What Is a Cognitive Approach in Psychology?


Martha Robinson

A cognitive approach in psychology is a theoretical perspective that attempts to understand human behavior and mental processes through the lens of information processing. This approach emphasizes the role of mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, language, and thinking in shaping behavior and experience.

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes such as “attention, language use, perception, problem-solving, memory and thinking.” Much of the work derived from cognitive psychology has been integrated into various other modern disciplines such as Cognitive Science and of psychological study, including educational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology and economics.

Cognitive psychologists typically assume that humans process information sequentially using a limited set of mental operations. They also assume that people actively construct their understanding of the world based on their experiences and prior knowledge.

The Origins of Cognitive Psychology:

The cognitive approach emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a response to behaviorism which emphasized observable behaviors rather than internal mental processes. The development of computer technology during this time served as an inspiration for cognitive psychologists who saw similarities between how computers process information and how humans do.

The work of George Miller was particularly influential in shaping the cognitive approach. In his classic paper “The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two,” he argued that people can only hold a limited amount of information in their short-term memory at once – about seven items on average.

The Key Concepts:

There are several key concepts that underpin the cognitive approach:


Schemas are mental frameworks or structures that help people organize their experiences. They allow individuals to quickly interpret new information based on their prior knowledge or expectations.

Information Processing:

Information processing refers to how people perceive, store, retrieve, and use information. The human mind is seen as a complex system that processes information using a series of mental operations.


Attention is the process by which people focus on certain aspects of their environment while ignoring others. Cognitive psychologists study how attention affects perception, memory, and problem-solving.

The Applications:

The cognitive approach has many applications in real-world settings. For example:

  • Education: Cognitive psychology has helped to develop more effective teaching methods by understanding how students process and retain information.
  • Clinical Psychology: Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a widely used treatment for depression and anxiety disorders that is based on the principles of the cognitive approach.
  • Artificial Intelligence: The development of AI systems has been heavily influenced by the cognitive approach, particularly in areas such as natural language processing and machine learning.

The Criticisms:

Although the cognitive approach has been influential in psychology, it is not without its criticisms. Some argue that it oversimplifies the complexity of human cognition by reducing it to a set of mental operations. Others have criticized it for neglecting the role of social and cultural factors in shaping behavior.

Despite these criticisms, the cognitive approach remains a powerful tool for understanding human behavior and mental processes. By studying how people think, perceive, and remember information, cognitive psychologists have shed light on many aspects of human experience.