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The Evolution of Cognitive Psychology

Updated on March 18, 2014


When one thinks of ancient Greeks like Aristotle and Plato, cognitive psychology is probably not what first comes to mind, but they were instrumental in the development of psychology in general as well as cognitive psychology specifically. What started as philosophical discussions about thought and the human mind soon turned into psychological theories, experimentation, and studies. Many of those experiments and studies were conducted in an attempt to find a way to understand and explain how the human mind worked. In this paper the term ‘cognition’ will be defined and the idea that cognitive psychology in combination with other fields of study can help define how mental processes work will be discussed. Historical background will also be included to illustrate how cognitive psychology emerged as a theory in the field of psychology and what effect the decline of behaviorism had of cognitive psychology.

Whereas psychology is defined as ‘the scientific study of mental processes and behavior’, cognitive psychology focusses only on mental processes and leaves out the behavior aspect. Cognitive psychologists still take behavior into account but mainly as a way to understand the fundamental processes that caused the behavior to happen, rather than the behavior itself (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Mental processes included in those studied in cognitive psychology include attention, memory, language development, problem solving, and decision-making (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008). Two of the main schools of thought in cognitive psychology are the information-processing approach and the connectionist approach. The first looks at the brain like a machine that both encodes and stores data for retrieval at a later time. This approach has been popular since the 1950s. The connectionist approach focusses on the neural connections in the brain as a way to understand the thought process and these networks are the foundation for mental process and representations (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008). According to McLaughlin, 2009, cognitive psychology is still considered by many to be the principal area of study in the field of psychology.

Cognitive Psychology: Interdisciplinary Perspective

Cognitive psychology is one area that studies cognition, but another is called cognitive science. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary study of the mind and intellect that includes numerous disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, 2010). While cognitive science is basically made up of a collection of the fields of study mentioned above and is not a separate discipline of its own, the amalgamation of ideas from these different methods helps to illustrate just how complex the human mind is. In some ways it makes studying human mental processes more exciting to look at them from so many different perspectives (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, 2010). There are also many sub-disciplines in psychology as well that tie into cognitive psychology. For instance, evolutionary psychologists look at how concepts like natural selection and developmental selection involve cognitive processes. Other examples include studies in the field of education that include cognitive psychology, social psychologists who look at the differences between people from different cultures and how that may influence the way people think, and even behaviorists use cognitive therapy to treat conditions like OCD (Heyes, 2003).

Emergence of Cognitive Psychology

Ancients Greeks were the first to try to understand the working of the human mind. Both Aristotle and Plato, among others, were philosophers who attempted to clarify how the human mind worked. For many years the workings of the human mind remained under the purview of philosophers. It was not until the nineteenth century that experimental psychology was developed (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, 2010). Around the end of the 1800s cognitive psychological theories began to appear in works by Cattell, Wundt, and James (Zhong-Lin & Dosher, 2007). Wundt and the students in his classes began trying to study mental processes in a laboratory setting in more of a systematic way through the use of scientific experiments. It did not take long for behaviorism to take hold and dominate the psychology community. While behaviorism was at its height of popularity terms like consciousness and mental representations were rarely included in any discussion involving psychological studies. In the middle of the 1950s things started to change. George Millers theory about short-term memory having a limited ability to store data over seven data units long as well as his idea that these limitations could be reduced by memorizing date’s in chunks, or using mental representations to encode and decode information was just the beginning. John McCarthy, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, and Marvin Minsky started looking at the possibility of using artificial intelligence and Norm Chomsky came up with his theory about language comprehension involving rules and using mental grammar to replace the behavioral perspectives idea that language is a learned habit. Some would say that the six men listed above founded cognitive science (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, 2010).

Decline of Behaviorisms effect on Cognitive Psychology

When behaviorism became popular around the middle of the 20th century, interest in cognition faded. It was not long before holes in the behavioristic theories came to light concerning differentiating between memory and performance as well as when it came to explaining complex learning, and it did not take too long before cognition was back in popularity again. Around the middle of the 1950s theories comparing the human mind to computers became popular and in the 1960s cognitive psychology was the main theory being explored in psychological studies (Zhong-Lin & Dosher, 2007).

Scientific study involves observation, measurement, and repeatability. That being the case John B. Watson decided that consciousness should not be included in any psychological study. Consciousness cannot be seen so observation is not an option, it cannot be measured so measurement was not going to happen, and it could not be reproduced so repeatability was also not an option. Thus, according to Watson, it was not scientific. On the other hand behavior can be observed, measured, and recurring so he believed that behaviorism should be emphasized with it came to scientific psychological studies. His studies focused on observable stimuli and the responses to that stimulus. Even though they agreed that somewhere between the stimulus and response consciousness was involved, but studying it was seen as a waste of time since the study could not, in his eyes, be scientific. Even though he meant well, eliminating consciousness from psychological study may have helped in the reemergence of cognitive psychology as other psychologists were able to prove that scientific study of mental processes could be done in a scientific manner.

Another psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, decided to study how memory worked using himself as the test subject. He memorized random strings of letters to see how many tries it took to memorize the list completely. After time had passed he went back to see if it took the same or less time to relearn the string of letters and found that it was faster to do so the second time. These were experimental tests and even though he was the only subject, it was he was testing a complex mental process as early as the 1800s. Other studies on memory were also conducted that validated that mental processes could be scientifically studied (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008).


Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes. The Greek philosophers may have gotten the ball rolling, but the early psychologist like Cattell, Wundt, and James as well as Miller, McCarthy, Newell, Simon, Minsky, and Chomsky who were instrumental in developing theories that helped to explain mental processes took the ball and ran. A collection of disciplines are included under the umbrella of cognitive science, including philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology. Using these other models along with psychology provided a strong foundation on which to study cognition and permitted a very complex subject to be explained in a way that was easier to understand. Even though behaviorism took over the scientific community for a while cognitive soon gained popularity again as the holes in behaviorism became apparent. With the onset of technology came the concept of comparing the human brain to a computer, and this led to the development of the information-processing theory, though it was not the only theory to explain mental processes. The connectionist theory focused on neural networks to explain the thought process. While behaviorists believed that cognition could not be scientifically tested, may studies have been done over the year that illustrate just how wrong they were.


Heyes, C. (2003). Four routes of cognitive evolution. Psychological Review, 110(4), 713-727.


McLaughlin, J. E. (2009). Discourse or cognition: An introduction to discursive psychology.

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Robinson-Riegler, G., & Robinson-Riegler, B. (2008). Cognitive psychology: Applying the science of the mind (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. (2010). Cognitive Science. Retrieved from

Zhong-Lin, L. and Dosher, B. D., (2007). Cognitive Psychology. Retrieved from


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