What Is Cognitive Psychology?

The Science of How We Think

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Cognitive psychology is a relatively young branch of psychology, yet it has quickly grown to become one of the most popular subfields. Topics such as thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, learning, attention, memory, forgetting, and language acquisition are just a few of the practical applications of this science. But what exactly is cognitive psychology? What do cognitive psychologists do?

A Closer Look at Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that studies mental processes including how people think, perceive, remember, and learn.

As part of the larger field of cognitive science, this branch of psychology is related to other disciplines including neuroscience, philosophy, and linguistics.

The core focus of cognitive psychology is on how people acquire, process and store information. There are numerous practical applications for cognitive research, such as improving memory, increasing decision-making accuracy, and structuring educational curricula to enhance learning.

A Brief History of Cognitive Psychology

Until the 1950s, Behaviorism was the dominant school of thought in psychology. Between 1950 and 1970, the tide began to shift against behavioral psychology to focus on topics such as attention, memory and problem-solving. Often referred to as the cognitive revolution, this period generated considerable research on topics including processing models, cognitive research methods and the first use of the term "cognitive psychology."

The term "cognitive psychology" was first used in 1967 by American psychologist Ulric Neisser in his book Cognitive Psychology. According to Neisser, cognition involves "all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations...Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon."

Important People in the History of Cognitive Psychology

Major Topics in Cognitive Psychology

As you might imagine, studying what’s happening in a person thoughts is not always the easiest thing to do. Very early in psychology’s history, Wilhelm Wundt attempted to use a process known as introspection to study what was happening in a person’s mind. This involved training people focus on their internal states and then write down what they were feeling, thinking, or experiencing. As you might imagine, this approach was extremely subjective, so it did not last long as a cognitive research tool.

To study the human mind, cognitive psychologists have developed different models to represent how the thinking works. One of the most popular of these is the information-processing model.

In this approach, the mind is thought of much like a computer. Thoughts and memories are broken down into smaller units of knowledge. As information enter the mind through the senses, it is then manipulated by the brain that must then determine what to do with the information. Some information triggers an immediate response. Other units of information are transferred into long-term memory for future use.

Units of Knowledge

Cognitive psychologists often break down these units of knowledge into three different types: concepts, prototypes, and schemas.

A concept is essentially a larger category of knowledge. Similar items are grouped together in the mind under this broad category. You have concepts for things that are concrete such as a horse or a dog, as well as concepts for abstract ideas such as love, beauty, and gravity.

A prototype is the most prominent and recognizable example of a particular concept. For example, what comes to mind when you think of a bed. If a large, four-poster bed immediately springs to mind, that is your prototype for the concept of a bed. If a futon, crib, or platform bed pops into your mind, then that would be your prototype for that concept.

A schema is a mental framework that you use to understand and interpret the world around you. Concepts serve as the building blocks that help build schemas, which are mental models for how you expect from the world around you. You have schemas for a wide variety of objects, ideas, people, and situations.

In some cases, however, you will encounter information that does not quite fit into your existing schemas or dramatically challenges the ideas you already hold. When this happens, you can either assimilate or accommodate the information. Assimilating the information involves broadening your current schema or even creating a new one. Accommodation the information by changing your previously held ideas altogether. This process allows you to learn new things and develop new and more complex schemas for the world around you.

How is Cognitive Psychology Different?

  • Unlike behaviorism, which focuses only on observable behaviors, cognitive psychology is concerned with internal mental states.
  • Unlike psychoanalysis, which relies heavily on subjective perceptions, cognitive psychology uses scientific research methods to study mental processes.

Who Should Study Cognitive Psychology?

Because cognitive psychology touches on many other disciplines, this branch of psychology is frequently studied by people in some different fields. The following are just a few of those who may benefit from studying cognitive psychology.

  • Students who are interested in behavioral neuroscience, linguistics, industrial-organizational psychology, artificial intelligence, and other related areas.
  • Teachers, educators, and curriculum designers can benefit from learning more about how people process, learn, and remember information.
  • Engineers, scientists, artists, architects, and designers can all benefit from understanding internal mental states and processes.


Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. Meredith Publishing Company.

Sternberg, R. (2003). Cognitive Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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