Cognitive psychology: definition, theories and main authors
What is cognitive psychology and what can we learn from this stream of research?
Whenever 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 also that the different psychological currents that exist are based on positions that are largely irreconcilable and often do not even share and often do not even share an object of study.
However, this does not mean that today there is no dominant current that has imposed itself on the others. This current in psychology is, in our days, cognitivism. cognitivismon which cognitive psychology is based.
What is cognitive psychology?
Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that is dedicated to the study of mental processes such as perception, planning or the drawing of inferences.. In other words, processes that historically have been understood as private and beyond the reach 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 who did not want to give up the scientific study of mental processes, and since the 1960s they have formed the current of cognitive psychology. since the 1960s have formed the hegemonic current of psychology throughout 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
While 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 behaviorist school, from the 1950s onwards the world of scientific research began to experience a period of accelerated changes brought about by the irruption of progress in the construction of computers.
From that moment on, it became possible to understand the human mind. it became possible to understand the human mind as an information processor comparable to any computer, with its input and output ports.The human mind, with its data input and output ports, parts dedicated to storing data (memory) and certain computer programs in charge of processing the information in an appropriate manner, began to be understood as an information processor comparable to any computer. This computational metaphor would be used to create theoretical models that would make it possible to formulate hypotheses and attempt to predict human behavior to a certain 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 was being made in the field of information technology, behaviorism was being increasingly criticized. These criticisms were basically focused on the fact that it was understood that its limitations did not allow it to adequately study mental processesIt was limited to drawing conclusions about what is directly observable and what has a clear impact on the environment: behavior.
Thus, during the 1950s, a movement arose during the 1950s, a movement arose in favor of a reorientation of psychology towards mental processes.. This initiative involved, among others, followers of the old Gestalt psychology, memory and learning researchers interested in the cognitive, and some people who had been distancing themselves from behaviorism, especially Jerome Bruner and George Miller, who spearheaded the cognitive revolution.
Cognitive psychology is considered to have been born out of this period of claims in favor 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, psychologist Ulric Neisser provided a definition of what cognitive psychology is 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 cognitivist paradigm brought about a radical change in the object of study of psychology. If for the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner what psychology should study was the association between stimuli and responses that can be learned or modified through experience, cognitive psychologists began to hypothesize about internal states that could explain memory, attention, perception, and countless topics that until then had only been timidly touched by Gestalt psychologists and some researchers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth 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 taken for granted through scientific studies, to see if the results fit with the assumptions made. The idea is that the accumulation of studies about mental processes would be outlining how the human mind might and might not work, this being the driving force of scientific progress in the field of cognitive psychology. This would be 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 behaviorist current. The reason is that, according to their perspective, there is no reason to consider mental processes as anything other than behavior, as if they were fixed elements that remain within people and that are relatively separate from what they are doing. and which are relatively separate from what is going on around us.
Thus, cognitive psychology is seen as a mentalistic 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, religiosity comes to be understood as a set of beliefs that remain within the person, and not a disposition to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.
As a consequence, the current heirs of behaviorism consider that the cognitive revolution, instead of providing weighty arguments against behaviorism, limited itself to pretending that it had refuted itThe current heirs of behaviorism, therefore, consider that the cognitive revolution, instead of providing strong arguments against behaviorism, limited itself to pretending that it had refuted it, putting its own interests ahead of scientific reasoning 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
Cognitive psychology continues to be a very important part of psychology today, both in research and in intervention and therapy.. Its progress has been helped by discoveries in the field of neuroscience and the improvement of technologies that make it possible to scan the brain to obtain images of its activation patterns, such as fMRI, which provides extra data about what is going on in the heads of human beings and makes it possible to "triangulate" the information obtained in the studies.
However, it should be noted that neither the cognitivist paradigm nor, by extension, cognitive psychology are free from criticism. Research within cognitive psychology rests on several assumptions that are not necessarily true, such as the idea that mental processes are distinct from behavior and that the former causes the latter. There is a reason why, even today, behaviorism exists (or a direct descendant of it, rather, and not only has it not been fully assimilated by the cognitive school, but it also criticizes it harshly.
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(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)