Critically evaluate the cognitive approach to psychology

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What is cognitive psychology? What can we understand from the cognitive approach? Cognitive psychology has been defined as the psychology of mental process, more specifically it has also been described as the study of understanding and knowing, Groome (2006) pp4. This definition is rather vague and clearly does not tell us what cognitive psychology is. However Groome (2006) pp4 provides a more precise definition of cognitive psychology that is the study of the way in which the brain processes information.

It concerns how we take in information from the outside world, how we make sense of that information, and what use we make of it. It is clear to see that as Groome has tried illustrating, there is no accurate definition of what cognitive psychology is apart from the ideas put forward by psychologists of the processes that are involved in the cognitive approach. As part of this essay I will explore the many aspects that are involved in the cognitive approach and reflect in comparison to another approach within the theoretical history of psychology.

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The behaviourism approach which was dominant until the 1950’s, had set out to explain everything in regards to behaviour and promoted its claims to diverse areas such as behavioural therapy and education, Davey (2006) pp15. It is however, no longer the dominant approach, but has stayed the most important aspect within some areas of psychology.

Psychology has changed greatly since the late 19th century as it became apparent people began to have different ideas what psychology was and what is should be about. This then lead to the distinction of schools, Davey (2004) pp12. The Structuralism school looked into the structure of the mind, Functionalism school looked at the adaptive functions of the mind, Behaviourism give importance to the environment in guiding behaviour, Gestalt worked on the idea of holistic aspects of mental processing and psychoanalysis which developed on the idea of the unconscious forces shaping behaviour, Davey (2004) pp12.

Davey (2004) pp12 stated that the behaviourism approach couldn’t explain complex behaviours, ie language use and therefore had to take on board the mental processes to explain some of the psychological occurrences. It is there after, the cognitive approach was established based on the notion that human minds were similar to computers. The approach became dominant to experimental psychology which replaced behaviourism.

Within the cognitive approach, there are certain methods which have been greatly developed trying to understand human cognition, Eyesenck and Keane (2005) pp4. These approaches enable us to understand many theories and assumptions in regards to the theoretical approach of cognitive psychology.

Experimental cognitive approach, Groome (2006) pp4 is described as the method used on healthy individuals, in laboratory conditions. One of the successes with the experimental approach is that it has influenced several areas within psychology, such as the social, developmental and clinical aspect, Eyesneck and Keane (2005). However limitations have arisen from this method. How people behave within the laboratory may in effect be significantly different from everyday life, therefore laboratory research lacks ecological validity, Groome (2006) pp168.

Wachtel (1973) cited in Eyesneck and Keane (2005) pp4 argued that people are inevitably always changing in the real world which causes the response people create to change the stimulus situation. Another limitation within the experimental cognitive method is that we have limited knowledge of how the brain functions. In order to understand human cognition we need to understand the brain in great detail. This can not be achieved within this approach due to the lack of techniques to study the brain. However such limitations are gradually being defeated with new technological advances, Eyesneck and Kean (2005) pp5.

Another method which is used is the cognitive neuropsychology. This method focuses on studying the patterns of cognitive impairment in brain damaged patients to provide information in regards to normal human cognition, Groome (2006). Cognitive psychologists’ claim studies of brain damaged patients show a significant amount in regards normal human brains. However there are limitations in this method. The cognitive psychological method is very complex due to patients having considerable differences, but possessing similar brain damage, Eyesneck and Keane (2005). Individuals before the brain damage will have experienced a varied life experience, but will more so experience after the brain damage through the type of rehabilitation, attitude, recovery and support, Eyesneck and Keane (2005) pp9.

The computer model is another method which is used within the cognitive approach. This method looked at how simulations of the human cognitive processes were similar to that of computers, Groome (2006) pp375. It is thought that computers provided a new insight into the information processing stages, which provided a correlation with possible brain mechanisms. Experiments cannot provide a definite conclusion that programs and mechanisms operating in a computer are similar to the brain, but we can see a basic possibility of a processing system, Groome (2006) pp8. The computer model has provided much insight into how our brains are similar to computers, however limitations have derived from this method. Computer models don’t make new predictions and they often ignore the motivational and emotional influence in the cognitive processing.

The cognitive neuroscience approach focuses on studying the precise area of the brain involved during a task (spatial resolution) and time scale for activation (temporal resolution). Depending on how detailed the brain function needs to be measured, a high or low spatial or temporal resolution can be applied. Individual differences can become ignored and studies within this method have lacked clear theoretical foundation.

In comparison to the cognitive approach is the physiological approach which investigates the biological processes, such as brain structure, genetics. There are three main areas within the physiological approach which share the assumption that biology contributes to the underlying issue of behaviour. The physiological approach is reductionist, which focuses more on the psychological functions being more basic to biological. The deterministic aspect focuses on behaviour being influenced by biological factors, Davey (2004) pp22. This approach has lead to treatments of depression and schizophrenia within psychology. However, critics have said the approach is heavily over reductionist. Rose (1998) cited in Davey (2004) claimed the psychological phenomena should be explained in that area rather than physiological which is determined by biological aspects.

Groome (2006) pp2 illustrates that how we process different kinds of information can actually occur at different stages. Such stages are perception, attention, language, memory and thinking. These stages are very complex and indeed a lot more interactive. Perception and attention are two key areas which are related to the cognitive approach in psychology which needs discussing as part of this essay.

Perception is the subjective experience of the sensory information after having been processed by the genitive processes, e.g. attention, as compared to sensation, Groome (2006) pp380. The idea of perception has generated thoughts and ideas, however I will focus on one. Marr’s theory of perception (1982) cited in Braisby (2005) pp97 is based on the idea that vision comes from the bottom up processing of information. His idea was that perception was composed in a series of stages, grey level, primal sketch, 2 1/2 sketch and 3D object centred description. His theory was used greatly within psychological and computational research which also reported consistent findings in accordance to the mechanisms proposed by Marr.

Attention has had great impact on our cognitive processes. Attention is said to be focusing cognitive resources on a single input or distributing them across multiple tasks, Groome (2006) pp374. Attention focuses mainly within experiments and was first to be acknowledged within the cognitive approach, Cherry et al (1953) cited in Groome (2006). Perception mainly focused on visual perception, attention focuses on hearing in contrast. An example of this would be the cocktail party, studied by Cherry (1953). This illustrated how people were able to attend to one single conversation whilst in the background other conversations are carried out. This showed that people were able to maintain their attention, but they were also able to change their attention if they wished, for example hearing their name or a certain word within a conversation.

In conclusion to the cognitive approach within psychology, it is clear to see that the cognitive approach has under gone a lot of changes over the years in regards to what aspects to study in order to fully understand what the approach is about. Many studies have arisen trying to explain how we process information, our cognitive processes and so on. As quoted at the beginning of this essay from Groome (2006) in regards to what cognitive psychology is, it is evident from the research I have done that it is a very broad term and can often lead to different interpretations. The cognitive approach, however has often lead to different applications, for example, it has been very beneficial to those who have dysfunctional thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So I can conclude that cognitive psychology is still an on going approach and therefore does not provide us with a true and clear picture of what actually goes on within our information processing stages.


Anderson (2000) Cognitive Psychology and its Implications New York: Worth Publishers

Braisby, N (2005) Cognitive Psychology Milton Keynes: Oxford University Press

Davey, G (Ed.) (2004) Complete Psychology London: Hodder and Stoughten

Eysenck, W and Keane, M (2005) Cognitive Psychology: A students handbook London: Psychology Press

Groome, D (2006) An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: Process and Disorders London: Psychology Press

King, S (2004) Cognition: Theory Applications United States of America: Wadsworth

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