, the human figure, the house, the family, the animal, etc. Children usually like to draw and use art to express their emotions. Children’s drawings give us a lot of information, especially if we ask them to tell us what they have drawn.

Projective tests for adults

All the above-mentioned tests can be done by adults, but perhaps the ones that are more oriented to this age group are the Rorschach test and the thematic apperception test. The answers are also often more complex.

Adults can also do the expressive graphical tests without any problems, but many people may be reluctant to draw such “childish” things.

Projective tests used in personnel selection

The use of these tests in job interviews is not common. However, they are sometimes used, especially the best-known ones. Some examples of the most commonly used projective tests in personnel selection are the following:

  • The Rorschach test: in personnel selection, the Rorschach test could be useful for detecting psychological disorders.
  • The TAT in personnel selection would be used to assess the candidate’s need for achievement and power, as well as the candidate’s problem-solving capacity.
  • HTP (Home, Tree, Person)
  • The human figure: it is used to evaluate intelligence, personality, and even sexuality. These drawing tests can help reduce interview anxiety and help with communication problems.
  • A person under the rain: to assess how well the candidate performs in stressful situations.

How projective tests work in personnel selection

The application of these projective tests in personnel selection is similar to the application in other fields. The aim is to reveal aspects of the personality in order to choose the person who best fits the job posting, as well as to rule out people who may have problematic personalities.

The advantage of these tests, unlike objective tests, is that it is very rare for people to falsify the answers. In addition, since projective tests are based on the theory that they are able to predict people’s behavior, they would be useful to predict what the worker’s performance will be.

Tips on how to apply projective tests in a job interview?

It is important that, if these projective tests are to be used, the selection of a person for a job should not be based solely on the test results. Because they are not very reliable and the outcome will depend a lot on both the examiner and the person’s emotional state.

Disadvantages of projective tests

One of the biggest drawbacks of these techniques is that there is no consensus on the standardization of instructions for application, correction, and interpretation. This results in interpretation biases, an inconsistency of results, and invalidity (not measuring what they say they measure). Subjectivity in the evaluation of results makes it difficult to reach a consensus.

Furthermore, even though they root from Gestalt and Psychoanalysis, there is no homogeneous theoretical framework from which these techniques are based.  Another drawback is that intensive and extensive training is necessary to handle these tests.

In addition, responses can be influenced by the examiner’s attitudes, test context, and even the emotion or state of mind the person is experiencing at that time.

Advantages of projective tests

Projective tests are often used in therapeutic settings. Therapists use them to gather certain information about the client, or also as a way to “break the ice” and encourage you to discuss certain issues or examine thoughts and emotions.

Some studies indicate (especially for Rorcharch) that it may be helpful in identifying patients with psychosis, bipolar disorder or borderline personality, but it has not been linked to depressive disorders, antisocial personality or PET, among other problems.

Beyond the need to evaluate specific pathologies, these tests can provide quite rich information and reveal conflicts with which to work in therapy that would not otherwise have come to light.

To conclude projective tests can give us a lot of useful information but we should not base our diagnosis on them. They work well as complementary tools for the patient to develop their problems and concerns. I would like to mention that in order to evaluate personality, psychological and cognitive processes there are other cognitive tests that have been shown to be methodologically effective.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

Cognitive Psychology: Inquiring in Mental Processes

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

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. 

1. Bartlett

He studied types of memory and memory itself. He observed it in everyday situations and analyzed how we modify it ourselves.

2. Bruner

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.

3. Turing

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.

4. Miller

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).

5. Festinger

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.

6. Broadbent

This cognitive psychologist maintained that our attention processes data serially. 

7. Neisser

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.

10. Chomsky

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 research

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.

Cognitive Therapy

Making our thoughts more positive or reducing our cognitive distortions or cognitive biases is the main contribution of this perspective. 

Developmental psychology

Through the study of topics such as the theory of mind, we come to better understand interpersonal relationships and our progress as we grow.

Social psychology

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.

Artificial intelligence

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.

Daily life

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.

Experimental methods: how to create a successful study

Various rules govern every science and it uses different experimental methods. It does so in order to achieve the results. These results have to be able to be ready for publishing in scientific articles. In order to come up with a successful, publishable material a researcher needs to follow specific guidelines. He needs to arrange the experiments in an understandable, easily replicable way. Every future experiment needs to be able to replicate an already published scientific one. Without this ability to replicate, we couldn’t know whether the experiments are valid and transferable to a bigger population. Scientists need to have a clear view of all the guidelines in their mind before beginning a project.

Experimental Methods

Researchers need to have as much control as possible over all of the variables. They need to try and avoid confounding. Striving for objectivity and clearness in every step of the way is the goal of science. There is no worse thing for a scientist to miss a significant contributing factor to their study. This is due to the fact that this factor could have been able to change the results greatly.

If that happens, in a lot of cases, the research will have to start again. If you are lucky, maybe re-doing one or two experiments will be enough. In many cases, the scientist needs to run the entire set of experiments again. He does that in order to reach statistical significance with the results. Re-gathering all of the data again can sometimes turn research into a walking living nightmare!

Can you imagine running 200 infant participants between the ages of 5-7 months? And then you find out that the entire design of your study is faulty and you need to start over? You will have to rethink the entire design again but also recruit the 200 infants of the required age again! That is the reason why research takes time, patience, serious dedication and on occasion job stress.

In order to prevent these types of mashups, scientists have created guidelines and sets of rules. They aim to help speed the process along and make sure that it is running smoothly.

Experiments – the key to success in experimental methods

As mentioned before, an important part of every scientific study is the experiment itself. An experiment has certain prerequisites. A scientist needs to formulate a clear and concise hypothesis and the objectives of the study.

The hypothesis predicts what your study is attempting to find – the result of the study itself. It’s a statement. There are two different types of hypotheses in research.

  1. The null hypothesis states that the two variables that you are studying do not have a relationship. That means that one of them does not affect the other in any way, shape or form.
  2. Alternative hypothesis states the variables you are studying have a relationship and do affect one another. They do so in a significant fashion.

Experimental methods for every experiment include a set of variables that will help to formulate that hypothesis. The two sets of variables include an independent and a dependent variable. Independent variable is the one that the scientist manipulates.  The dependent variable is the one that the scientist is trying to find out. The researcher needs to also control for confounding or extraneous variables. These variables can compromise the results of their study.

Experimental methods: Hypothesis example

Let’s try to create a hypothesis ourselves. We can have a theory that video game players have better reflexes compared to non-video game players. That is an alternative hypothesis that tries to predict whether video games have an effect on reflexes in human participants. The independent variable, in this case, would be the video games themselves. The dependent variable is the speed of the reflexes.

Now, we need to take into an account the confounding and extraneous variables. For example, there are many video games in this world. Is there a difference, let’s say, between strategy and action games? We further define our hypothesis saying that action video game players will have better reflexes compared to non-video game players.

Extraneous variables

Other extraneous variables come to mind. If we do find an effect, is there a subsequent gender difference or an age difference? That could potentially lead to a new series of experiments. In the first experiment, we test whether video game players have better reflexes than non-players. In the second experiment, we compare male and female video game players. We try to eliminate the possibility for gender to be a confounding variable. In the third experiment, we could compare adults to teenagers.

We can see how a simple question can turn into a lengthy study with many different participants and variables. This is by no means a well-thought out hypothesis. If we were to spend some more time on it, we’d probably find more variables that we need to control for. We’d find ourselves in front of at least four or five different experiments with the use of many experimental methods.

The experiments themselves can be classified into different categories.

Experimental methods categories

Experimental Methods

Experimental methods: Experiments

Experimental methods: Field experiments

These types of experiments happen in participant’s real life situation. The scientist here will manage the independent variable but in a setting outside of the laboratory environment.

There are certain advantages to field experiments. Due to the setting being realistic the participants will behave in a more normal and ordinary way than they would in a laboratory. This brings higher ecological validity to the experiment compared to a lab experiment.

  • Ecological validity: how can the outcome of your study apply to real life?

Due to the fact that the participants usually do not know that they are being studied, they will not change their behavior subconsciously or consciously. Participants tend to do that when they think they know the purpose of the study that the researcher is conducting. That can seriously compromise the results of any experiment due to them not being genuine and create outliers in the further statistical analysis.

Experimental methods: Drawbacks of field experiments

We can see some challenges this set of experiments can produce due to the inability of the experimenter to control the confounding and extraneous variables that will for sure appear on the horizon during the study. Due to the inability to control for extraneous variables, there is a lesser likelihood to replicate the study which could be quite damaging for the project overall.

Experimental methods: Quasi/Natural experiments

The main difference between ‘Natural experiments’ and ‘Field experiments’ is that in the first one the scientist has no control over any variables that occur during the experiment. Because the experiment occurs in even more real-life settings than the field experiment, the participants are a lot more likely to act genuinely and naturally. This is one of the main strengths of these type of experiments. The ecological validity of them is quite high when compared to laboratory experiments and, even, field experiments. Because the participants do not know about the study or they might not suspect they are being studied, they will not try to subconsciously or consciously sabotage the results of the study which is a huge advantage in itself.

Experimental methods: Drawbacks of quasi/natural experiments

The scientist can go virtually anywhere and observe any situation. A big and obvious limitation of these types of experiments is the serious lack of control over any variables so it is either very difficult or sometimes virtually impossible for a future researcher to conduct a study in a similar way.

Experimental methods: Laboratory experiments

Laboratory experiments are the most controlled ones out of the three and they can use a variety of experimental methods for data collection due to the fact that they are the most objective ones. They allow the scientist to measure things and control for everything that he can possibly control for due to the fact that the researcher himself decides the place of the experiment, the time, the participants and the circumstances.

Participants: Random assignment

Usually, for the best outcome, the researchers try to get a random assignment of the participants to avoid a bias of only picking females over the age of 35 of higher-middle class. That would be quite a significant confounding variable that would surely compromise the results of any study. Sometimes, however, a certain population needs to be used, for example, if the scientists are testing a new drug for schizophrenia. Clearly, the participants of that study would have to have been diagnosed with schizophrenia beforehand.

Drawbacks of laboratory experiments

Laboratory experiments are easily replicable due to the fact that everything that happens in the experiment needs to follow a concise step-by-step procedure that the researcher will then share in his methods section. Avoidance of the extraneous variables becomes easier due to this controlled environment. A big limitation of laboratory controlled experiments in the field of psychology is the control itself.Due to the fact that many studies in psychology deal with human participants, the artificial environment may encourage the participants to act in a way that is not genuine or normal for them. On top of that, the participants usually know that they are a part of the experiment and, therefore, might subconsciously or consciously sabotage the results.

Experimental methods: Data collection

There are various different experimental methods of collecting data and two different types of data can be distinguished.

Experimental methods: Two types of data

Qualitative data is mainly a part of an exploratory research. It is less objective than quantitative data. Some common types of qualitative analysis include interviews, focus groups, participation/observation and case studies. In case studies, in particular, researchers are able to look into one specific problem or one particular participant that is of their interest.

Quantitative data usually generates data that is numerical and is able to be statistically analyzed. Quantitative data is the type of data that is mainly used in laboratory research because it allows structure and standardization. Scientists use quantitative research to study behaviors, opinions and other variables that are clearly defined. Usually, researchers will use a small sample and then attempt to generalize the results to a larger population.

Quantitative data can come in the form of surveys, interviews and questionnaires and longitudinal studies. During the experiments, other various scientific and experimental methods are used in the form of eye-tracking and neuroimaging methods.

Experimental methods: Patience, hard work, and dedication

This is by far not all that there is to know about the experimental methods in the field of psychology. People become statisticians for the sole purpose of analyzing data and clinical lab technicians that help with the experiments themselves. Despite that, it gives an insight of what it is like to be a researcher in the modern society and how many different variables need to be taken account of. Just to think that completely different ethical guidelines are used for animal and human research and different countries have distinct guidelines for both! It is important not to despair because only through research we are able to find out about ourselves. Only through research, we can look for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of various diseases. It’s important to follow the guidelines and the rules for the society’s benefit.

Experimental Psychology: Learn everything about its history

The field of experimental psychology branches out into many various sub-fields and directions with people believing in various things. Even now scientists do not have a clear picture of the connection between the mind and the body. There have been many different attempts to unravel and end the dilemma. Understanding even the majority of the connection and the brain by itself will be a major development in today’s science. The attempt has brought on many big collaborative initiatives with big names like the Human Brain Project coming to mind. Psychology in itself has had a long history and has shaped itself in various ways and directions. To understand it, one needs to look at the first mentions of what we now call psychology from centuries ago.

Experimental Psychology

History of Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology today is completely different from what the discipline looked like years and centuries ago.  Back then we didn’t have the technology and the infrastructure available to us today. The question of mind and body was on the lips of many prominent philosophers. Names like Plato and Aristotle come to mind when the first mentions of the mind-body problem arise. The arguments and debates over free will and determinism and nature vs. nurture take roots centuries ago. These debates are still prevalent nowadays. They turn into years long research projects in the fields of experimental psychology and neuroscience.

Philosophical beginnings: nature vs. nurture & free will vs. determinism

Famous philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and René Descartes made the first references to experimental psychology. Plato and Aristotle both contemplated the famous nature vs. nurture question. They disagreed on the fundamental point of the origin of what makes us human comes from. Plato argued from the genetic point of view, saying that certain things are a part of our biological configuration. He believed that everything is set in stone from the very beginning. Aristotle, on the other hand, put the emphasis on the nurture side of the debate. He preached that humans are sponges that soak up the information with every new experience and learning opportunity.

Descartes looked at a different question that boggles the minds of scientists and researchers nowadays. He believed that actions and behaviors of people are predetermined and free will in itself does not exist. According to Descartes, pineal gland controls every behavior in the brain. His view formed a very popular belief called the mind-body dualism. The pineal gland being the master gland for all actions was proven wrong at a later point. The free will vs. determinism debate, however, still remains open in the 21st century.

Research into decision making has become one of the hottest topics in neuroscience nowadays. We now have different research studies that show neuronal spiking activity before a decision is made (1). This sparked a lot of controversy in favor of determinism. Many started proclaiming that if there is neuronal activity before a behavior, that means, that all actions are predetermined beforehand. All the philosophical questions are still very present today and experimental psychology tries to answer the questions with various methods. It does so by looking at the problem in hand from various perspectives.

First steps to science

The beginning of psychology as a discipline emerged in Leipzig, Germany. In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt built his first experimental laboratory on the grounds of the University of Leipzig. Wundt governed the term introspection. Wundt believed that by asking subjects to talk in detail about the experience during an assigned task, he will be able to develop a guideline for the consciousness elements. That became the ultimate goal for introspection. Wundt believed that since conscious experiences could be described by people, there was a possibility to explore and observe these experiences and create a map of them.

Nowadays, looking back, the approach that Wundt had was a bit naïve. Despite that, it became the first milestone in creating what is now known as cognitive psychology. Wundt and his colleagues have discovered that there is a difference in realizing that something is happening or sensing it and understanding what that something is or, perceiving it. He noted a time difference between this notion of sensation and perception. Perception seemed to occur later than sensation.

Wundt’s impact on science today

Experimental Psychology – Laboratory

Nowadays, in cognitive psychology, measuring reaction times happening during various mental tasks is a regular occurrence. Scientists try to show exactly which events happen in the brain first and which ones occur later. Researchers are attempting to acquire the answer to the origin of consciousness. They want to unravel where and when the very first series of neuronal spikes occur in the brain with the introduction of a new stimulus. Researchers trace it back to that same question of free will and determinism. They are still trying to figure out what happens first, the behavior or the action itself or a certain event that happens in the brain.

Of course, nowadays, scientists have a lot more advanced tools to measure these time lapses and series of events. Despite that fact, we seem to not be a lot closer to the truth. We are still trying to figure out the truth behind the conscious experiences and the external behaviors and actions.

Functionalism: evolutionary psychology

Another branch of experimental psychology went into quite the opposite direction from what Wundt and his colleagues were doing. It solidified the ground for what later would become behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychology would dominate the field of the entire discipline for quite some time.

The functionalists, as they called themselves, tried to understand why humans and nonhuman animals behaved in the way they do. Functionalism thesis moved onto to what is also known as evolutionary psychology. It quite heavily operates upon the principles of Darwin’s natural selection. The notion that the best genetic components survived and the not useful ones have disappeared over the years. All actions intend to pass our genes on to our descendants with the goal of keeping our species alive.

Evolutionary psychology is still quite a prominent part of the discipline right now. Despite that it poses a slight problem in the face of experimental psychology. Experimental psychology values reliable and valid experiments. Evolutionary psychology experiments are quite difficult to arrange. Because of this, it is not as popular as some other branches of psychology.

Psychoanalysis: what do you dream of?

After Wundt’s laboratory and the waves of functionalism have died off, a new branch of psychology developed. It is the branch that the majority of the population associated with psychology nowadays. Despite the fact that not many practitioners use it nowadays, it is still quite popular.

Sigmund Freud created the psychodynamic approach was created and it focuses a lot on the unconscious. Id (the unconscious), desires, feelings, memories, and dreams are prime targets for psychodynamic therapists. Compared to other branches of psychology this one does not have very reliable results when it comes to proving its theories. Despite that fact, it came as a result of Freud’s observations of his many patients and their behaviors. Ordinary public associates it with clinical psychology and the methods of treatments for various psychological disorders up to this day.

Freud focused a lot on experiences that a patient cannot remember that could result in various disorders and dysfunctions in the adult life. Freud governed concepts like Oedipal complex, ego, superego, and interpretations of dreams. As mentioned above, not a lot of research went into the psychodynamic theory. Sometimes experimental psychology doesn’t consider the psychodynamic approach a part of it. Despite that, the contributions that the psychodynamic approach provided to the discipline still resonate to this day.


Behaviorism is one of the prime examples of experimental psychology. Behaviorists believe that the true way to study the mind is by the actions and behaviors themselves and they attempt to do so in an objective and a clear way.

Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner are the big names for behaviorism. Their experiments in classical and operational conditioning are popular in classes to this day. The experiments that they did became the premise for behaviorism. This approach understands everything as results of things happening in the environment – stimuli – and the actions that these stimuli produce – responses.

John. B. Watson was one of the famous American behaviorists with his experiments involving fear stimuli. His experiments were highly unethical and would be quite illegal today, but, despite that, they were the ones that brought quite a lot of light into the concepts of learning and developed phobias. Nowadays, the treatment for various phobias comes exclusively from the behaviorist point of view. Clinicians use exposure therapy to treat phobias and are quite successful in curing the majority of them.

Revolution of cognition

After behaviorism, the cognitive approach became popular as well. It did so due to the fact that scientists at that time became more and more interested in the brain and how the brain influences the behaviors that we do. The development of computers was a big step forward. Researchers saw the potential of how the brain is similar to a computer and how they can utilize information technologies in order to measure the brain and see the anatomy and functions and be able to model different events that happen in the nervous system. Cognitive psychology studies mental processes, memory, learning, attention, judgment, language and uses a variety of different methods including eye tracking and both, non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods.

Collaboration of all

Overall, the entire field of experimental psychology encompasses many different sub-disciplines and fields. It developed quite a bit from the first laboratory that Wundt created to hundreds upon hundreds experimental laboratories around the world today. Modern state-of-the art machinery and popular technology methods equip these laboratories in an attempt to help objectively study the mind and the body and the relationship between the two.


Marcos E, Genovesio A. Determining Monkey Free Choice Long before the Choice Is Made: The Principal Role of Prefrontal Neurons Involved in Both Decision and Motor Processes. Front Neural Circuits [Internet]. 2016;10:75. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Article/10.3389/fncir.2016.00075/abstract