What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022
4 min read

Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology dedicated to studying how people think. The cognitive perspective in psychology focuses on how the interactions of thinking, emotion, creativity, and problem-solving abilities affect how and why you think the way you do. Cognitive psychology attempts to measure different types of intelligence, determine how you organize your thoughts, and compare different components of cognition. 

Cognitive psychologists do clinical research, training, education, and clinical practice. They use the insights gained from studying how people think and process information to help people develop new ways of dealing with problem behaviors and live better lives. Cognitive psychologists have special knowledge of applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy, learning theories, and emotional processing theories. 

They know how to apply this knowledge to the human condition and use it in the treatment of: 

Cognitive psychology gained popularity in the 1950s to 1970s as researchers became more interested in how thinking affects behavior. This period is called the "cognitive revolution" and represented a shift in thinking and focus for psychologists. Before this time, the behaviorist approach dominated psychology. The behaviorists only studied external behavior that could be measured.

Behaviorists believed it was pointless to try to study the mind because there was no way to see or objectively measure what happened in someone's thoughts. The mind was seen as a black box that couldn't be measured. 

The cognitive approach gave rise to the idea that internal mental behavior could be studied using experiments. Cognitive psychology assumes that there is an internal process that occurs between when a stimulus happens and when you respond to it.

These processes are called mediational processes and can involve memory, perception, attention, problem-solving, or other processes. Cognitive psychologists believe if you want to understand behavior, you have to understand the mediational processes that cause it.

Some examples of studies and work in cognitive psychology include: 

Experts think differently. Beginners think literally when they try to solve a problem. They tend to focus on the surface details when they're presented with an unfamiliar situation. Experts are able to see the underlying connections and think of the problem more abstractly. 

Short-term memory. Your short-term memory is probably a lot shorter than you think. A classic study in cognitive psychology found that participants in a study could only recall 10% of random three-letter strings after 18 seconds. After 3 seconds, the participants could recall 80% of the letter strings, so there was a significant drop after 15 additional seconds. 

Mapping the brain. Some cognitive psychologists are working on the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. This project has been compared to the human genome project. It's an attempt to learn more about the 100 billion brain cells, including the connections between them and how they relate to behavior and health.

Cognitive psychology perspectives can be used to improve many areas of life, including how children learn. Researchers Pooja K. Agarwal and Henry L. Roediger III used insights from their cognitive psychology studies to develop better practices to encourage learning in the classroom. They used experiments to determine how students learn and apply their knowledge as well as disprove outdated theories. 

Experts used to believe that memory could be improved with practice, a theory that has been disproven. Another popular theory that has been debunked is that errors interfere with learning. The opposite is actually true. You learn from your mistakes, so making errors improves your ability to learn. While most educators have moved beyond those theories, there are still some unproven ones that linger, like the notion that different people have different learning styles. 

In addition to disproving theories that don't work, cognitive psychology shines a light on theories that do work. After combing through over 100 years of studies, researchers found four different practices that increased students' ability to learn: 

  • Retrieval practice, which is quickly bringing the information you're learning to mind
  • Getting feedback that lets you know what you don't know
  • Spaced practice, which is returning to the material periodically over time
  • Interleaving, which is practicing a mix of skills

Cognitive psychologists can work at universities doing research or teaching. They can also work in the private sector in organizational psychology, software development, or human-computer interaction. Another option for cognitive psychologists is working in a clinical setting treating patients for issues related to mental processes, like: 

You can work in some entry-level jobs with a bachelor's degree in cognitive psychology, but most opportunities will be available to people with a master's or doctorate degree. Most research done by people with master's degrees is supervised by cognitive psychologists with doctorate degrees.