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Guide to Cognitive Psychology

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 4/28/2010

Cognitive psychology is one of the biggest psychological fields today, but just what is it? In this article we define cognitive psychology and cover its basic principles and applications.

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    Introduction to the Field

    Cognitive Psychology is one of the more recent psychological fields, and one of the most commonly researched and applied today. The field of cognitive psychology was born in the 1960s and 70s, when modern computers were being developed. Scientists began to draw parallels between human minds and computer ‘brains,’ and to study human thinking under the assumption it was also a logical process of computation. Of course we now accept that human thinking is messy and complicated, but the contributions of these early cognitive scientists have had a big impact on today’s researchers. Particularly important is the concept of information processing: the way information is stored and manipulated in the brain. In the 1990s cognitive neuroscience was first developed, which mixes cognitive psychology and neuroscience by comparing people’s thoughts to their brain activity to see how the two interrelate.

    Unlike other theorists who focus on behaviors or unconscious motivations or perception, cognitive psychologists focus on people’s conscious thoughts. They study the ways people make decisions, create plans, and solve problems, as well as trying to understand where thinking can go wrong and contribute to psychological problems and disorders. Whenever you see a word or phrase with “cognitive” in it, you can assume that concept is concerned with the act of thinking. Cognitive psychology is a huge field with a lot of sub-areas and applications—in this article we’ll cover the basics you should know for an introductory psychology class.

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    How is Information Stored in the Mind?

    All the information stored in our heads is interconnected. What you know about dogs is probably strongly connected (via neurons) to what you know about cats, but only weakly connected to what you know about computers. We store a massive amount of facts, experience, and other information, so to make our job easier our minds use categories. A category is a group of items or concepts that are similar, like birds or furniture or fruits. Categories can be broad, like tools, or more narrow, like screwdrivers. The most representative member of a category is called the prototype. For example, a robin or hawk might be a good prototype for the category “birds,” but a penguin probably wouldn’t.

    Schemas: A schema is like a mental map for a certain concept or circumstance. Your mental schema for “room” probably suggests that such a thing must have a floor, ceiling, walls, and probably a door, and will most likely have windows and furniture as well. The typical schema for visiting a restaurant suggests you should be greeted, led to a table, given a menu, etc. Schemas are categories that help us respond to the world. We don’t have to treat each visit to a restaurant like it’s a totally new experience: we can assume that the event will proceed in predictable ways.

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    Guide to the Principles of Cognitive PsychologyIntroduction to psychology students are required to know about the field of cognitive psychology, an important and influential area that focuses on thoughts, problem solving, and decision making. But just what is cognitive psychology? In this article we explain the basic principles of cognitive psychology, as well as discussing schemas and cognitive therapies. On this page we introduce Piaget's developmental theory, explaining all four stages, and talk about problem solving using algorithms and heuristics.
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    Problem Solving

    There are two main strategies we use when attempting to problem solve.

    Algorithms: An algorithm is a perfect process that, if you follow its steps correctly, you will always reach the right answer. If you lose your keys, you could methodically check every location in your room or house one by one—this strategy guarantees that you will (eventually) find them. Of course this would take a long time, so algorithms are often inconvenient. Also, many of our real-world problems don’t have perfect solutions.

    Heuristics: This is what we use most of the time. Think of heuristics as mental shortcuts, where we make our best guess as to the solution. When you lose your keys you might think, “Well, I usually leave them on my desk or in my coat pocket,” and you would use the shortcut of looking in those places first. Heuristics are quicker and more practical, but you run the risk of missing a better solution to your problem.

    Functional fixedness is one obstacle to problem solving. It means just what it sounds like: you are mentally fixed on what the function of an object is, so you don’t think of using it in creative ways. If you think of a shoe as an object meant only for wearing, you might not think to use it as a doorstop.

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    Cognitive Development

    Most fields of psychology have one or more developmental theories, meant to explain how people develop their personalities and abilities. The major theory of development in cognitive psychology was formulated by Jean Piaget, and has been very influential in many areas including education. Piaget suggested that we each progress through four stages as we develop the ability to think maturely, and that we suffer from certain illogical thought patterns in the first three stages. There have been several criticisms of this theory, including that its ages are too generous and that it doesn’t account for individual differences, but its general ideas are sound.

    Sensorimotor Period: From birth to about 2 years, we explore and learn about the world through our senses. The main difficulty Piaget identified with this stage is the lack of object permanence, the understanding that objects are still there even when removed from sight. If you show a baby a toy and then cover the toy with a blanket, the baby will likely lose all interest because it has forgotten the toy even exists.

    Preoperational Period: We are in this stage 2 to 7 years, and now can think about objects that aren’t there. We can form mental representations: thoughts about things we can’t currently see or touch. Preoperational children have a number of limitations in their thought, however. These include egocentrism, an inability to understand that other people have their own unique thoughts; conservation, not understanding that objects that change their shape don’t also change their mass; and animistic thinking, or imagining that inanimate objects have thoughts and feelings like people do.

    Concrete Operations Period: Children from 7 to 11 years old can think more logically and problem solve, but have difficulty thinking hypothetically and abstractly. They reason best when they have physical objects to manipulate and help them think, such as blocks.

    Formal Operations Period: From 12 years up, Piaget said we can think in formal and adult-like ways. Youngsters at this stage can now reason hypothetically and abstractly, answering complex ‘what if’ problems and imagining possible benefits and drawbacks to a future decision.

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    Study Guide for Cognitive PsychologyIntro to psychology students often hear a lot about cognitive psychology, and find themselves asking just what is it? This influential field of psychology focuses on the ways people think and reason about the world, making decisions and problem solving. This article helps to explain and define cognitive psychology, as well as covering the most important principles of cognitive psychology. On this page we talk about assimilation and accommodation, cognitive therapy, and cognitive behavior therapies (CBT) such as systematic desensitization and behavior modification.
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    More Piaget

    Piaget also drew a distinction between assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is placing new things you’ve learned into already existing categories. A child who knows what a cow is and sees a moose for the first time might call it a cow. Accommodation, however, is creating new categories in response to new information. When someone explains to the child what a moose is and how it is different from a cow, the child will have accommodated this new object (the moose).

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    Cognitive Therapy

    Cognitive therapists help people deal with life’s challenges, from handling everyday stresses to coping with disorders like depression or schizophrenia, and develop better cognitive skills. This type of therapy focuses on identifying the types of thoughts people are having and teaching them more logical and effective ways of thinking and decision making. One of the most common types of cognitive therapy is rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Therapists using REBT try to identify and correct problems like being too critical of one’s self, hostility, and blaming others excessively. Often therapists encourage self-monitoring techniques like keeping a daily log of your thoughts.

    Something else cognitive therapists watch out for is cognitive dissonance: when people have thoughts and/or behaviors that are contradictory and are causing distress. For example, if you smoke but believe smoking is harmful you have a belief that contradicts your actions. This would likely cause some dissonance, or mental distress and anxiety. People (and therapists) try to reduce this dissonance by changing one of the actions or beliefs. In the smoking example, you might either try to stop smoking or to convince yourself that smoking isn’t that bad after all.

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    Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT)

    This very common therapy combines cognitive principles and behaviorism, looking at the ways people’s thoughts and actions interact. CBT uses the ABC model of behavior, which says that the Antecedents that trigger the behavior, the Behavior itself, and the behavior’s Consequences are all important.

    CBT techniques include those based on principles of operant and classical conditioning (read this article for more on conditioning). Exposure, or exposing people to the source of their fear and anxiety so they get used to it, is based on classical conditioning. One common type of exposure is systematic desensitization, where people are treated for phobias by learning to relax in the presence of a variety of stimuli, starting with the least feared version of the phobia (like thinking about a snake) and leading up to the most feared version (touching a snake). Behavior modification is based on operant conditioning, and involves rewarding appropriate behaviors and punishing behaviors that need to be eliminated.