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Cognitive Psychology


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Cognitive psychology studies our mental processes or cognitions. These mental processes that cognitive psychologists focus on include memory, perception, thinking and language.

The main assumption of the cognitive approach is that information received from our senses is processed by the brain and that this processing directs how we behave or at least justifies how we behave the way that we do.

Cognitive processes are examples of hypothetical constructs. That is, we cannot directly see processes such as thinking but we can infer what a person is thinking based on how they act.

Cognitive psychology has been influenced by developments in computer science and analogies are often made between how a computer works and how we process information. Based on this computer analogy cognitive psychology is interested in how the brain inputs, stores and outputs information.


However we are much more sophisticated than computer systems and an important criticism directed at the cognitive approach is that it often ignores the way in which other factors, such as past experiences and culture influence how we process information.


Loftus and Palmer's (1974) study of eyewitness testimony demonstrates how the cognitive process of memory can be distorted by other information supplied after an event. This highlights that memory is not merely a tape recording but is a dynamic process which can be influenced by many events such as leading questions. The study also shows that memory is a dynamic process and changes to make sense of experiences.


When we behave in a particular way towards another person it is likely that we attempt to understand how the other person is thinking and feeling. Baron-Cohen's (1997) study shows that our behaviour can be influenced by a cognitive process called a theory of mind. Having a theory of mind enables a person to appreciate that other people have thoughts and beliefs that are different from their own. Baron-Cohen's study attempts to demonstrate that the central deficit of autism is a failure to fully develop this cognitive process of a theory of mind.


It has been argued that humans are unique in possessing the ability to communicate with language which involves very sophisticated cognitive skills. However this argument is challenged by the study from Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1986) who studied the language capabilities in pygmy chimpanzees.


A main strength of cognitive psychology is that this approach has tended to use a scientific approach through the use of laboratory experiments. A strength of using laboratory experiments is that they are high in control therefore researchers are able to establish cause and effect. For example Loftus and Palmer were able to control the age of the participants, the use of video and the location of the experiment. All participants were asked the same questions (apart from changes in the critical words), and the position of the key question in the second was randomised. Furthermore, such standardised experiments are easy to test for reliability. However, as many cognitive studies are carried out in laboratory settings they can lack ecological validity. When cognitive processes such as memory and theory of mind are studied in artificial situations it may be difficult to generalise the findings to everyday life.


A further strength of the cognitive approach is the useful contributions that have arisen from this approach. For example, many modern types of therapy are based on the cognitive approach. Understanding cognitive processes allows us to help people to improve their cognitive processes such as memory and language. The Baron-Cohen et al. study enables us to better understand the behaviour of people with autism, Loftus and Palmers? study highlights the limitations of eye-witness testimonies and the ape research may offer strategies to help children with language difficulties to develop language or to use strategies such as the lexigram system. Furthermore the cognitive approach has become the dominant approach in psychology particularly since it has become allied with neurology. The cognitive approach nowadays is often called cognitive science and is able to provide a very sophisticated understanding of how the brain processes information.


A weakness of the cognitive approach relates to the validity of measuring cognitive processes. We can only infer what a person is thinking and therefore the cognitive approach relies heavily on self report measures and observation. There are a number of reasons why we have to question the validity of self report measures and observation. For example we can only infer that adults with autism have theory of mind difficulties from the results of the Eyes Task or that pygmy chimps are really using language when they communicate through a Lexigram. However, because of the developments of brain scanning techniques we are able to record the active parts of the brain more accurately nowadays and cognitive science is providing a more and more detailed description of how cognitive processes work. For example, brain scanning techniques are giving great insights about how memory works.


It has been argued that a weakness of the cognitive approaches reliance on the computer analogy leads to a reductionist and mechanistic description of experiences and behaviour. Reductionism is the idea that complex phenomena can be explained by simpler things. The cognitive approach often takes this narrow focus and ignores social and emotional factors which may impact on cognition. For example, the autism study investigated just one central cognitive deficit as an explanation for autism. However the reductionist approach does have strengths. An advantage of the reductionist view is that by breaking down a phenomenon to its constituent parts it may be possible to understand the whole. This type of single mindedness has lead to some great discoveries in psychology as it has in the 'natural' sciences.