Cognitive Psychology

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

The main concern of cognitive psychology is how information received from our senses is processed by the brain and how this processing directs how we behave.

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.

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.

Similarly Deregowski's (1972) study of the cognitive process of pictorial perception demonstrates how perception is influenced by our culture.   The study is therefore able to demonstrate that the experiences our culture provide us with can shape how we perceive and understand our world.

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 (1985) 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 demonstrates that the central deficit of autism is a failure to 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 Gardner and Gardner (1969) who taught Washoe the chimpanzee to use American Sign Language. 


Candidates should:

        be able to describe and evaluate the cognitive approach in psychology;

        consider the issues around memorising material, and the problems of eyewitness testimony;

        consider the explanations of cultural differences in cognitive performance;

        understand the central issues in the area of autism and the theory of mind;

        understand the basic characteristics of language;

        be able to evaluate the usefulness of applying the results of animal research to people;

        understand the role of reinforcement in learning;

        consider the implications of research in cognitive psychology.


LOFTUS, E. and PALMER, J. (1974)  Reconstruction of automobile destruction.

DEREGOWSKI, J. (1972)  Pictorial perception and culture.

BARON-COHEN, S., LESLIE, L.M. & FRITH, U. (1985) Does the autistic child have a theory of mind?

GARDNER, R. & GARDNER, B (1969)  Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee.




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