Every time we talk about what psychology is and what psychologists say, we are simplifying a lot. Unlike what happens in biology, in psychology there is not only no unified theory on which the whole discipline is based, but the different psychological currents that exist start from largely irreconcilable positions and many times they do not even share an object of study.

However, that does not mean that there is not a dominant current today that has imposed itself on others. This current of psychology is, nowadays, the cognitivism , on which cognitive psychology is based.

What is cognitive psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the aspect of psychology that is dedicated to the study of mental processes such as perception, planning or the drawing of inferences . That is, processes that have historically been understood as private and outside the scope of the measuring instruments that have been used in scientific studies.

Cognitivism and cognitive psychology have been a blow on the table by a community of researchers that did not want to give up the scientific study of mental processes, and approximately since the 1960s have formed the current of hegemonic psychology around the world .

To explain the origins of cognitive psychology we must go back to the middle of the last century.

Cognitive Psychology and the Computational Metaphor

If in the first half of the 20th century the dominant schools in the world of psychology were the psychodynamic school initiated by Sigmund Freud and the behavioural school, from the 1950s the world of scientific research began to experience an era of accelerated changes caused by the irruption of progress in the construction of computers.

From that moment on it became possible to understand the human mind as an information processor comparable to any computer , with its data input and output ports, parts dedicated to storing data (memory) and certain computer programs in charge of processing the information properly. This computational metaphor would serve to create theoretical models that would allow the formulation of hypotheses and attempt to predict human behaviour to some extent. Thus was born the computer model of mental processes, widely used in psychology today.

The Cognitive Revolution

At the same time as technological progress in the field of information technology, behaviourism was increasingly criticized. These criticisms were basically centred on the fact that it was understood that its limitations did not allow for the adequate study of mental processes , as it was limited to drawing conclusions about what is directly observable and what has a clear repercussion on the environment: behaviour.

Thus, during the 1950s a movement arose in favour of a reorientation of psychology towards mental processes . This initiative involved, among others, followers of the old Gestalt psychology, researchers of memory and learning interested in the cognitive, and some people who had been distancing themselves from behaviorism and, especially, Jerome Bruner and George Miller, who led the cognitive revolution.

It is considered that cognitive psychology was born as a result of this period of claims in favour of the study of mental processes, when Jerome Bruner and George Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard in 1960. Shortly afterwards, in 1967, the psychologist Ulric Neisser provides a definition of cognitive psychology in his book Cognitive psychology . In this work he explains the concept of cognition in computational terms, as a process in which information is processed for later use.

The reorientation of psychology

The irruption of cognitive psychology and the cognitive paradigm meant a radical change in the object of study of psychology. If for B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism what psychology should study was the association between stimuli and responses that could be learned or modified through experience, cognitive psychologists began to hypothesize about internal states that could explain memory, attention, perception, and an infinite number of topics that until then had only been touched on timidly by Gestalt psychologists and some researchers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The methodology of cognitive psychology, which inherited many things from behaviorism, consisted of making assumptions about the functioning of mental processes, making inferences from these assumptions, and testing what is assumed through scientific studies to see if the results fit the assumptions made. The idea is that the accumulation of studies about mental processes would outline how the human mind could work and how it does not work , this being the engine of scientific progress in the field of cognitive psychology.

Criticisms of this conception of the mind

Cognitive psychology has been strongly criticized by psychologists and researchers associated with the behavioral current. The reason for this is that, according to their perspective, there is no reason to consider that mental processes are something other than behaviour, as if they were fixed elements that remain inside people and that are relatively separate from what happens around us.

Thus, cognitive psychology is seen as a mentalist perspective that, either through dualism or through metaphysical materialism, confuses the concepts that are supposed to help understand behavior, with the object of study itself. For example, one comes to understand religiosity as a set of beliefs that remain within the person, and not a willingness to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.

As a consequence, the current heirs of behaviorism consider that the cognitive revolution, instead of providing strong arguments against behaviorism, limited itself to making it seem as if it had been refuted , passing over scientific reasoning its own interests and treating the attributions made about what may be happening in the brain as if it were the psychological phenomenon to be studied, instead of the behavior itself.

Cognitive Psychology Today

Nowadays cognitive psychology is still a very important part of psychology, both in research and in intervention and therapy . Its progress has been aided by discoveries in the field of neuroscience and the improvement of technologies that allow the brain to be scanned to obtain images of its activation patterns, such as fMRI, which provides extra data about what happens in the head of human beings and allows the information obtained in studies to be “triangulated”.

However, it should be noted that neither the cognitivist paradigm nor, by extension, cognitive psychology are free from criticism. Research in cognitive psychology is based on several assumptions that are not necessarily true, such as the idea that mental processes are something different from behaviour and that the former causes the latter. It is not for nothing that, even today, behaviorism exists (or a direct descendant of it, rather, and not only has it not been totally assimilated by the cognitive school, but it also criticizes it harshly.

Bibliographic references:

  • Beck, A.T. (1987). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Eysenck, M.W. (1990). Cognitive Psychology: An International Review. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Malone, J.C. (2009). Psychology: Pythagoras to Present . Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Quinlan, P.T., Dyson, B. (2008) Cognitive Psychology. Publisher-Pearson/Prentice Hall.