Applied Psychology

What is Cognitive Psychology?

Apr 16, 2024 | By Saranne Durham

The mental processes associated with the acquisition of knowledge and understanding are known as cognition. Cognitive psychology is at its essence the science of how we think. It is concerned with our inner mental processes. For example, language, action planning, perception of the world around us, reasoning, attention, memory, and creativity. Thus, cognitive psychology has a significant role in shaping who we are, our capacity, and our behaviours. 

Where did Cognitive Psychology Originate From? 

Cognitive psychology is rooted in behaviourism, a systematic approach to understanding how humans and animals behave. It first originated in the 1960s. During this time, three main influences moulded cognitive psychology into a formal school of thought. The first was the necessity to understand human performance, specifically attention to detail and learning processes. A second was how mental functions, such as human memory (storage and recall), were conceptualised. The third influence was an increasing criticism and acknowledgement of the limitations of behaviourism as a theory that provided answers.  

Ulric Neisser, is generally regarded as the founder of cognitive psychology. The first edition of his book, Cognitive Psychology, was published in 1967 and put the term into common use. 

Is Cognitive Psychology Used in Everyday Life? 

Cognition encompasses both conscious and unconscious processes. There are six types of cognitive processes: attention, language, learning, thought, perception, and memory. These can be adversely affected by genetics, age, injury, and experiences. As a result of disruptions to cognitive processes attention problems, cognitive biases, learning challenges, ability to make decisions and memory limitations are some of the issues that can result. Thus, effectively, our cognitive processes impact our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Practically, what this means is that a cognitive psychology approach can be used to improve everyday performance

How Does Cognitive Psychology Explain Behaviour 

According to the cognitive approach, human brains are quite similar to computers in the way they process information. This approach believes that a person acquires knowledge and understanding by interacting with the world around them. Thus, through what they experience, think and their senses. This information is then mentally processed so it can be interpreted after which it is stored. Later, knowledge applicable to a situation is retrieved which someone will use to guide their behaviour

Is Cognitive Psychology Nature or Nurture? 

Exploring how the brain works, has given rise to an interactionist view. Thus, cognitive psychology frames our behaviour and capacity as resulting from both nature and nurture. For example, what we do and how we react in a situation is influenced by learning and experience. Therefore, it is nurture-based. However, our innate capacity for something like language acquisition is nature-linked. 

Is Cognitive Psychology Deterministic? 

Determinism takes the approach that behaviours are a result of uncontrollable internal and external forces. This essentially means that free will is an illusion as behaviour is governed not chosen. The Cognitive approach is a soft-deterministic approach. It argues that our senses feed information to the brain which is then processed and accordingly directs what we do. This means that while you cannot view internal mental processes, you can infer them by observing how someone behaves. Thus, problematic behaviour and thought patterns can be positively changed through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

What Do Cognitive Psychologists Do? 

Cognitive Psychologists are sometimes referred to as “Brain Scientists”. This is because they focus on understanding how the human brain works. They do this by applying psychological science to understanding how we interpret the world around us and make decisions. Their work can range from trying to comprehend how languages are learnt to exploring the interaction between cognition and emotion. 

Is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy a Science? 

There is much scientific evidence to support cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s a form of psychological treatment with a wide application. For example, it is used to treat anxiety and mood disorders, addictions, phobias, and relationship problems. Furthermore, research shows that CBT is one of the most effective forms of psychological therapy. It can be used in conjunction with psychiatric medication or as a stand-alone therapeutic approach. 

The Three Assumptions of CBT: 

  1. Faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking can contribute towards psychological problems. 
  2. Unhelpful behaviours and learned patterns can contribute to psychological problems. 
  3. People who suffer from psychological problems can learn coping mechanisms which can relieve symptoms. This can make them more effective and efficient in their daily lives. 

CBT treatment therefore employs strategies to change thinking patterns which cause psychological problems for an individual. For instance, assisting someone to recognise their problematic thinking patterns and then reevaluate them with the intent of changing them to healthier ones. It also seeks to change behaviours. For example, someone undergoing CBT might learn how to recognise when their anxiety is increasing and then learn how to calm themselves. Alternatively, CBT can be used to assist someone in understanding why they have low self-esteem and then assist them in building a positive self-esteem. Thus, cognitive psychology helps to explain why and how people behave and, through CBT, can improve people’s everyday functionality. 

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