Chapter 1: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the study of the way people think. More specifically, it investigates how people perceive, learn, remember, and process information.

The value of studying anything is in understanding the nature of things - how they work, what has worked in the past, and even what has failed in the past - as a means to making better decisions. We may still make mistakes, but can take some pride in making them for the first time rather than repeating them.

(EN: An abrupt switch here - no transition between these topics)

Hegel observed the dialectical progression of ideas, which identifies a specific pattern of thinking:

  1. A thesis is proposed, which is a statement of belief
  2. An antithesis arises, which states the perfect opposite of the thesis
  3. Information is gathered, which supports either the thesis or antithesis, which leads to a synthesis that integrates the most credible features of the two views

Philosophical Antecedents

The earliest consideration of the workings of the human mind are traced to philosophy, which attempts to understand the general nature of things through a process of introspection, the examination of ideas that generally begins with observations, but quickly departs into an entirely theoretical realm.

Plato and Aristotle profoundly affected what would later become psychology. Plato was a rationalist, who considered that knowledge was gained from logical analysis. His student Aristotle took an empiricist approach, believing that knowledge was gained through observation.

Of the two, Aristotle's views took precedence as "science" broke away from philosophy, and preference was given to things that could be observed and demonstrated rather than those that seemed to be logically sound. Ultimately, one without the other proves useless.

These two basic approaches converge and diverge throughout the history of Western thought. Descartes can be categorized as a rationalist while Locke can be categorized as an empiricist.

Kant was also influential among psychologists, in his synthesis of the rational and empirical approaches: both are necessary. Mere observation lacks structure and fails to observe the relationships among things if not associated to a rational framework.

Psychological Antecedents


An early approach to psychology was structuralism, which sought to understand the way that the elements of perception are assembled into more complex perceptions. For example, a structuralist considers the perception of a flower to be a collection of constituent parts: its shape, its color, its texture, its size, and so on.

Introspection is a common practice in this approach: a person considers his on knowledge and attempts to divide it into parts and consider the associations among them. In effect, it is analyzing and categorizing one's own perceptions.


Functionalism is an approach that seeks to understand what people do and why they do it. Practitioners of this school disregarded the structure of the mind - its components and how they interacted - as this was largely unobservable. Instead, they considered the outcomes that could be observed and ideas that could be expressed. In brief, people have reasons for behaving the way that they do, and behavior is a product of a rational process of thought.

Pragmatists, a subset of functionalists, valued knowledge by its usefulness. Any behavior that led to a demonstrably positive outcome was good, and any that failed to do so or caused harm was bad. By this theory a person undertakes an action for the sake of achieving a desired outcome.

Early leaders in functionalism, including William James and John Dewey, had a profound influence on cognitive psychology, even to the present day.


This school of thought considered the way that ideas relate to one another in the human mind to result in a form of learning. For example, a person associates the drinking of water to the alleviation of thirst and thus understands the connection between the two.

This remains an introspective method of study, with a theorist considering his own knowledge and the way that ideas are related in his own mind. However, associationism has demonstrated results in terms of memory and learning - when the names of two items are repeated over and over, the mention of one item (stimulus) brings its associated item to mind (response). This also demonstrates that repetition is valuable to learning.


The basic principle of associationism was evident in early behaviorism, in which it was reckoned that all behaviors are the response to an internal or external stimulus.

This is best known in the work of Pavlov, who demonstrated the ability to elicit behavior by associating actions to external stimuli - which was accidentally discovered in his investigation of the digestive system. He recognized that his experimental dogs would salivate when they saw the assistant who routinely fed them, and discovered that the salivation response could be keyed to other stimuli.

This has always been controversial because experimenting on human beings is regarded as unethical, but it is questionable whether experiments on animal subjects can be correctly related to human beings.

In essence, behaviorism rests on the same premises as associationism, though it is specific to actions as an outcome rather than merely mental connections among concepts.

Radical behaviorism, championed by Watson, believed that psychologists should focus only on observable behavior rather than verbal expressions. Another stark difference between behaviorism and previous schools is the introduction of the scientific method, including experiments and outcomes that were observable.

Skinner believed that virtually all forms of human behavior could be explained by stimulus and response, and rejected mental mechanisms, considering instead that these responses were automatic and involuntary. He further extended conditioning by suggesting that behavior could be reinforced or discouraged by reward and punishment. Largely because of Skinner, behaviorism dominated psychology for decades.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychologists maintained that there were many factors that explained human behavior, and it could not be whittled down to simple associative pairs. In particular, they proposed great complexity, and that simplifying the human mind by breaking it down into atoms is not sufficient - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts was their mantra.

Gestalt is based on experience, the thoughts and perceptions of each moment impact the subject as a whole and are not digested into small elements, but instead remain whole in the mind.

Emergence of Cognitive Psychology

A more recent approach is "cognitivism," which investigates the way that people think. This approach challenged the behaviorist view that the human brain is a passive organ that merely responds to environmental stimuli. The human mind is capable of highly intricate activities such as musical performance, game playing, and using language. Thus considered, the brain to is proactive, and much thought occurs within the mind before action is taken that cannot be simplified to responses to stimuli.

Donald Hebb reasoned that thought was physically contained within the cells of the brain, that its physical structure developed over time - and that the past experiences rather than the immediate perceptions shaped much of human thought.

Even as early as the 1950s, attempts to create "artificial intelligence" had begun based on various theories of cognition. The input-process-output model of electronic logic dovetailed nicely with associative and behavioral psychology - and while this model has had some success in programming computers to do some rather clever and complicated things, it's evident that even after several decades of development that computers cannot think in the same way that people can.

And so it followed in the field of psychology that the traditional behaviorist account of behavior was inadequate and not at all a realistic representation of the way people think. This led to a new approach that required reconsidering the nature of thought: cognitive psychology.

Research Methods

In brief, research involves various activities pertaining to gathering and processing information - it is very similar to cognition itself. It involves gathering data, analyzing it, forming theories and hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and applying theory in experimentation.

The initial step to research is gathering information, as the material to work upon. Often, and ideally, researchers gather as much data related to a phenomenon as possible without attempting to correlate it to a specific conclusion, such that their research is not subverted by preconceived notions.

(EN: This is particularly important in the present day, when much of research is done very poorly and subjectively. Particularly in practical applications, the approach is to form a hypothesis or theory and seek out data to prove it, which is a poor process that leads to flawed thinking, bad theory, and abominable practices.)

Cognitive studies, in particular, seek not merely to investigate the results of what happens, but also to delve into the reasons why it should happen. As a result, much of psychology is based on inference upon observations, whereas hard sciences stop at the observations themselves.

As such, cognitive psychology begins with theory - a system of principles related to the phenomenon of human thinking - and then proceeds to define hypothesis, or statements that must be true in order for the theory to be valid, and then seeks proof.

Where possible, experimentation is conducted to test a hypothesis. It is a repetitive process that employs statistical analysis as a method of ensuring accuracy - in effect, any result may be an anomaly, but gains reliability if there is significant correlation between cause and effect, particularly if it can be replicated or demonstrated multiple times. Statistics are heavily employed to validate correlation.

The results of research suggest that a theory should be accepted, adjusted, or abandoned. In many instances, research indicates the need for further research.

Sidebar: Pop Psychology and Junk Research

Since the beginning, there has been great interest in psychology outside of the academic profession: to be able to understand and control human behavior has great potential for those covetous of power and profit, and many have seized on this craving.

The amount of absolute rubbish that is being passed off as sound theory is both laughable and tragic - but it is an interesting observation of human behavior itself that people are eager to accept bad ideas that promise them a quick win or justify their existing beliefs, regardless of the utter lack of valid evidence for these theories.

The field of popular or "pop" psychology has sold many self-help books, seminars, clinics, and the like. It is very important to distinguish this circus from the profession of psychology, though the quacks and their followers are very eager to maintain a facade of scientific validity so they may continue to prey upon the vanities and frailties of an ignorant public.

Examining the research behind a theory is often the most direct and effective route of sorting out the chaff. The pop psychologists never have done valid research, though they may attempt to suggest that they have, and the details of their studies are never available for public inspection or academic validation.

Primary Research Methods

The author presents a list of a number of primary research methods: controlled laboratory experiments, psychobiological research, self-reports, case studies, natural observations, and computer simulations. Each of these methods has a distinctive way in which information is gathered and analyzed, and some are more effective or appropriate for the investigation of a specific phenomenon.


Experimentation involves the construction of an artificial laboratory environment in which the researcher attempts to control some variables while manipulating others - the premise being that any difference in the observed results can be attributed to the change in the controlled variables.

Careful selection of samples is significant to the outcomes of experimentation: ideally, a sample is representative of the population so that the results of the experiment correlate to reality. (EN: This is a particular problem in psychological experimentation, in that it is done on college campuses and selects a convenience sample of volunteers who are distinctly skewed in age, gender, social class, and other parameters.)

In the hard sciences, there is better ability to control the subjects of experimentation: the physical properties of one bar of pure copper are the same as the next. In medicine, there is some difference in the structure and chemistry of the bodies of animals of the very same species, which introduces some variability. In psychology, there is a wide degree of idiosyncrasies between the mind of one person and another who seems similar in many other regards.

Another limitation of experimentation is the laboratory environment itself, and the degree to which it departs from reality. Particularly in psychological experimentation, the laboratory environment skews the results because the test subjects are aware they are being observed in an artificial situation, which changes their behavior.

Ultimately, laboratory experimentation is widely considered the most valid method of research and is quite useful in other fields of study, but does not have the same validity in psychological research. It should be carefully considered whether the drawbacks of laboratory experimentations will undermine the validity of results.

Psychobiological Research

This method of research investigates the correlation between the psychological and biological phenomena. In simpler terms, behavior is correlated to observable factors such as the structure of the brain, its chemistry, and the flow of electricity through the organ.

There are three categories of technique:

  1. Postmortem examination of the brain after death, correlated to behaviors observed in life
  2. In vivo examination of the brains of individuals who are known to have specific cognitive deficits or proclivities
  3. In vivo observation of the brains of "normal" individuals while they are undertaking a specific activity, whether an observable task or a mental activity

The postmortem examinations gather more reliable evidence, but cannot for obvious reasons observe the brain in action. In vivo examinations can observe the brain in action, but only by indirect methods - it is impractical or unethical to use invasive methods on a live subject, and in any case they are likely to corrupt the results.

There is also some debate on whether results received from experimentation on animals or abnormal human beings can be generalized to the population: the medical sciences make limited use of animal subjects, recognizing that their anatomy may be similar to that of human beings in certain regards, but only in a gross and general manner. The same limitation applies to psychobiological research, but the doubt is even more pronounced because the brain of the human being is its most idiosyncratic organ in comparison to the various animal species.

Self-Reports, Case Studies, and Observation

There are various forms of research that gather information from a natural environment, differentiated by their characteristics.

While these methods observe real behavior in a natural environment and as a result have 'high ecological validity," they also have certain drawbacks, primarily the subjective nature of observation and of memory, the degree to which people can be accurate and truthful with themselves and others (not necessarily an intention to deceive, but to report what they think ought to be done rather than what they actually do).

The author considers one or two factors of survey design that result in bad or inaccurate responses, but the delicacy of this task is much broader than his examples suggest, and surveying is done in far too casual and sloppy a manner in general. Before accepting results, always demand to see the survey instrument.

Computer Simulations

Fascination with computer technology has led some researchers to employ the devices in psychological research. The basic method is to develop a computer program that mimics certain psychological processes and provide it with various data to observe the results.

Such practices have been widely criticized, because they assume that the mathematical model is an accurate representation of the human mind: if the intelligence of animals is a poor reflection of that of human beings, the intelligence of computers is even more so, as it is not at all natural, but purposefully contrived and woefully inaccurate.

Key Issues and Fields

The authors pause to consider some of the key issues and themes in cognitive psychology, as they are likely to bubble up constantly throughout the text:

There are ongoing debates for each of the options, but recalling the nature of dialectic, the ultimate synthesis is usually "neither A nor B but a little of both." Riding adherence to one side or the other of an argument may proscribe beneficial and highly informative research and lead us astray.

The ultimate goal of cognitive psychology is to understand human thought, not to uphold or defend one theory or practice, but to leverage what is most informative and, ultimately, most accurate.

Key Ideas

The author also presents five key ideas that seem to continually reemerge in cognitive psychology:

1. Data and Theory Together

Data without a theory is merely an observation of correlation without a context that makes it meaningful. We can readily observe that people are better at remembering something if they have a visual cue than without one, but this alone does not suggest anything that is remotely meaningful or useful.

Meanwhile, a theory without data is empty speculation. "Anyone can sit in an armchair and propose a theory, even a plausible-sounding one." What sounds reasonable and can be proven by means of formal logic is often entirely wrong when tested in reality, and as such a theory that is not proven out in reality, by data, is of little value.

2. Cognition is Usually Adaptive

For any action we take, there is an infinite range of possible actions we might have taken that would have produced less satisfactory outcomes. It is reckoned that the cognitive apparatus has evolved over time, and that we can identify a good choice or a bad one without a great deal of deliberation. If the outcome of human action were no more likely to result in positive incomes than mere statistical chance, the species would not likely have survived.

However, we do not automatically gravitate toward positive choices, and intense meditation does not guarantee that we will choose the most beneficial course of action. In fact, it is entirely possible to "over think" problems and reject an option in favor of a worse choice.

As such, we can observe that our rational mind has the general tendency to lead us in the right direction, but not infallibly so.

3. Cognition is Not Isolated

Our cognitive processes interact with one another and with non-cognitive processes. As much as researchers would like to isolate a single process, it is impossible to focus the mind on one thing in a pure and unadulterated manner.

For example, memory is cue by perception, so when memory is tested in a laboratory environment, even a stark room, anything in the sensory perception of the subject is triggering memories - and the same memories that are evoked in a controlled setting may not be evoked in a different setting because the sensory stimuli are different.

Even without environmental cues, the mind is beset by internal ones: awareness of the state of our bodies, and other things that are on our mind, can at any given moment intrude upon or influence a cognitive process.

4. A Variety of Methods is Necessary

There is no one right way to study cognition, and it is naive to think that a "best" method can be identified for all subjects. Each research method has its advantages and disadvantages, and a wiser approach is to use multiple research methods to test a hypothesis to determine whether they come to a similar conclusion.

As such, scientists who specialize in one method of research or favor it to the exclusion of all others are putting on blinders and limiting the validity of their conclusions.

5. Basic understandings lead to application, and vice-versa

Basic research yields observations about correlations in general, and are eventually tested in the field - a scientific observation without a practical application is entirely academic and of interest to no-one.

At the same time, application of research often leads to the formation of basic understandings, whether or not this is intentional. It is generally when a basic understanding is attempted in practical application that we recognize a specific lack of understanding that we must return to basic research to investigate.