Cognitive psychology is the psychological science which studies cognition, the mental processes that are hypothesised to underlie behavior. This covers a broad range of research domains, examining questions about the workings of memory, attention, perception, knowledge representation, reasoning, creativity and problem solving.

Cognitive psychology is radically different from previous psychology approaches in two key ways.

  • It accepts the use of the scientific method, and generally rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation, unlike phenomenological methods such as Freudian psychology.
  • It posits the existence of internal mental states (such as beliefs, desires and motivations) unlike behaviourist psychology. The school of thought arising from this approach is known as cognitivism.

Cognitive psychology is one of the more recent additions to psychological research, having only developed as a separate area within the discipline since the late 1950s and early 1960s (though there are examples of cognitive thinking from earlier researchers). The term came into use with the publication of the book Cognitive psychology by Ulrich Neisser in 1967. However the cognitive approach was brought to prominence by Donald Broadbent's book Perception and Communication in 1958. Since that time, the dominant paradigm in the area has been the information processing model of cognition that Broadbent put forward. This is a way of thinking and reasoning about mental processes, envisaging them like software running on the computer that is the brain. Theories commonly refer to forms of input, representation, computation or processing, and outputs.

This way of conceiving mental processes has pervaded psychology more generally over the past few decades, and it is not uncommon to find cognitive theories within social psychology, personality, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology; the application of cognitive theories in comparative psychology has led to many recent studies in animal cognition.

The information processing approach to cognitive functioning is currently being questioned by new approaches in psychology, such as dynamical systems, and the embodiment perspective.

Because of the use of computational metaphors and terminology, cognitive psychology was able to benefit greatly from the flourishing of research in artificial intelligence and other related areas in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, it developed as one of the significant aspects of the inter-disciplinary subject of cognitive science, which attempts to integrate a range of approaches in research on the mind and mental processes.

Major research areas in cognitive psychology

  • Perception
    1. Attention and Filter theories (the ability to focus mental effort on specific stimuli while excluding other stimuli from consideration)
    2. Pattern recognition (the ability to correctly interpret ambiguous sensory information)
  • Memory
    1. Short-term memory and long-term memory
    2. Autobiographical memory
    3. Episodic memory
    4. Flashbulb memory
    5. Semantic memory
    6. Constructive memory
    7. Encoding, storing and retrieving memory-based information
  • Knowledge representation
    1. Mental imagery
    2. Propositional encoding
    3. Imagery versus proposition debate
    4. Dual-coding theories
    5. Mental models
  • Language
    1. Grammar and linguistics
    2. Phonetics and phonology
    3. Language acquisition
  • Thinking
    1. Logic, formal and natural reasoning
    2. Concept formation
    3. Problem solving
    4. Judgment and decision making