Cognitive Psychology Definition Paper

The cognitive approach to human and comparative psychology rests on two main assumptions: 1) there are cognitive representations and processes that act on those representations 2) we can discover these representations and processes, albeit indirectly (Willingham, 2007). This approach offers a middle ground between B.F. Skinner’s cut-and-dry input-output relations and C.L. Hull’s hypothetical constructs and intervening variables. In the first case, there is no room for intermediary cognitive processes between stimulus and response, outside the realm of simple associative learning. In the second case, there is lacking an explicit scientific means by which to objectively observe the theoretical cognitive mechanisms in question. However, E. C. Tolman was one of the first psychologists to suggest that intermediary cognitive processes could be deduced through the results of scientifically rigorous experimentation (Zentall, 2002). It is on this very basic proposition, that theoretical cognitive processes can be inferred by observing behavior, which most informs the developmental milestones in the formation of the cognitive perspective as a branch of psychology.         

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Development of Cognitive Psychology

           The development of the cognitive approach as a mainstream psychological perspective is marked by four major milestones: 1) the shortfalls of the behaviorist perspective of psychology 2) the ability for abstract constructs to account for the aforementioned shortfalls 3) the bridging of abstract constructs with observable mechanisms through the medium of artificial intelligence and neuroscience 4) the realization that the representations and processes of cognition can be likened to the internal functioning of a computer. The behaviorism of the early 20th century could not account for many observable behaviors documented by psychologists of the time. For instance, the associative mechanism of stimulus-response (S-R) could not explain the generative nature of human language or fixed-action patterns or critical-period learning restrictions. The early cognitive responses to these deficits in explanation centered on abstract constructs far removed from scientifically reproducible verification. For example, Clark Hull defined the mechanism of reinforcement in terms of drive reduction, hypothesizing theoretical constructs such as primary drives and secondary drives (Goodwin, 2005). The shortcoming of these abstract constructs was that they were not demonstrable through observable behavior, but rather only speculative in nature. 

It was not until the conception of artificial intelligence and the progression of cognitive neuroscience that the valley of dry bones, known at that time only as of the new behaviorism, was able to analogize the speculative, abstract constructs with any corporeal system. Artificial intelligence offered researchers the physical ability to reproduce the mechanisms of metaphysical thought that occur during human cognition. As well, the area of neuroscience offered a biological framework from which to better understand the neurochemical activity of the brain, as it pertains to the activities of human thought. In addition, computers use representations (1’s and 0’s) in order to assimilate, store, and process information. It is plausible that the human brain could work in much the same manner. The computer presented researchers with an endless metaphor of human thought that could be studied through the avenue of observable behavior. Now cognitive psychologists had the tools, analogies, metaphors, and aphorisms necessary to bridge the gap between abstract constructs and observable behavior. 

Observable Behavior in Cognitive Psychology

           The battle-cry of the early cognitive movement was that the S-R, input-output, reinforcement-punishment dichotomies of the behaviorist tradition did not fully explain human behavior. However, incumbent on the insistence that the cognitive approach to psychology explains what goes on between the stimulus-response interplay is the acknowledgment that S-R interactions are relevant to the understanding of human behavior (Costall, 2004). In fact, the bulk of cognitive theoretical postulations follow the hypothetico-deductive method of Hull, depend on S-R relationships to explain observable behavior, and are coached in Skinnerian, Tolmanian, and Watsonian terminology. It is this congenital influence of the behaviorist tradition that is both the greatest crux and quintessential salivation of the cognitive perspective. By using the hypothetico-deductive method of Hull cognitive psychologists can theorize unobservable abstract constructs and then test their psychological efficacy by way of observable manipulations and observable behavior. It is in this way that cognitive psychology builds upon the shortcomings of the behaviorist perspective to bring the gray areas of human cognitions into the light of observable, verifiable scientific experimentation. 


           In conclusion, the progression of mainstream psychology from a behavior-only based approach to a cognition/behavior-verified approach took place as a result of the shortfalls of the behaviorist perspective. However, it is the behaviorist’s insistence on the logical positivist tradition of objectively observable behavior that is the salvation of the abstract theoretical constructs of the early cognitive influence. In this fashion, cognitive psychology is little more than the reluctant cousin of the behaviorist tradition, invoked only as a response to the inadequacy of observable behavior to explain human cognition.  

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Costall, A. (2004). From Darwin to Watson (and cognitivism) and back again: The principle of animal-environment mutuality. Behavior and Philosophy, 32(1), 179-195. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from EBSCOHost Database. 

Goodwin, C. J. (2005). A history of modern psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

Zentall, T. R. (2002). A cognitive behaviorist approach to the study of animal behavior. Journal of General Psychology, 129(4), 328. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from EBSCOHost Database. 

Paper Topic

  • Prepare a 700- to 1,050-word paper in which you define cognitive psychology.
  • Address the following:
  • Identify at least four key milestones in the development of cognitive psychology as a discipline.
    • Discuss the importance of behavioral observation in cognitive psychology.
  • Format your paper to APA standards.

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