Cognitive Psychology: What Is It and Who Founded It?

February 13, 2018 in Psychology 2 Shared
Figure of a head with a puzzle piece missing.

Cognitive psychology is currently one of the most influential and effective therapies used in the recovery from mental disorders. Although “cognitive” is not a very common term, it’s very common in the world of behavioral science.

For anyone not particularly familiar with psychology, let’s say that “cognitive” is a synonym of knowledge or thought.

All human beings are capable of generating cognitions. That is, thoughts or mental representations of the things we know or which occur around us. The same does not happen if we do not know or are not aware that something exists. 
Cognitive psychology, therefore, is the study of human behavior focused on nonobservable, mental aspects. They’re aspects somewhere between the stimulus and the observable response.

In more understandable terms, cognitive psychology seeks to know which ideas blossom in the mind of the patient and how these influence their emotional and behavioral response. How do these ideas influence how they feel and what they do about it?

Nowadays, cognitive therapy is frequently used to solve all kinds of psychological problems. This is because it’s about observing how these cognitions or thoughts influence the behavior of the patient. In many cases, these cognitions even determine their behavior.

Thus, treatment from this perspective focuses on identifying those thoughts, beliefs, and mental schemes. Which do not correspond to reality and, in some cases, which are exaggerated. It works through a debate consisting of asking questions that place doubt on these cognitions.

First, the individual or patient is to identify and question their own beliefs. Then they will be prepared to reformulate them and create new cognitions. Hopefully, they’ll be cognitions and thoughts more in line with objective reality.

The cognitive revolution

In the 50’s, the prevailing paradigm was behavioral psychology or psychology of learning. Granted, it managed to explain a multitude of psychological phenomena.

Yet it still was quite limited, since it could only explain the observable. Everything between stimuli and response was considered an epiphenomenon. It was the so-called behavioral “black box” and labeled as irrelevant to observable behavior.

When the behavioral approach came to a dead end, importance began to be given to other phenomena. For example, the phenomena that occurred in our minds between the moment we received a stimulus and the moment we gave a response. That’s when researchers began to study the processes of reasoning, language, memory, and imagination.

Woman in red with cloud for a head.

The same happened with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, a trend that also prevailed at the time. It was also not able to give an answer to many mental disorders, despite how revolutionary it was.

The so-called “cognitive revolution” arises irremediably, by which psychology is reoriented towards the private mental processes of the individual.

Broadly speaking, there are some lines of research that gave rise to the emergence of cognitive psychology, such as:

  • The advances in computer science and computation (Turing, Von Neumann…) which allowed for the creation of machines that are programmable and capable of making decisions. They did so by making something comparable to the human mind and how it can process information.
  • Advances in cybernetics, by the hands of Wiener.
  • The theories of information with Shannon, who conceived information as a choice and reduction of alternatives.

Which authors formulated cognitive psychology?

As we explained earlier, cognitive psychology came out of the limitations of behaviorism, which is unable to explain, for example, why there are people who respond differently even having received the same conditioning. The most well-known representatives that gave cognitive psychology a seat in the world of behavioral sciences were:

F.C. Bartlett

He was the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge. His main postulate was the theory of the schemes of the mind, by which he maintained that thoughts, like memories, are processes that can be reconstructed.

By reading fables to participants in his studies, he found that they were not able to remember them literally, even if the stories were read repeatedly. However, what he found was that these people were more likely to remember what fit into their previous mental patterns.

Jerome Bruner

For this author, there are three forms of learning: the enactive, the iconic and the symbolic. He established that a theory of instruction must focus on four major aspects.

  • Predisposition to learning
  • The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured
  • The sequences for presenting the material
  • And the nature and rhythm of reward and punishment

The most important part of his theory was this: a student would learn more and faster if he was involved in the knowledge he was trying to acquire and applied it.


He formulated the famous theory of multiple intelligences, according to which intelligence would be the ability to organize thoughts and coordinate them with actions. Each person would have at least eight types of intelligence or cognitive abilities.

These intelligences are semi-autonomous, but they work as a team (integrated) within the mind of the individual. Each person will also develop one type of intelligence to a greater degree than the others due to cultural emphasis.

Portrait of Howard Gardner.

Jeffrey Sternberg

Sternberg is best known for his triangular theory of love, according to which consummate love is composed of three elements: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

In turn, he also postulated the triarchic theory of intelligence, which says that intelligence is a mental activity aimed at adapting to, selecting, and shaping relevant environments of the subject in question. Intelligence, according to this researcher, would be demonstrated in how each one of us confronts or promotes changes.

David Rumerlhart

He is a very influential author of the theory of mental schemes. According to this researcher, mental schemes are representations of general concepts that are stored in the memory and that help us organize the world. His theory explains how the world is represented in our mind, and how we use that information to interact with the world.

Jean Piaget

He is one of the most important authors for cognitive psychology. He formulated the theory of cognitive development in stages. These stages are characterized by the possession of qualitatively different logical structures. Structures that account for certain capacities and impose certain restrictions on children.

Black and white portrait of Jean Piaget: cognitive psychology

There are many other representatives of cognitive psychology, such as Vygotsky, Erickson, or Ausubel who deserve a spot on this list. In any case, their contributions caused a revolution in psychology.

Because of what these men did, psychology has taken giant strides forward. Behaviorism is still relevant and even combined with cognitivism. Yet the latter has been a great advance over what we knew decades ago. It has improved the treatment of different mental disorders. Depression, for one, can now be treated much more effectively.

However, cognitive psychology is not exempt from limitations either. Reasoned criticisms that deal with the assumption that mental processes and behaviors are separate. Or, in fact, that the former precedes the latter.

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