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What is the Cognitive Approach?

Updated on April 14, 2013
Cognitive science uses a whole variety of fields to try and understand the brain as a computer and not something so special that it cannot be fully understood.
Cognitive science uses a whole variety of fields to try and understand the brain as a computer and not something so special that it cannot be fully understood. | Source

The Definition of the Cognitive Approach

Cognition: 'the processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered and used' - Ulric Neisser, considered to be the founder of cognitive science through coining the the term in his book: 'Cognitive Psychology' (1967).

This is what the cognitive approach is all about: how received data (via the senses) are inputted and used within our brains.

The Cognitive Approach and other Approaches

  • The cognitive approach values the use of scientific and experimental methods and so rejects both the humanistic approach and the psychodynamic approach.
  • It also values internal mental thought processes: our motivations, beliefs, desires etc. when concerned with our resulting behaviour. This is in stark contrast to the behaviourist approach which rejects all of these active and internal thought processes from being part of our behaviour.

Key Principles of the Cognitive Approach

  • Humans are very much like computers, and like them process information internally - they store, encode and output data.
  • They organise and manipulate the data they receive from the outside world.
  • There are mental processes between stimulus and behavioural response.
  • Individuals process information differently.

A 1 Hour Video About The Cognitive Approach

Information-Processing Approach

  • Looks at the mind like the software of a computer,
  • The brain in turn is the hardware of the computer.
  • We take in information from our environment, then transform the information using mental processes and finally create an output (our behaviour).
  • To summarise: Input -> transforming the data into a decision - > Output

An example of this is the batter in a game of cricket:

  1. [Input] The batter sees the ball being bowled towards him with spin. He also perceives the placement of the fielders (who catch the ball) and himself in relation to the ball.
  2. [Decision Making] He judges that he must hit the ball in the spot where the fielders are furthest away.
  3. [Output] He hits the ball to the correct location successfully.

This process also explains why sometimes a batter in cricket will not hit successfully - perhaps his input wasn't accurate and he judged that he had more time than he really did before the ball reached him; maybe his decision making was flawed because he didn't think fast enough and so hit the ball to a fielder. Lastly, perhaps he had motor problems at that moment and could not accurately move to perform his decided output.

Connectionist Model

  • Does not use the computer analogy.
  • Instead uses a 'neural' analogy: that the mind is a hub of millions of interconnected neurons.
  • When certain neurons that are all connected with each other become 'activated', the sensation of a learnt association is created.

Computational Model

  • Still uses the analogy of a computer to explain the human brain & mind.
  • Focusses on the intricate details of what is actually used to process information.
  • Tries to explain how, physically, our desires, goals and expectations effect our performance of tasks.

Strengths of the Cognitive Approach

  • Uses rigorous scientific methods to accumulate evidence - unlike the psychodynamic and humanistic approaches.
  • Caters for internal mental processes, unlike behaviourism.
  • The models theorised in the cognitive approach have been used successfully in the real world: to aid eye witness interview techniques for better results and also to explain mental processes in general.

Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach

  • The models have been criticised as being too simplistic.
  • Humans are not machines and are something far more complex and sophisticated.
  • Experiments are conducted under laboratory conditions and therefore there is low ecological validity for the findings of many experiments supporting the cognitive approach.

Key Figures in Cognitive Psychology

Famous Works
Ulric Neisser
Founder of Cognitive Psychology (by coining the term)
'Cognitive Psychology' (1967)
Atkinson and Shiffrin
Invented the Multi-Store Model of Memory
Human Memory: A proposal system and its control processes


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