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Cognitive Psychology

An approach to psychology which focuses on the relationship between cognitive or mental processes and behavior.

The cognitive psychologist studies human perceptions and the ways in which cognitive processes operate to produce responses. Cognitive processes (which may involve language, symbols, or imagery) include perceiving, recognizing, remembering, imagining, conceptualizing, judging, reasoning, and processing information for planning, problem-solving, and other applications. Some cognitive psychologists may study how internal cognitive operations can transform symbols of the external world, others on the interplay between genetics and environment in determining individual cognitive development and capabilities. Still other cognitive psychologists may focus their studies on how the mind detects, selects, recognizes, and verbally represents features of a particular stimulus. Among the many specific topics investigated by cognitive psychologists are language acquisition; visual and auditory perception; information storage and retrieval; altered states of consciousness; cognitive restructuring (how the mind mediates between conflicting, or dissonant, information); and individual styles of thought and perception.

The challenges of studying human cognition are evident when one considers the work of the mind in processing the simultaneous and sometimes conflicting information presented in daily life, through both internal and external stimuli. For example, an individual may feel hunger pangs, the external heat of the sun, and sensations of bodily movement produced by walking while simultaneously talking, listening to a companion, and recalling past experiences. Although this attention to multiple stimuli is a common phenomenon, complex cognitive processing is clearly required to accomplish it.

At its inception as a discipline in the nineteenth century, psychology focused on mental processes. However, the prevailing structuralist methods, which analyzed consciousness introspectively by breaking it down into sensations, images, and affective states, fell out of favor early in the twentieth century and were superseded by those of the behaviorists, who replaced speculation about inner processes with the study of external, observable phenomena. Although important inroads continued to be made into the study of mental processes—including the work of the Würzburg School, the Gestalt psychologists, the field theory of Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget's theories of cognitive development in children—the behaviorist focus remained dominant in the United States through the middle of the twentieth century.

Since the 1950s, cognitive approaches have assumed a central place in psychological research and theorizing. One of its foremost pioneers is Jerome Bruner, who, together with his colleague Leo Postman, did important work on the ways in which needs, motivations, and expectations (or "mental sets") affect perception. Bruner's work led him to an interest in the cognitive development of children and related issues of education, and he later developed a theory of cognitive growth. His theories, which approached development from a different angle than—and mostly complement—those of Piaget, focus on the environmental and experiential factors influencing each individual's specific development pattern.

In 1957, Leon Festinger advanced his classic theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes how people manage conflicting cognitions about themselves, their behavior, or their environment. Festinger posited that conflict among such cognitions (which he termed dissonance) will make people uncomfortable enough to actually modify one of the conflicting beliefs to bring it into line with the other belief. Thus, for example, the conflicting cognitions "I smoke" and "smoking is bad" will lead a smoker either to alter the first statement by quitting, or the second one by telling himself or herself that smoking is not bad. In 1960, Jerome Bruner and George A. Miller established the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which became influential in the "cognitive revolution." As a result, an increasing number of experimental psychologists abandoned behaviorist studies of rats and mazes for research involving the higher mental processes in human beings. This trend in psychology paralleled advances in several other fields, including neuroscience, mathematics, anthropology, and computer science.

Language became an important area of study for cognitive psychologists. In 1953, the term "psycholinguistics" was coined to designate an emerging area of common interest, the psychology of language, and Noam Chomsky, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became its most famous proponent. Chomsky argued that the underlying logic, or deep structure, of all languages is the same and that human mastery of it is genetically determined, not learned. His work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Other well-known studies in cognitive psychology includes that of D.E. Berlyne's work on curiosity and information seeking; George Kelly's theory of personal constructs, and investigations by Herman Witkin, Riley Gardner, and George Klein on individual perceptual and cognitive styles.

The emergence of cybernetics and computer science have been central to contemporary advances in cognitive psychology, including computer simulation of cognitive processes for research purposes and the creation of information-processing models. Herbert Simon and Allen Newell created the first computer simulation of human thought, called Logic Theorist, at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1956, followed by General Problem Solver (GPS) the next year. Other major contributions in this area include D.E. Broadbent's information theory of attention, learning, and memory, and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram's analysis of planning and problem solving. Despite skepticism that computer-generated "thought" will ever match human cognition, the study of artificial intelligence has helped scientists learn more about the human mind. In turn, this type of psychological research is expected to aid in the development of more sophisticated computers in the future through links between the psychological study of cognition and research in electrophysiology and computer science. This subfield of cognitive engineering focuses on the application of knowledge about human thought processes to the design of complex systems for aviation, industry, and other areas.

At one time, the study of cognitive processes was specific to cognitive psychology. As research began to yield information regarding the applicability of these processes to all areas of psychology, the study of cognitive processes was taken up and applied in many other subfields of psychology, such as abnormal and developmental psychology. Today, the term "cognitive perspective" or "cognitive approach" is applied in a broader sense to these and other areas of psychology.

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