Cognitive psychology: definition, theories and main authors

Whenever we talk about what psychology is and what “psychologists say”, we oversimplify. Unlike biology, in psychology not only is there no unified theory on which the whole discipline is based, but the different psychological currents that exist are based on positions that are largely irreconcilable and often do not even share an object of study.

However, this does not mean that today there is no mainstream that has prevailed over the others. This current of psychology is, nowadays, the cognitivism, On which cognitive psychology is based.

What is cognitive psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the aspect of psychology that is engaged in the study of mental processes such as perceiving, planning or extracting inferences. That is, processes that have historically been considered private and beyond the reach of measuring instruments that have been used in scientific studies.

Cognitivism and cognitive psychology were put on the table by a community of researchers who did not want to give up the scientific study of mental processes, and approx. since the 1960s they have shaped the mainstream of hegemonic psychology around the world.

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

Cognitive psychology and computational metaphor

If in the first half of the twentieth century the dominant schools in the world of psychology were psychodynamics initiated by Sigmund Freud and the behaviorist, from the 1950s the world of scientific research began to experience an era of accelerated changes brought about by the breakout 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 input and output ports, parts dedicated to data storage (memory) and certain computer programs responsible for correctly processing information. This computational metaphor would be used to create theoretical models that would make it possible to formulate hypotheses and try to predict human behavior to some extent. Thus was born the computer model of mental processes, widely used today in psychology.

The cognitive revolution

As technological advances in the field of computing followed one another, behavioralism was increasingly criticized. These criticisms focused on the reasons why it was understood that their limitations did not allow proper study of mental processes, By limiting oneself to drawing conclusions about what is directly observable and what has a clear impact on the environment: behavior.

This way, during the 1950s, a movement was born in favor of a reorientation of psychology towards mental processes. This initiative involved, among others, followers of the old Gestalt psychology, memory and learning researchers interested in cognitive, and some people who had moved away from behavioralism and, in particular, Jerome Bruner and George Miller, who led the cognitive revolution.

Cognitive psychology is believed to have arisen as a result of this stage of advocacy for the study of mental processes, when Jerome Bruner and George Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard in 1960. Shortly after, in 1967, psychologist Ulric Neisser provides a definition of what cognitive psychology is in his book Cognitive psychology. In this work, he explains the concept of cognition in terms of computation, as a process in which information is processed so that it can be used later.

The reorientation of psychology

The emergence of cognitive psychology and the cognitivist paradigm has led to a radical change in the object of study of psychology. If for BF Skinner’s radical behaviorism what psychology needed to study was the association between stimuli and responses that could be learned or altered by experience, cognitive psychologists began to speculate about internal states that allowed to explain memory, attention, perception and countless subjects which had hitherto only been timidly tackled by Gestalt psychologists and certain researchers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The methodology of cognitive psychology, which inherited many things from behaviorism, was to make assumptions about how mental processes work, make inferences from those assumptions, and test what is taken for granted through scientific studies. , to see if the results match the assumptions on which they are based. The idea is that the accumulation of studies on mental processes would describe how the mind could work and how it does not. human being, engine of scientific progress in the field of cognitive psychology.

Criticisms of this conception of the mind

Cognitive psychology has been heavily criticized by psychologists and researchers associated with the behavioral stream. The reason is that in his opinion, there is no reason to regard mental processes as anything other than behavior, as if they were fixed elements that remain inside people and that they are relatively separate from what is going on around us.

Thus, cognitive psychology is seen as a mentalist perspective which, either through dualism or through metaphysical materialism, confuses concepts 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 as a willingness to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.

As a result, the current heirs of behaviorism see the cognitive revolution, rather than providing strong arguments against behaviorism, he just claimed to have refuted it, Put one’s own interests ahead of scientific reasoning and treat attributions made to what may be happening in the brain as if it were the psychological phenomenon to be studied, rather than one’s own behavior.

Cognitive psychology today

Cognitive psychology is still a very important part of psychology today, both in research and in intervention and therapy.. Their progress has been aided by discoveries in neuroscience and improved technologies that allow the brain to be scanned for images of its activation patterns, such as fMRI, which provides additional data on what is happening. goes through the man’s head. beings and makes it possible to “triangulate” the information obtained in the studies.

However, it should be noted that neither the cognitivist paradigm nor, by extension, cognitive psychology is exempt from criticism. Research in cognitive psychology relies on several assumptions that do not have to be true, such as the idea that mental processes are somewhat different from behavior and that the former is responsible for the latter. For some reason, even today there is behavioralism (or a direct descendant of it, rather, and not only has not been fully assimilated by the cognitive school, but also harsh criticism.

Bibliographical references:

  • Beck, AT (1987). Cognitive therapy for depression. New York, New York: Guilford Press.
  • Eysenck, MW (1990). Cognitive psychology: an international journal. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Malone, JC (2009). Psychology: Pythagoras in the present tense. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Quinlan, PT, Dyson, B. (2008) Cognitive Psychology. Editor-Pearson / Prentice Hall.

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