Cognitive Approach

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The Cognitive Approach

An introduction:

*"Cogito ergo sum" - Descartes. "I think, therefore I am."

The seed of Cognitive psychology comes from philosophical thinkers of Ancient Greece and more recent Greeks (such as Descartes)

The Cognitive approach was developed in the 1960s as a result of Behaviourists ignoring what was going on inside people's head (much unlike the psychodynamic approach!)

Cognitive psychology, which is concerned with many different aspects of how we think, is the dominant approach in modern psychology. It is concerned with mental processes such as language, attention, memory, reasoning and problem solving and decision making.

Cognitive psychology has also tried to take into account how emotions affect how we think, like how being very upset may have a negative effect on our ability to recall from memory.

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The Approach

It primarily focuses on the internal mental processes of an individual. According to Ulric Neisser, cognition refers to the process by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered and used.

The approach became a dominant force in psychology from the '50s onward. According to Anderson (1995) the emergence of modern cognitive psychology was due to research on human performance and attention during the Second World War, developments in computer science, artificial intelligence and the growing interest in linguistics.

The cognitive approach is radically different from other approaches:

  • Adopts the use of scientific, experimetal methods to measure mental processes, thereby rejecting the psychodynamic use of introspection
  • The cognitive approach advocates the importance of mental processes such as beliefs, desires and motivation in determining behaviour,  unlike the behaviourist approach

Cognitive psychologyists focus on internal mental processes such as memory. They are interested in how individuals can learn to solve problems and the mental processes that exist between stimulus and response.

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  • It focuses on the cognitive processes of the individual, therefore rearded as information processes
  • Human beings are seen as information processors - derived from the computer analogy
  • Individuals are not automatically responding to stimuli (S-R) but are trying to make sense of the world (S-O-R)
  • Introspection is a valid scientific method for studying cognitive processes and therefore, mental processes can be scientifically studied
  • Conscious and unconscious thought can influence behaviour
  • Damage to parts of the brain can affect cognitions and processes
  • Humans actively organise and manipulate info from the environment
  • The mind operates in the same way as a computer - encode, store and ouput data
  • The human mind also actively processes info that comes in through different senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste)
  • Mental processes can be studied scientifically using carefully controlled experiments, usually in a laboratory 
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Three types of enquiry:

  • Experimental cognitive psychology - the main area that we're interested in as it investiagates all types of mental processes in normal, healthy people, in controlled experimental and lab conditions
  • Cognitive science - to do with theories and theoretical development. An important debate in cognitive science is whether or not we process info at one piece at a time, in a linear fashion (serial processing) or whether the human brain can process more than one piece of info at the same time (paralell processing)
  • Cognitive neuropsychology - typically studies cognitive processes in people who have suffered different types of brain damage. Eg, when Paul Broca discovered that damage to a particular area of the brain resulted in people having difficulty speaking. Although this didn't affect how well the person could understand what other people were saying. Modern research looks at how different areas of the brain affect different processes

Cognitive psychology is also distinguished by the range of areas of human thought and behaviour that it studies. These include the cognitive development of the child, changes to cognitive processes that take place as a result of ageing, and cognitive processes that are involved in our social/emotional lives. Cognitive psychology covers the full spectrum of human thought and behaviour

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There are many similarities between Cognitive and Behaviourism, such as learning through watching others, but the cognitive approach refuses to accept people are simply S-R machines.

Behaviourist are only interested in observerable behaviour!

Thus, the same stimulus can evoke different responses in individuals depending on how they make sense of it

Tolman ('30s) rejected Thorndike's law of effect, that learning is a result of a reinforcement process. Tolman believed that the mediation process, which is the thoughts of the organism to be of uptmost importance

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Cognitive Approach


Cognitive psychologists say that our behaviour is determined by the way we process information when taken in from our environment

They state:

Stimulus in the environment ---> organism (Mediational processes. Conscious + unconscious) ---> Response (behaviour performed)

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Consciousness is the awareness that we have both stimuli in the environment and stimuli from our body/state of mind. There are also different levels such as Alert/Awake and Asleep, as well as Altered state of consiousness and hypnotic states

There are many that believe that conscious thought is only applicable to human behaviour (althought there is convincing evidence that apes do too!)

Consiousness has two purposes:

  • Monitoring - keeps track of our environment
  • Controlling - Of a person's functions
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Can animals think?

Research sugests that animals do process information in a S-O-R manor, such as consciously responding differently to colour photos of people they know, which may suggest low level thinking and consciousness


it's impossible to tell if animals truly THINK in the same way that we do, as we cannot use language to assess their mental processes

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The scientific study of mental processes

Mental processes such as memory and attention are studied via the use of labs in both cognitive and behavioural psychology

However, there are some Key Differences:

  • Cognitive psychologists use humans more than animals (and vice versa for behaviourists)
  • Cognitive psychologists use the findings to infer mental processes. Infer = mental processes cannot be obsevered, whilst behavioural processes can be
  • However, measures such as asking the parcipitants what they were thinking during the procedure of a study can give us insight in to what was going on in their head
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Modern introspection methods

Two catergories/methods:

1) retrospective - reflecting and reporting on experience after task

2) verbalising - thinking aloud during performing a task

Although, some psychologists criticse these methods - can someone really have conscious access to their higher level thinking?

Evidence suggests that people do not have as much awareness over their thoughts as they think. Therefore, modern introspection methods may reflect a belief of the mental process, not actual mental process

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Use of models

The primary model used by cognitive psychologists to explain mental processes is that of the computer. The computer is an info processor, and mental processes, such as memory, are seen to operate in a similar way. The computer model allows mental processes to be thought of in terms of inputting info, processing, storing and retrieving info.

Clearly, there is a different between the computer and the mind. Computers do not have their processes affected by emotions, in the way humans do. The computer model does have limitations.

Short term memory is lour memory for info held for a short time in consciousness

Long term memory is an enormous store of info that we arenot continuously aware of, but can retrieve when required.

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Cognitive neuropsychology

Studies using people who have suffered brain damage can give us a good insight into how certain parts of our brain function

Eg, a person who damaged partv'x' of the brain and cannot produce language, this would suggest part 'x' may be associated with language and may inform future research

The two large areas that are researched regarding cognitive function are reading and writing

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Cognitive neuropsychologists make the assumption that any cognitive system (ie, reading) is made up of a number of component parts called modules and each module has a distinctive function

  • Modules working together perform a larger scale function. There is also the assumption that these modules are in different parts of the brain
  • Therefore, the destruction of a module will not completley edestroy the larger scale function, but will damage part of it!
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Evaluation of cognitive neuropsychology

The idea of modules is useful, but each brain damage case is usually unique. Therefore it is difficult to be certain which specific brain region is responsible for what!

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The information processing model

This characteristic of information processing makes it different from other approaches. It was very popular in the '80s. Info processing is based on:

  • Transforming info
  • Storing info
  • Retrieving info

Stimuli are inputs which are transformed in to mental processess. Info is stored and retrieved from memory. It is transformed via thinking and reasoning to solve a problem

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There are two main views...

On cognitive process:

1) Serial processing. We process information in an automatic way, starting with attending to the stimulus, to processing and then percieving it. This is a 'bottom up approach,' - interpreting info is entireley dependant on the stimulus input (no predetermined expectations - 'top down where you can see what you want to/expect to see)

Input of Info ---> sensory memory, visual, auditory, memory etc ---> Stm and working memory ----> Long term memory

2) Paralell processing. A number of processing 'streps' or procedures work at the same time when processing occurs in different parts of the brain - a 'connectionist network'. Paralell processing better represents the physical observations of brains when we process information and explains how people perform complex tasks in short time periods.

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Information processing: SCHEMAs

  • Schemas allow us to organise our info about the world into similar groups
  • When an event happens, we retrieve info from the appropriate schema and this guides our response
  • Ie, a teacher carrying a huge pile of books steps on your toe in the corridor. You try to make sense of what happened (mistake?) and based on previous knowledge, you can make sense of it
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Thoughts influencing behaviour

Hostile attribution bias (Dodge, 1986)

  • Some individuals see events such the accident in the previous card as deliberate provocation
  • These people are said to have hostile attibution bias, whereas they see the world as hostile and a threatening place
  • CBT aids such negative, anxious people
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Computer analogies

The computer analogy emphasises the use of simulations to study how human intelligence is structured. It is interested in what is involved when information is processed. This model seeks to explain how our cognitive system operates in terms of the goals, plans and actions that are involved when we perform tasks

Coding - both humans and computers much code info

Channel capacity - there is a limit to what we can attend to at one time. Much lower in humans!

Span of apprehension - how much info we can take in at one time depends how it's arranged

Central processing unit - Brain vs latest pentium chip!

Information is stored - both humans and computers must store information (RAM and hard drive space vs brain, computers do not forget like humans do, but the brain is limitless!)

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Evaluation of computer analogy

Humans are not mechanical devices that operate in predictable ways!

Only computers can transfer/download/upload info between them

A computer does not have a consciousness!

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Example of the computer analogy

The Multi-store model of memory (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968)

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Computer simulation and artificial intelligence

Computer simulation: Making computers perform in the same way as humans. Attempts are made to simulate a human's cognitive process,making similar errors and judgements as a human would, then the simulation of that process has been achieved.

Artificial intelligence (AI): Getting computers to perform that we regard as requiring intelligence regardless of whether they reflect human intelligence/cognitive processes or not! Expert systems in medicine attempt to use AI to figure out medical diagnosis!

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Sternberg (1966)

Wanted to determine whether or not people retrieve info from a list by scanning all info in sequence, until they come across the piece of info they're looking for

Participants were asked to memorise a list of words of different legnths, following this, p's were asked to say whether or not the words they''d learned were on two other lists of words. With these two lists, one was twice as long as the other

Participants took longer to identify words they'd learned from the longer list compared to the shorter list

Because p's took longer on the longer list, they must be scanning the list in a seqential, rather than random way

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Connectionist model

The connecti onist model uses a neural analogy - the idea that the mind is made up of a huge array of neurons or nodes and that the connections between these nodes form an activating pattern that represents a meaningful or learnt association between two or more environmental stimuli

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Strengths of the Cognitive approach

  • Scientific and objective
  • Takes into account essential human characteristics, such as mental processes
  • Has practical applications, like helping imporve memory and CBT
  • Solves debate that the mind and brain are 'one' that interact, not different entireties
  • Shows that mental processes can be measurable in the lab
  • Less deterministic than other approaches
  • Recognises both nature and nurture equally
  • Focuses on internal mental processes, unlike behaviourism
  • Models such as the info-processing approach have been effectively used to explain mental processes
  • This approach shows that experiments can be used to understand mental processes that are not directly observable
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Limitations of Cognitive

  • Memory experiments associated with it lack ecological validity
  • Debate that humans and machines can be compared
  • Too much emphasis is on thought processes and not on actual behaviour
  • Highly theoretical and abstract and looses sight of the 'whole person' (reductionist)
  • Only recently has research delved into how emotions can affect mental processes (more work needed)
  • Not possible to actually 'see ' mental processes in detail
  • The cognitive approach tends to ignore biology and the influence of genes. It has also tended to ignore individual and personality differences between people
  • The approach is often seen  as providing a mechanistic view of human thought, and has not taken sufficient account of emotions and how they interact with mental processes
  • Some psychologists, like humanistic ones, question the value of a purely scientific approach to understanding how people think, feel and behave
  • Cognitive models have been criticised as over-simplistic - ignoring the compelxities of the mind.
  • Many cognitive theories are based on performance of artifical lab tasks, therefore, unrepresentative of everyday behaviours
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  • Therepeutic applications
  • Rational emotive therapy (Ellis, 1989). Requires people to think logically and rationally to minimise illogical and irrational thinking
  • CBT (beck, 1991) changing people's thought processes to treat depression, anxiety and eating disorders (also relates to self-efficacy)
  • Criminology applications: Cognitive interview used to retrieve as accurate info from witnesses as possible, such as thinking back to the mind frame, the witness was in at the time to trigger memory
  • Child development - Piaget
  • Applied to the psychology of ageging - how memory processes and capacties differ from children to adults/adults to elderly
  • Mood disorders - BECK's dysfunctional thinking
  • Therapy - CBT
  • Health psychology
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