Cognitive psychology is considered to be one of the main branches of modern psychology. As a distinct field, cognitive psychology deals with “the structures and processes in the individual’s mind that are said to play the major role in behavior” (Sampson, 1981, p. 730). Put simply, cognitive psychology is concerned with studying how mental functioning influences an individual’s behavioral patterns. The basic assumption governing cognitive psychology is that peoples’ reaction to different contexts and situations are defined by their subjective perception of these situations. In this sense, people respond based on how they process the information from stimulus situations, not based on “the objective properties of those stimulus situations” (Ibid).
Although some scholars attribute the birth of cognitive psychology to the works of 18th to 19th century philosophers, the development of cognitive psychology as a discipline can actually be traced as far back as the Ancient Greeks. Paul Thagard (2007) notes that the foundation of cognitive psychology can be found in the Plato and Aristotle’s attempt to uncover the “nature of human knowledge.” This tradition continued to the age of renaissance, where Descartes argued for the primacy of the “thinking and reasoning of the individual knower” (Sampson, 1981, p. 730). Until the 18th century, cognitive psychology remained dependent on the contributions of Western philosophers such as George Berkeley, David Hume, and James Mill (Cognitive Processes Class, 1997). By the 19th century, however, Wilhelm Wundt introduced an important milestone into cognitive psychology by utilizing laboratory methods for the systematic study of the human mind, thereby giving birth to experimental psychology (Thagard, 2007). The turn of the century saw the rise of behaviorists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who disputed the subjectivist and individualistic reductionism of their predecessors in cognitive psychology by emphasizing the significance of studying behavior over human consciousness. Unfortunately, this focus on behavior also meant discrediting the historical gains made by cognitive psychology although behaviorists also contributed important tools and experimental techniques for the study of psychology (Cognitive Processes Class, 1997). In the modern period, particularly in the aftermath of World War II, the discipline of cognitive psychology once again experienced a major shift in theoretical framework as intellectuals such as George Miller began to revert to studying the processes of the mind, particularly of memory retention and its relationship with mental operations for digesting and processing information (Thagard, 2007). In the same manner, advances in computer technology aided the further study of mind functioning through simulation in artificial intelligence (Sampson, 1981, p. 733). Completing the re-emergence of cognitive psychology is Noam Chomsky’s argument that human language was the product of mental processes, contrary to the theory proposed by behaviorists that humans acquired language as a habit. Consequently, modern cognitive psychology is driven by core assumptions about the mind which emphasize the role of formal logic, rules, concepts, analogies, and images in mental processes.
Meanwhile, behavioral observation continues to be an important method in cognitive psychology. Through behavioral observation, cognitive psychologists are able to test and validate their theories assumptions about the nature of human thinking. For instance, psychologists “examine the kinds of mistakes people make in deductive reasoning, the ways that people form and apply concepts, the speed of people thinking with mental images” (Thagard, 2007) in order to know why people may act or respond differently in different contexts and situations. Today, cognitive psychologists utilize psychological experiments, which often employ behavioral observation, to gain more knowledge about mental operations as they relate to the concrete realities of human behavior in varied contexts.
Thus, cognitive psychology as a discipline benefits from its rich history which allows it to draw concepts from the fields of philosophy, psychology, and even anthropology. Moreover, the contribution from various scholars from these fields enables cognitive psychology to utilize different means and experimental techniques in formulating and verifying assumptions about mental operations, from behavioral observation to artificial intelligence modelling, in order to arrive at a closer approximation of how the human mind works and how mental functioning affects human behavior.
Cognitive Processes Class (2007). History of cognitive psychology. Retrieved November 23, 2008 from http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/cognitiv.htm
Sampson, E. (1981). Cognitive psychology as ideology. American Psychologist 36(7): 733-743.
Thagard, P. (2007). Cognitive science. Retrieved November 23, 2008 from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/