What Is the Cognitive Psychology Approach? 12 Key Theories

Cognitive PsychologyAs I cross the busy road, a sea of information of varying degrees of importance confronts me.

Maintaining focus on the oncoming traffic is paramount, yet I am barely aware of the seagulls flying overhead.

These noisy birds only receive attention when I am safely walking up the other side of the road, their cries reminding me of childhood seaside vacations.

Cognitive psychology focuses on the internal mental processes needed to make sense of the environment and decide on the next appropriate action (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

This article explores the cognitive psychology approach, its origins, and several theories and models involved in cognition.

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What Is the Cognitive Psychology Approach?

The upsurge of research into the mysteries of the human brain and mind has been considerable in recent decades, with recognition of the importance of cognitive process in clinical psychology and social psychology (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

As a result, cognitive psychology has profoundly affected the field of psychology and our understanding of what it is to be human.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it has had such an effect without clear boundaries, an integrated set of assumptions and concepts, or a recognizable spokesperson (Gross, 2020).

So, what exactly is the cognitive psychology approach?

Cognitive psychology attempts to understand human cognition by focusing on what appear to be cognitive tasks that require little effort (Goldstein, 2011).

Let’s return to our example of walking down the road. Imagine now that we are also taking a call. We’re now combining several concurrent cognitive tasks:

  • Perceiving the environment
    Distinguishing cars from traffic signals and discerning their direction and speed on the road as well as the people ahead standing, talking, and blocking the sidewalk.
  • Paying attention
    Attending to what our partner is asking us on the phone, above the traffic noise.
  • Visualizing
    Forming a mental image of items in the house, responding to the question, “Where did you leave your car keys?”
  • Comprehending and producing language
    Understanding the real question (“I need to take the car. Where are your keys?”) from what is said and formulating a suitable reply.
  • Problem-solving
    Working out how to get to the next appointment without the car.
  • Decision-making
    Concluding that the timing of one meeting will not work and choosing to push it to another day.

While cognitive psychologists initially focused firmly on an analogy comparing the mind to a computer, their understanding has moved on.

There are currently four approaches, often overlapping and frequently combined, that science uses to understand human cognition (Eysenck & Keane, 2015):

  • Cognitive psychology
    The attempt to “understand human cognition by using behavioral evidence” (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 2).
  • Cognitive neuropsychology
    Understanding ‘normal’ cognition through the study of patients living with a brain injury.
  • Cognitive neuroscience
    Combining evidence from the brain with behavior to form a more complete picture of cognition.
  • Computational cognitive science
    Using computational models to understand and test our understanding of human cognition.

Cognitive psychology plays a massive and essential role in understanding human cognition and is stronger because of its close relationships and interdependencies with other academic disciplines (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

A Brief History of Cognitive Psychology

History of Cognitive PsychologyIn the 1800s, the scientific community widely believed that it was not possible for the ‘mind to understand the mind.’

In 1868, a Dutch physiologist, Franciscus Donders, began to measure reaction time – something we would now see as an experiment in cognitive psychology (Goldstein, 2011).

Donders recognized that mental responses could not be measured directly but could be inferred from behavior. Not long after, Hermann Ebbinghaus began examining the nature and inner workings of human memory using nonsense syllables (Goldstein, 2011).

By the late 1800s, Wilhelm Wundt had set up the first laboratory dedicated to studying the mind scientifically. His approach became known as structuralism. His bold aim was to build a periodic table of the mind, containing all the sensations involved in creating any experience (Goldstein, 2011).

However, the use of analytical introspection to uncover hidden mental processes was gradually dropped when John Watson proposed a new psychological approach that became known as behaviorism (Goldstein, 2011).

Watson rejected the introspective approach and instead focused on observable behavior. His idea of classical conditioning – the connection of a new stimulus with a previously neutral one – was later surpassed by B. F. Skinner’s idea of operant conditioning, which focused on positive reinforcement (Goldstein, 2011).

Both theories sought to understand the relationship between stimulus and response rather than the mind’s inner workings (Goldstein, 2011).

Prompted by a scathing attack by linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, by the 1950s behaviorism as the dominant psychological discipline was in decline. The introduction of the digital computer led to the information-processing approach, inspiring psychologists to think of the mind in terms of a sequence of processing stages (Goldstein, 2011).

In 1967, Ulrich Neisser published a textbook called Cognitive Psychology emphasizing an information-processing approach, and a new term had been born. Indeed as we shall see, cognitive psychology has ultimately become the preferred approach in psychology for research and theorizing about human cognition (Goldstein, 2011).

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Cognitive Psychology vs Behaviorism

Moore (1996) recognized the tensions of the paradigm shift from behaviorism to cognitive psychology.

While research into cognitive psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, and computational cognitive science is now widely accepted as the driving force behind understanding mental processes (such as memory, perception, problem-solving, and attention), this was not always the case (Gross, 2020).

Moore (1996) highlighted the relationship between behaviorism and the relatively new field of cognitive psychology, and the sometimes mistaken assumptions regarding the nature of the former approach:

  • Behaviorism is typically only associated with studying publicly observable behavior.
    Unlike behaviorism, cognitive psychology is viewed as free of the restrictions of logical positivism, which rely on verification through observation.

Since then, modern cognitive psychology has incorporated findings from many other disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

  • Unlike behaviorism, cognitive psychology is theoretical and explanatory.
    Behaviorism is often considered merely descriptive, while cognitive psychology is seen as being able to explain what is behind behavior.

Particular ongoing advances in cognitive psychology include perception, language comprehension and production, and problem-solving (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

  • Behaviorism cannot incorporate theoretical terms.
    While challenged by some behaviorists at the time, it was argued that behaviorism could not incorporate theoretical terms unless related to directly observable behavior.

At the time, cognitive psychologists also argued that it was wrong of behaviorists to interpret mental states in terms of brain states.

Neuroscience advances, such as new imaging techniques like functional MRI, continue to offer fresh insights into the relationship between the brain and mental states (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Clearly, the relationship between behaviorism and the developing field of cognitive psychology has been complex. However, cognitive psychology has grown into a school of thought that has led to significant advances in understanding cognition, especially when teamed up with other developments in computing and neuroscience.

This may not have been possible without the shift in the dominant schools of thought in psychology (Gross, 2020; Goldstein, 2011; Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

12 Key Theories, Concepts, and Models

Cognitive Psychology TheoriesCognitive psychology has turned its attention to all aspects of human cognition.

And while it is beyond the scope of this article to cover the full breadth or depth of the areas of research, we list several of the most important and fascinating specialties and theories below.


It is hardly possible to imagine a world in which attention doesn’t play an essential role in how we interact with the environment, and yet, we rarely give it a thought.

According to cognitive psychology, attention is most active when driven by an individual’s expectations or goals, known as top-down processing. On the other hand, it is more passive when controlled by external stimuli, such as a loud noise, referred to as bottom-up processing (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

A further distinction exists between focused attention (selective) and divided attention. Research into the former explores how we are able to focus on one item (noise, image, etc.) when there are several. In contrast, the latter looks at how we can maintain attention on two or more stimuli simultaneously.

Donald Broadbent proposed the bottleneck model to explain how we can attend to just one message when several are presented, for example, in dichotic listening experiments, where different auditory stimuli are presented to each ear. Broadbent’s model suggests multiple processing stages, each one progressively restricting the information flow (Goldstein, 2011).

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As with all other areas of cognition, perception is far more complicated than we might first imagine. Take, for example, vision. While a great deal of research has “involved presenting a visual stimulus and assessing aspects of its processing,” there is also the time aspect to consider (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 121).

We need to not only perceive objects, but also make sense of their movement and detect changes in the visual environment over time (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Research suggests perception, like attention, combines bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing involves neurons that fire in response to specific elements of an image – perhaps aspects of a face, nose, eyebrows, jawline, etc. Top-down processing considers how the knowledge someone brings with them affects their perception.

Bottom-down processing helps explain why two people, presented with the same stimuli, experience different perceptions as a result of their expectations and prior knowledge (Goldstein, 2011).

Combining bottom-up and top-down processing also enables the individual to make sense of both static and moving images when limited information is available; we can track a person walking through a crowd or a plane disappearing in and out of clouds (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

The mirror neuron system is incredibly fascinating and is proving valuable in our attempts to understand biological motion. Observing actions activates similar areas of the brain as performing them. The model appears to explain how we can imitate the actions of another person – crucial to learning (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Language comprehension

Whether written or spoken, understanding language involves a high degree of multi-level processing (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Comprehension begins with an initial analysis of sentence structure (larger language units require additional processing). Beyond processing syntax (the rules for building and analyzing sentences), analysis of sentence meaning (semantics) is necessary to understand if the interpretation should be literal or involve irony, metaphor, or sarcasm (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Pragmatics examines intended meaning. For example, shouting, “That’s the doorbell!” is not likely to be a simple observation, but rather a request to answer the door (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Several models have been proposed to understand the analysis and comprehension of sentences, known as parsing, including (Eysenck & Keane, 2015):

  • Garden-path model
    This model attempts to explain why some sentences are ambiguous (such as, “The horse raced past the barn fell.”). It suggests they are challenging to comprehend because the analysis is performed on each individual unit of the sentence with little feedback, and correction is inhibited.
  • Constraint-based model
    The interpretations of a sentence may be limited by several constraints, including syntactic, semantic, and general world knowledge.
  • Unrestricted race model
    This model combines the garden-path and constraint-based model, and suggests all sources of information inform syntactic structure. One such interpretation is selected until it is discarded, with good reason, for another.
  • Good-enough representation
    This model proposes that parsing provides a ‘good-enough’ interpretation rather than something detailed, accurate, and complete.

The research and theories above hint at the vast complexity of human cognition and explain why so many models and concepts attempt to answer what happens when it works and, equally important, when it doesn’t.


A level of psychology: the cognitive approach – Atomi

Fascinating Research Experiments

There are many research experiments in cognitive psychology that highlight the successes and failings of human cognition. Each of the following three offers insight into the mental processes behind our thinking and behavior.

Cocktail party phenomenon

Selective attention – or in this case, selective listening – is often exemplified by what has become known as the cocktail party phenomenon (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Even in a busy room and possibly mid-conversation, we can often hear if someone else mentions our name. It seems we can filter out surrounding noise by combining bottom-up and top-down processing to create a “winner takes it all” situation where the processing of one high-value auditory input suppresses the brain activity of all others (Goldstein, 2011).


While people may believe that the speed of hand movement allows magicians to trick us, research suggests the main factor is misdirection (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

A 2010 study of a trick involving the disappearance of a lighter identified that when the lighter was dropped (to hide it from a later hand-opening finale), it was masked by directing attention from the fixation point – known as covert attention – with surprising effectiveness.

However, subjects were able to identify the drop when their attention was directed to the fixation point – known as overt attention (Kuhn & Findlay, 2010).

Free will

In a thought-provoking study exploring freewill, participants were asked to consciously decide whether to move their finger left or right while a functional MRI scanner monitored their prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex (Soon, Brass, Heinze, & Haynes, 2008).

Brain activity predicted the direction of movement a full seven seconds before they consciously became aware of their decision. While follow-up research has challenged some of the findings, it appears that brain activity may come before conscious thinking (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

A Look at Positive Cognitive Psychology

Positive Cognitive PsychologyWhile there is limited academic literature available, there are signs of a new trend impacting therapy and research, known as positive cognitive psychology.

Associations have been found between positive emotions, creative thinking, and overall wellbeing, suggesting environmental changes that may benefit staff productivity and innovation in the workplace (Yuan, 2015).

Factors explored include creating climates geared toward creativity, boosting challenge, trust, freedom, risk taking, low conflict, and even the beneficial effects of humor.

Undoubtedly, further innovation will be seen from marrying the two powerful and compelling new fields of positive psychology and cognitive psychology.

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A Take-Home Message

Cognitive psychology is crucial in our search for understanding how we interact with and make sense of a constantly changing and potentially harmful environment.

Not only that, it offers insight into what happens when things go wrong and the likely impact on our wellbeing and ability to cope with life events.

Cognitive psychology’s strength is its willingness to embrace research findings from many other disciplines, combining them with existing psychological theory to create new models of cognition.

The tasks we appear to carry out unconsciously are a great deal more complex than they might first appear. Perception, attention, problem-solving, language comprehension and production, and decision-making often happen without intentional thought and yet have enormous consequences on our lives.

Use this article as a starting point to explore the many and diverse aspects of cognitive psychology. Consider their relationships with associated research fields and reflect on the importance of understanding cognition in helping clients overcome complex events or circumstances.

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  • Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. Psychology Press.
  • Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive psychology. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  • Gross, R. D. (2020). Psychology: The science of mind and behaviour. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Kuhn, G., & Findlay, J. M. (2010). Misdirection, attention and awareness: Inattentional blindness reveals temporal relationship between eye movements and visual awareness. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63(1), 136–146.
  • Moore, J. (1996). On the relation between behaviorism and cognitive psychology. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 17(4), 345–367
  • Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H., & Haynes, J. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543–545.
  • Yuan, L. (2015). The happier one is, the more creative one becomes: An investigation on inspirational positive emotions from both subjective well-being and satisfaction at work. Psychology, 6, 201–209.


What our readers think

  1. Janice L. Jamrosz

    As a widowed Mother and Grandmother, whom was recently told by an adult child that maybe I should have “cognitive” testing done, I found this article to be very informative and refreshing. Having the ability to read and and learn about cognitive psychology is interesting as their are so many ways our brains are affected from the time we are born until the time we reach each and every stage in life. I have spent time with my grandchildren who are from age 19 months, through 15 years old , and spend time with children who are 35, 34, and 32, and my parents who are 88 and 84. I appreciate your article and your time in writing it. Sincerely,

  2. Niranjan Dev Makker

    Cognitive Psychology creates & build human capacity to push physical and mental limits. My concept of cognition in human behavior was judged by the most time I met my lawyer or the doctor. Most of the time while listening a pause, oh I see and it is perpetual transition to see. Cognition emergence is very vital support as we see & perceive. My practices in engineering solution are base on my cognitive sensibilities.You article provokes the same perceptions. Thank you


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