Cognitive approach

Cognitive approach

Believes that behaviour is best explained in terms of how a person thinks about their actions (internal mental process). For example, the expectation that a concert will be brilliant will increase lielikhood it will be. 

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Cognitive assumptions

What are the 3 assumptions?

  1. Computer analogy.

  2. Internal mental processes.

  3. Schemas.

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Cognitive assumption: computer analogy

  • Cognitive psychologists have often compared the human mind with computer.

  • Compare how we take info (input), change it/store it (process), and then recall it when necessary (output).

  • During process stage: actively use cognitive process of perception, attention and memory.

  • Mind is compared with hardware of computer and cognitive processes with computer software.

e.g. Multistore model of memory (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968). In this model it was proposed that info is input to brain through senses (eyes,ears etc) and moves to short-term memory (STM) store and then to the long-term memory (LTM) store. It is output when required.

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Cognitive assumption: internal mental processes

  • Sees human beings as info processors, cognitive processes work together to enable us to respond to world around us. Our mental processes work together within a split second to allow us to respond to world around us-information processing.

  • Processes include perception, attention, memory and language. Processes all relate to each other and constantly work together helping individuals understand their environment.

  • e.g. recognising a dog- Pay attention, perceive features (e.g. four legs, tail, fur) and search through our memory store to see if there is a ‘match’ with something we’ve already seen/experienced. To name it we use our knowledge of language.

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Cognitive assumption: internal mental processes

  • Investigating internal mental processes: Cognitive psychologists have to infer what is going on inside your head and use processes like introspection, a technique developed by Wilhelm Wundt.

  • Wundt opened first experimental psychology lab in Germany 1979.

  • Tried investigating in systematic and scientific way.

  • Highly trained research assistants would be given a stimulus (e.g. ticking metronome) and would report what stimulus made them think and feel.

Some question validity of introspection as an objective scientific tool, still used today-Griffiths 1994 on gambling behaviour- gamblers vs non-regular gamblers proposing thought process of gamblers more irrational. To asses irrational thinking, participants had to think aloud whilst playing a fruit machine and given instructions e.g. do not try to justify your thoughts. Study found gamblers used more irrational verbalisations e.g. ‘I lost because I wasn't concentrating’/’this machine likes me’).

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Cognitive assumptions: schemas

  • Schemas are organised packets of info that are built up through experience, and stored in our long-term memory.

  • e.g. our ‘dog schema’ (packet of info we’ve stored about dogs) might contain ‘four legs’,’furry’,’bark’,’tail’ etc.

  • Derived from past experiences. can be refined through further interactions with people and world around us.

  • Schemas don’t necessarily represent reality as they’re often built up via social exchanges (e.g. convo with others, media) rather than personal interactions.

  • e.g. ‘Burglar’ schema. Most people haven’t witnessed burglary but their burglar schema would probs imagine a young male with a balaclava over face.

  • Schemas take different forms e.g. have event schemas-scripts (e.g. going to restaurant) and role schemas tell us about different roles (e.g. nurse).

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Cognitive appraoch relationship formation


  • May govern how we feel and acts towards them.

  • e.g. Dion et al. (1972) demonstrated people believe that physically attractive people also have attractive personal qualities.

  • Schema called halo effect.

  • Therefore, we perceive a person to be physically attractive and may think of them having good qualities (e.g. kind,caring) and may become interested in forming relationship.

  • Self-schemas refer to how we feel about ourselves and these are important in relationship formation.

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Cognitive appraoch relationship formation

Internal mental processes

  • IMP is essential in relationship formation, particularly perception- self perception/perception of others.

  • Way we believe others will be will determine whether we desire to enter into a relationship with them e.g. if you’re talking to a stranger at a party, your perceptions, based on first impressions of them, will influence whether you want to be in their company again, possibly for a date.

  • Memory important in relationship formation. If we have positive memories in past relationships (romantic) may be driven to forming new but if memories negative and we remember being hurt, we may be reluctant to form new relationships even with people who we like.


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Cognitive appraoch relationship formation

Example: Explaining formation of romantic developments

  • Schemas explain why romantic relationships formed with some and not others.

  • Self-schemas, how we feel about ourselves and govern our self-concept (how we perceive ourselves).

  • Self schemas important in matching hypothesis-explanation for relationship formation.

  • According to matching hypothesis, how we perceive ourselves in terms of physical attractiveness will influence who we want to engage in relationships with.

  • Attracted to those who we feel matches us of physical attractiveness.

  • If self concept strong, perceive ourselves to be highly attractive and will look for highly attractive others. If our perception of attractiveness is low, we won't go for those we perceive to be attractive for fear of rejection.

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Cognitive therpay: REBT

Rational emotive behaviour therapy

 How cognitive assumptions apply to REBT

  • Overall assumption of cognitive approach is key influence on behaviour is how individual thinks about situation.

  • Albert Ellis focused on how faulty thinking affects behaviour, in particular irrational beliefs lead to mental disorders like depression, thus to treat mental disorders is turning irrational beliefs into rational ones.

  • He named therapy ‘rational therapy’ emphasising psychological problems occurring as a result of irrational thinking. Then named it RET (rational emotive therapy) because he realised that focus was on resolving emotional problems. Renamed again to REBT (rational emotive behavioural therapy) because therapy also resolves behavioural problems.

  • Relates to assumption that we use our internal mental processes (thoughts) to direct how we respond to world around us (behaviour).

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Cognitive therpay: REBT

  • Second assumption is that behaviour can be explained in terms of schemas.

  • e.g. depressed client may develop negative schemas relating to the self(i’m worthless)/world around them (nobody likes me).

  • During REBT, therapist helps client alter negative schemas by challenging their perceptions of themselves and world around them.

  • Challenge included asking for evidence for their way of thinking so therapist encourages client to see they haven't built up realistic schema of themselves/world around them.

  • e.g. their work schema may be that they’ll never get promotion as boss doesn’t like them, during therapy could be established there’s never been real evidence their boss doesn’t like them.

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components/principles of REBT

The ABC model

  • Ellise 1957 proposed way to deal with irrational thoughts was to identify them using ABC model:(A) activating event-situation that results feeling anxiety/frustration (events real and have caused distress/pain). Events lead to irrational beliefs (B) and these beliefs lead to self-defeating consequences (C ).

  • e.g. A) friends ignores you on street.

                  B) doesn’t like you=no one does and you’re worthless.

                  C) avoid social situations in future.


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components/principles of REBT

ABCDE- disputing and effects

  • ABC model extended to include D and E- disputing beliefs and effects of disputing. Key issue: it is not the activating events that cause unproductive consequences, it’s the beliefs that lead to self-defeating consequences. REBT therefore focuses on challenging/disputing beliefs and replacing them with effective, rational beliefs. e.g:

  • Local disputing: self-defeating beliefs don’t follow logically from info available. (e.g. does thinking this way make sense?)

  • Empirical disputing: Self-defeating beliefs may not be consistent with reality. (e.g. where is the proof that this belief is accurate?)

  • Pragmatic disputing- This emphasises lack of usefulness of self-defeating beliefs (e.g. how is this belief likely to help me?)

  • The effect of disputing is to change self-defeating beliefs into more rational beliefs. Individual can move catastrophizing to rational interpretations of events Helps clients to feel better and become more self-accepting.

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components/principles of REBT

Masturbatory thinking

  • Source of ration beliefs lies in musturbatory thinking- thinking certain ideas/assumptions must be true in order for individuals to be happy.

  • Ellise identified three most important irrational beliefs:

-I must be approved of/accepted by people I find important.

-I must do well or I’m worthless.

-World must give me happiness or I’ll die.

  • Other irrational assumptions:

-Others must treat me fairly and give me what I need or they are rotten.

-People must live up to my expectations or it’s terrible. Individual who holds assumptions bound to be disappointment/depressed.

  • Individual fails exam becomes depressed, not because failed but because they hold irrational belief regarding failure (e.g. If I fail people will think I’m stupid). Such ‘musts’ need to be challenged in order for mental healthiness to prevail.

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components/principles of REBT

Unconditional positive regard

  • Ellis (1994) realised for therapy to be a success convince client their value as a human being.

  • If client feels worthless, they will be less willing to consider changing their beliefs and behaviour.

  • However, therapist provides respect and appreciation regardless of what client does and says (unconditional positive regard) this will facilitate change in beliefs/attitudes.

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Evaluating cognitive approach: effectiveness

Research evidence

  • REBT shown to be effective (i.e. studies designed to measure responses to treatment).

  • e.g. in a meta-analysis Engels et al (1993) concluded that REBT is an effective treatment for a number of different types of disorder, including social phobia.

  • Ellis (1957) claimed a 90% success rate, taking an average of 27 sessions.

  • Silverman et al. (1992) conducted a review of 89 studies into the effectiveness of REBT.

  • It was shown to be either more effective/equal to other types of therapy (i.e. systematic desensitisation) for a wide range of disorders including anxiety, depression, stress and alcohol abuse:

  • 49 studies showed REBT to be more effective than other treatments.

  • 40 showed no difference between REBT and other treatments.

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Evaluating cognitive approach: effectiveness


  • Strength: useful for clinical populations (i.e. people suffering from mental disorders/phobias).

  • Strength: non-clinical populations (e.g. people who might suffer from lack of assertiveness or examination anxiety).

Not suitable for all

  • Doesn’t always work.

  • Ellis (2001) believed people who claimed to be following REBT principles, were not putting their revised beliefs into action and therefore therapy was not effective.

  • Ellis also explained lack of success in terms of suitability- some people don’t want direct sort of advice that REBT practitioners tend to dispense.

  • They prefer to share worries with a therapist without getting involved with the cognitive effort that is associated with recovery (Ellis 2011).

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Evaluating cognitive approach: effectiveness

Irrational environments

  • REBT  fails to address important issue that irrational environments which clients exist continue beyond therapeutic situation.

  • e.g. marriages with bullying partners/jobs with overly critical bosses.

  • Result: environment continue to produce/reinforce irrational thoughts and maladaptive behaviours.  

  • Help them cope with situations but limit to effectiveness of just ‘thinking’ differently.


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Evaluating cognitive approach: ethical issues

Client distress

  • forceful therapy, which therapist make quite aggressively challenge clients thinking using direct and confrontational methods.

  • Deemed unethical by some, who feel this causes unnecessary anxiety to client.

  • Issues when client and therapist's beliefs differ.

  • e.g. Very little attention been given to unique ethical problems that arise when REBT therapists treat devotedly religious clients.

  • Disputing what appears to be an irrational belief to therapist may create moral problems for client for whom this irrational belief is based on fundamental religious faith.

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Evaluating cognitive approach: ethical issues

What is rational?

  • Ethical debate: who judges an irrational thought? Some thoughts seem irrational to therapist resulting in client feeling they must change them, may not be irrational.

  • Alloy and Abramson (1979) suggest depressive realists tend to see things for what they are, normal people have tendency to distort things in positive way.

  • Found that depressed people display sadder but wiser effect that they were more accurate in their estimates of likelihood of ‘disaster’ than non depressed individuals.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Methodology


  • Study consists of two experiments conducted in a lab using independent group design.

  • Each experiment was conducted with different set of participants:

  • Experiment 1: 45 student participants.

  • Experiment 2: 150 student participants.


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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Procedure

Experiment 1

  • Participants shown 7 film clips of different traffic accidents.

  • Length of film segments ranged from 5-30 seconds.

  • Clips were originally made as part of a driver safety film.

  • After each clip, participants received questionnaire in which they were asked to given an account of accident they had just seen, and were also asked series of specific questions about accident. Among question was one ‘critical’ question which asked participants about ‘how fast were the cars going when they ___ each other?’.

  • Word used in blank space varied from group to group. In total, 5 groups with 9 participants in each.

Questions were:

About how fast were cars going when hit/smashed/collided/bumped/contacted each other?

Participants estimates of speed in each group were recorded in miles per hour.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Procedure

Experiment 2

Investigated whether leading questions simply bias a person's response/alter memory that’s stored.

Part 1:

  • Participants shown film of multiple car crash.
  • Accident lasted less than 4 seconds.

  • Then asked a set of questions including critical question about speed.

Participants divides into 3 groups, each of 50 participants:

Group 1: asked: ‘How fast were cars going when smashed into each other?

Group 2: asked: ‘How fast were cars going when hit each other?

Group 3: control group and members weren’t exposed to any question.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Procedure

Part 2:

  • One week later participants asked to return to psychology lab and asked further questions about filmed accident.

  • Critical question: ‘Did you see any broken glass?’.

  • No broken glass in film but those who thought car was travelling faster might expect there to be broken glass.
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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Findings

Experiment 1:

Mean speed estimate for each experimental group:

Verb: Mean speed estimate:

smashed 40.8

collided 39.3

bumped 38.1

hit 34.0

contacted 31.8

  • Group given word smashed estimated higher speed that other groups (40.8mph).

  • Group given word ‘contacted’ estimated lowest speed (31.8mph)
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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Findings

Experiment 2:

Part 1:

Participants gave higher speed estimates in ‘smashed’ condition, like participants in Experiment 1.

Verb condition

smashed hit control

yes 16 7 6

no 34 43 44

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Findings

Part 2:

  • Participants returned week later and answered further questions about filmed accident.

  • Participants ‘smashed’ condition were more than twice as likely to report seeing broken glass than those in group given word ‘hit’/in control condition.

  1. Group 1: ‘smashed condition’: 16 reported having seen broken glass, 34

  2. reported not having seen broken glass.

  3. Group 2: ‘hit condition’: 7 reported having seen broek glass, 43 reported not having seen broken glass.

Group 3: ‘control condition’: 6 reported having seen broken glass, 44 reported not having seen broken glass.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Conclusions

  • Findings indicate form of question (changes in single word) can markedly and systematically affect witness’s answer to question.

What do Loftus and Palmer propose for explanation of results?

  1. Response-bias factors: Different speed estimates occur because critical word (e.g. smashed/hit) influences/biases a person’s response.

  2. Memory representation is altered: Critical words changes person's memory so their perception of accident is affected. Some critical words would lead someone to have a perception of accident having been more serious.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Conclusions

  • If second conclusion true, we would expect participants to ‘remember’ other details that aren’t true.

  • Loftus and Palmer tested this is second experiment, in smashed condition, two pieces of info combine to form a memory of accident that appears quite severe and therefore generates certain expectation e.g. that there is likely to be broken glass.

  • Findings from Experiment 2 suggest that effect of leading questions isn’t result of response-bias but because leading questions actually alter memory a person has for event.

  • Findings can be understood in relation to research on effects of verbal labels on to-be-remembered forms like classic study by Carmichael et al. (1932).

  • Verbal labels cause shift in way info represented in memory in direction of being more similar to suggestion given by beral label.


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Loftus and Palmer (1974) Conclusions

Study by Carmichael et al. (1932):

  • Provides evidence for effect of verbal labels.

  • Participants shown set of drawings and provided with verbal description.

  • When participants asked later to redraw image, resulting object was typically affected by verbal label.
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Loftus and Palmer evaluation: methodology and proc

Controlled experiment

  • Loftus and Palmer conducted their research using experiments.

  • Advantage: demonstrates causal relationship.

  • Deliberately manipulating IV (verb used to describe impact) we can see causal effect on DV (estimate of speed) and draw causal conclusion.

  • Especially true in lab study where potentially CV carefully controlled so any change in DV is due to IV and not other factors.

  • Field experiments or real-life examples other factors may influence behaviour.

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Loftus and Palmer evaluation: methodology and proc

Ecological validity

  • Participants watched film clips of accidents which isn't same as witnessing real accident.People don't take seriously/not emotionally aroused in way they would be in real accident. Means findings may not represent real life i.e. lack ecological validity.

  • In real life EWT may be more accurate e.g. Foster et al (1994) found that if participants thought they were watching real-life robbery and also thought their response would influence trial, their identification of robber was more accurate.

  • Yuille and Cutshall (1986) also found evidence of greater accuracy in real life. Witnesses to an armed robbery in Canada gave accurate reports of crime four months after event even though they initially given two misleading questions/ Suggests misleading information may have less influence on real-life EWT.

  • In contrast, Buckout (1980) conducted ‘real-life’ study involving 2000 participants. Very short film (13 secs) shown on prime-time TV. Later an identity parade was shown on TV and viewers were invited to phone their choice of suspect. Only 14% got it right.

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Loftus and Palmer evaluation: methodology and proc

The sample

  • Participants in study were US college students.

  • Other groups of people may be more/less prone to being affected by misleading info than others.

  • e.g. may be age difference.

  • May be consequence of source monitoring.

  • Eyewitness typically acquires info from two sources from observing event itself and from subsequent suggestions (misleading info).

  • Number of studies (e.g. Schacter et al 1991) have found compared to younger subjects, elderly people have difficulty remembering source of their info even though their memory for info itself is unimpaired.

  • As a result they become more prone to effects of misleading info when giving testimony.

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loftus and paler evaluation: alternative evidence

Evaluation: Alternative evidence

  • Been considerable support for research on effect of misleading info. E.g. loftus conducted memorable study involving cardboard cutout of Bugs Bunny (Braun et al 2002).

  • College students were asked to evaluate advertising material about Disneyland.

  • Embedded in this material was misleading info about either Bugs Bunny/Ariel (neither would have been seen at Disneyland because Bugs isn’t Disney and Ariel hasn't been introduced at time of their childhood).

  • Participants were assigned to Bugs, Ariel or control condition (no misleading info).

  • All visited Disneyland and participants in Bugs/Ariel group more likely to report shaken hands with characters than control group.

  • Shows how misleading info can create an inaccurate (false) memory.


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loftus and palmer evaluation: ethical and social i

Lack of valid consent

  • Loftus and Palmer didn’t gain valid consent from their participants.

  • If participants been aware of aims of study this would have affected behaviour.

  • Would have been aware of questions were ‘leading’ and more careful in responses they gave.

  • Thus their behaviour would not reflect EWT in everyday life and wouldn’t provide useful insights.

  • Issues in whether such deception is acceptable. Researchers can justify in terms of importance of this research. It has profound effect on our understanding of inaccuracy of EWT.

  • From participants point of view the deception could be considered ‘mild’. They weren’t psychologically/physically harmed and unlikely that knowing true purpose of study would have lead to refusing to take part.

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loftus and palmer evaluation: ethical and social i

Psychological harm

  • Criticism: participants did not witness real accident but instead watched films clips of accident which meant they may not have responded to task in same way as they would in a real accident.

  • One alternative might have been to expose participants to real accident. However, this might have been distressing, leading to psychological harm which would not necessarily be diffused by debriefing.

  • Emotional impact might have been long lasting.

  • So, study avoided ethical issue of psychological harm by using film clips.

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Evaluating cognitive approach: strengths

  1. Meditation processes.

  • Especially when compared to behaviourism, an advantage is the focus on the important ‘processes’ that occur between stimulus and response. Whereas behaviorists did not attempt to investigate what goes on inside the ‘black box’.

  • Cognitive psychologists have gone some way to explaining how important mediational processes like perception and memory effect way we respond to world around us.

  • Helped explain practical elements of human behaviour e.g. cognitive psychology's look at ways of improving memory using retrieval cues. Such research can show us why we need to make shopping lists before going to local supermarket.
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Evaluating cognitive approach: strengths

Important contributions.

  • Usefully applied in therapy like CBT.

  • Successfully treats disorders like depression.

  • Applied to field of developmental psychology.

  • E.g. theories about have children's thinking develops have guided teaching practices in schools.

  • Piaget (1970) developed one such theory suggesting children's thinking isn't the same as adults. He suggested that children 8/9 can't think in abstract. Id hey wanted to solve a math problem they need to see it in concrete for like manipulating counting sticks. Piaget's ideas had a major effect on teaching primary schools because teachers realised it was important to use concrete examples with younger children.

Advanced in memory research and application in field of eyewitness testimony. E.g. the work of Elizabeth Loftus has shown how eyewitnesses accounts can be easily distorted by post-event indo and this had an impact on police interviewing techniques like abolishment of leading questions during interviewing.

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Evaluating cognitive approach: strengths

Scientific approach.

  • Lends itself to objective and controlled scientific research e,g, memory research has in the main been conducted under strict lab conditions, and in more recent times this has involved using brain scanning techniques (e.g. PET scans, MRI scans) to pinpoint specific areas of brain that are involved in short- and long-term memory.

  • Field known as cognitive neuroscience and field  devoted to pinpointing the exact biological mechanisms involved in our cognitive processes therefore in scientific objective manner, researchers are able to establish exact responsibilities of different areas of brain in relation to our cognitive process.

  • Cognitive neuroscience is useful in trying to understand what beaub dies when its ‘at rest’ e.g. not performing any tasks, effectively studying ‘mid-wandering’.

  • Emerged as an extremely scientific girld in psychology. On which causal relationships between emotions, cognitions and behaviours can be confidently [predicted.
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evaluating cognitive weaknesses

  1. Nature and nurture.

  • Considers influence of both internal and external factors on behaviour (e.g. processes within mind are internal and role of experience in formation of schemas is external), fails to consider important elements of nature and nurture.

  • E.g. role of genes in human cognitive ignored yet research into intelligence has consistently looked at influences of genes through use of twin studies.

  • Important social and cultural factors (nurture) are ignored which seems unrealistic.

  • E.g. within field of cognitive development, key theorists like Piaget failed to consider role of culture and gender on development of thinking in children.
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evaluating cognitive weaknesses

Determinist approach.

  • ‘Schemas’ are important assumption of cognitive approach.

  • People acquire schemas through direct experience e.g. Piaget suggested cognitive development is essentially development of schemas.

  • At young age, child might call everything with four legs and hair a ‘dog’. Later child learns various schemas- one for dog, one for cat etc.

  • Social interactions important-acquire stereotypes about people and situations like belief that women with blonde hair are stupid but fun or people with glasses are intelligent.

  • These cultural stereotypes and schemas may determine was we interpret situation.

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evaluating cognitive weaknesses

Mechanistic approach.

  • Mechanistic-portrays human behaviour as being like that of machine. Cognitive approach based on ‘behaviour’ on computers so it's inevitable that outcome would be mechanistic view of human behaviour.

  • Raises other more philosophical issues such as whether computer could perform like human brain.

  • Main objection to mechanistic explanations is that they ignore social and emotional factors. Can be illustrated in cognitive perspective on mental illness. E.g. depressed person may have faulty thinking patterns than can be changed, however, because of depression may lie in significant life events (e..g going through divorce). Whilst changing thinking patterns may help person, this doesn't change environmental stimuli/social situation causing emotions they feel.

  • Mechanical view ignores important role that emotions play in influencing cognitive processes and problem with humans being likened to computers. A computer isn't influenced by emotion, a computer will recall info exactly as inputted-not same for human beings.
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