Strengths and Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach (with examples)

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach (with examples taken from AS and A2)

  • Created by: Vicky
  • Created on: 13-01-13 13:13

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach (with examples)


  • One strength of the cognitive approach is that it has many practical applications. For example, Baron-Cohen et al's study demonstrated how theory of mind was a deficit of autism and provided a new test for Theory of mind. The test could then be used again to help determine if somebody has autism, whilst the knowledge that people with autism or Asperger's syndrome lack theory of mind can help us better understand what autism consists of and how to accommodate this into school or work situations. Studies such as Loftus and Palmer's experiment into leading questions have also greatly impacted forensic psychology and eyewitness testimony. Therefore, this is a very useful approach with many contributions to psychology and society as a whole.
  • The cognitive approach heavily relies on experiments as its main research method. For example, Loftus and Palmer used a lab experiment to investigate the effect of leading questions on memory, Baron-Cohen et al used a quasi-experiment to investigate theory of mind, and Fisher et al used a field experiment to investigate the effects of cognitive interviewing techniques training on detectives' performance in eyewitness interviews. Experiments allow for cause and effect to be determined (which strengthens the advantage of being having practical applications), but more importantly allow for high control over confounding variables. This means that studies taking the cognitive approach are somewhat scientific and have good internal validity as extraneous variables are controlled.


  • The main disadvantage of the cognitive approach is that it refers to cognitive processes that we cannot directly observe. It relies heavily on inference. Critics of Loftus and Palmer's leading questions experiments pointed to the validity of the re constructive memory hypothesis, as we cannot be sure that memory has changed as the researchers couldn't observe memories, but only the answers given - which may have been the result of demand characteristics, or even poor judgement of speed. Therefore, the cognitive approach may lack being scientific on the basis that it is subjective in what is taken from findings. Assuming that findings are the result of invisible processes is heavily subjective and could lead to self-fulfilling prophecy and internal validity being raised as issues.
  • Another weakness of the cognitive approach is that it ignores other factors towards behaviour that have been shown to affect behaviour. For example, Palmer and Hollin's study into moral reasoning and decision making behaviours in criminals assumed that the difference between why the control group weren't criminals and the experimental group were was because of cognitive decision making differences. However, different studies such as Brunner et al and Juby and Farrington have demonstrated that biology and upbringing, respectively, can help to explain why people turn to crime. therefore, this approach is somewhat reductionist as it explains behaviour as simply the result of 5 cognitive processes (thought, attention, memory, perception and language) and disregards other factors. [However, reductionism is also a potential strength as it enables us to understand behaviour in simple terms and be able to apply theories to more areas, as it is more nomothetic than an holistic approach)


The cognitive approach has a key advantage of practical and useful applications, but a key disadvantage of not being able to observe the supposed causes of behaviour. The scientific nature of the approach is one worthy of discussing as it can be both a strength and weakness, as is its reductionist nature. 




Strengths of the Cognitive Approach

  1. Scientific Rigor: The cognitive approach is highly scientific and emphasizes empirical research. It employs controlled experiments and precise measurements to study mental processes objectively.

    Example: Cognitive psychologists use brain imaging techniques like fMRI to observe brain activity while subjects engage in tasks, providing concrete evidence of cognitive functions.

  2. Understanding Complex Processes: This approach delves into intricate mental processes like memory, problem-solving, and decision-making, providing insights into how humans process information and make sense of the world.

    Example: Cognitive studies have revealed cognitive biases that influence decision-making, such as the confirmation bias leading individuals to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs.

  3. Practical Applications: Cognitive research has practical implications, guiding therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat various mental disorders by addressing distorted thought patterns.

    Example: CBT helps individuals with anxiety identify irrational thought patterns and replace them with more rational ones, resulting in improved mental well-being.

Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach

  1. Simplification of Complex Processes: Critics argue that the cognitive approach oversimplifies the complexity of mental processes by breaking them down into discrete components, potentially missing the holistic nature of cognition.

    Example: Emotional experiences involve a combination of cognitive, physiological, and emotional elements that may not be fully captured by a purely cognitive analysis.

  2. Lack of Emotion Emphasis: The cognitive approach tends to focus on rational thought processes, often overlooking the role of emotions in shaping behavior and decision-making.

    Example: Emotions can heavily influence decision-making, as seen in instances where individuals make choices based on strong emotional reactions rather than logical analysis.

  3. Limited Insight into Unconscious Processes: The cognitive approach is criticized for not adequately addressing unconscious mental processes, as it primarily focuses on conscious thought.

    Example: Freud's psychoanalytic theory highlights the importance of the unconscious mind in shaping behavior and psychological disorders, an aspect less explored in the cognitive approach.

  4. Underestimation of Individual Differences: Cognitive theories often generalize cognitive processes, assuming that everyone thinks and processes information in similar ways, which might not consider individual variations.

    Example: Cognitive development theories might not fully account for cultural influences on thinking and problem-solving strategies across diverse populations.

In conclusion, the cognitive approach's strengths lie in its scientific rigor, insights into complex processes, and practical applications in therapy. However, its weaknesses include potential oversimplification, limited focus on emotions and unconscious processes, and underestimation of individual differences. A balanced perspective acknowledges both the contributions and limitations of the cognitive approach in understanding human cognition and behavior.

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