Cognitive Psychology

The Science of How We Think

A man, sitting in a chair, talking to his psychiatrist
​MaskotOwner/Getty Images

Cognitive psychology is an area that focuses on the science of how people think. This branch of psychology explores a wide variety of mental processes, including how people think, use language, attend to information, and perceive their environments.

This article discusses what cognitive psychology is, the history of this field, and current directions for research. It also covers some of the practical applications for cognitive psychology research and career options you might consider in this field.

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive psychology involves the study of internal mental processes—all of the things that go on inside your brain, including perception, thinking, memory, attention, language, problem-solving, and learning.

Learning more about how people think and process information helps researchers gain a deeper understanding of how the human brain works. It also allows psychologists to develop new ways of helping people deal with psychological difficulties.

For example, by recognizing that attention is both a selective and limited resource, psychologists are able to come up with solutions that make it easier for people with attentional difficulties to improve their focus and concentration.

Recap

Findings from cognitive psychology help us understand how people think, including how they acquire and store memories. By knowing more about how these processes work, psychologists can develop new ways of helping people with cognitive problems.

Topics in Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychologists explore a wide variety of topics related to thinking processes. Some of these include: 

History of Cognitive Psychology

While it is a relatively young branch of psychology, it has quickly grown to become one of the most popular subfields. Cognitive psychology became more predominant during the period between the 1950s and 1970s.

Prior to this time, behaviorism was the dominant perspective in psychology. Then researchers became more interested in the internal processes that affect behavior instead of just the behavior itself. 

This shift is often referred to as the cognitive revolution in psychology. During this time, a great deal of research on topics including memory, attention, and language acquisition began to emerge. 

In 1967, the psychologist Ulric Neisser introduced the term cognitive psychology, which he defined as the study of the processes behind the perception, transformation, storage, and recovery of information.

Recap

Cognitive psychology became more prominent after the 1950s as a result of the cognitive revolution.

Current Research in Cognitive Psychology

The field of cognitive psychology is both broad and diverse. It touches on many aspects of daily life. There are numerous practical applications for this research, such as providing help coping with memory disorders, making better decisions, recovering from brain injury, treating learning disorders, and structuring educational curricula to enhance learning.

Current research on cognitive psychology helps play a role in how professionals approach the treatment of mental illness, traumatic brain injury, and degenerative brain diseases.

Thanks to the work of cognitive psychologists, we can better pinpoint ways to measure human intellectual abilities, develop new strategies to combat memory problems, and decode the workings of the human brain—all of which ultimately have a powerful impact on how we treat cognitive disorders.

The field of cognitive psychology is a rapidly growing area that continues to add to our understanding of the many influences that mental processes have on our health and daily lives.

Recap

From understanding how cognitive processes change as a child develops to looking at how the brain transforms sensory inputs into perceptions, cognitive psychology has helped us gain a deeper and richer understanding of the many mental events that contribute to our daily existence and overall well-being.

The Cognitive Approach in Practice

In addition to adding to our understanding of how the human mind works, the field of cognitive psychology has also had an impact on approaches to mental health. Before the 1970s, many mental health treatments were focused more on psychoanalytic, behavioral, and humanistic approaches.

The so-called "cognitive revolution" put a greater emphasis on understanding the way people process information and how thinking patterns might contribute to psychological distress. Thanks to research in this area, new approaches to treatment were developed to help treat depression, anxiety, phobias, and other psychological disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy are two methods in which clients and therapists focus on the underlying cognitions, or thoughts, that contribute to psychological distress.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that helps clients identify irrational beliefs and other cognitive distortions that are in conflict with reality and then aid them in replacing such thoughts with more realistic, healthy beliefs.

If you are experiencing symptoms of a psychological disorder that would benefit from the use of cognitive approaches, you might see a psychologist who has specific training in these cognitive treatment methods.

These professionals frequently go by titles other than cognitive psychologists, such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, or counseling psychologists, but many of the strategies they use are rooted in the cognitive tradition.

Careers in Cognitive Psychology

While many cognitive psychologists specialize in research and are employed by universities or government agencies, others take a clinical focus and work directly with people who are experiencing challenges related to different mental processes. They may work in hospitals, mental health clinics, or private practices.

Research psychologists who work in this area often focus on a particular area of interest, such as memory. Others might work directly on specific health concerns related to cognition, such as degenerative brain disorders or brain injuries.

Reasons to Consult a Cognitive Psychologist

  • Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or memory loss
  • Brain trauma treatment
  • Cognitive therapy for a mental health condition
  • Interventions for learning disabilities
  • Perceptual or sensory issues
  • Therapy for a speech or language disorder

The work of cognitive psychologists is essential for helping people who have experienced issues with mental processes. While we tend to take abilities such as attention and problem-solving for granted, perhaps because they are so woven into the fabric of our everyday existence, cognitive disruptions can create havoc in multiple areas of life.

Attention problems can make it difficult to focus at work or at school. Even relatively minor memory problems can make the demands of everyday life a struggle. And negative thinking can interfere with health and happiness.

We all experience negative thoughts from time to time, but some people may find themselves overwhelmed with pessimistic thinking patterns that make it difficult to function. These ruminations can lead to increased stress levels, pessimism, and self-sabotage, and feelings of learned helplessness.

With the help of cognitive psychologists, people are often able to find ways to cope and even overcome such difficulties.

Treatments rooted in cognitive research focus on helping people change negative thinking patterns and replace such thoughts with more positive and realistic ones.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive psychology plays an important role in understanding the processes of memory, attention, and learning. It can also provide insights into cognitive conditions that may affect how people function.

Being diagnosed with a brain or cognitive health problem can be daunting, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. Together with a healthcare provider, you can come up with an effective treatment plan to help address brain health and cognitive problems.

Your treatment may involve consulting with a cognitive psychologist who has a background in the specific area of concern that you are facing, or you may be referred to another mental health professional that has training and experience with your particular condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who founded cognitive psychology?

    Ulric Neisser is considered the founder of cognitive psychology. He was the first to introduce the term and to define the field of cognitive psychology. His primary interests were in the areas of perception and memory, but he suggested that all aspects of human thought and behavior were relevant to the study of cognition.

  • What is a cognitive map in psychology?

    A cognitive map refers to a mental representation of an environment. Such maps can be formed through observation as well as through trial and error. These cognitive maps allow people to orient themselves in their environment.

  • How does cognitive neuroscience differ from cognitive psychology?

    While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. While cognitive psychology focuses on thinking processes, cognitive neuroscience is focused on finding connections between thinking and specific brain activity. Cognitive neuroscience also looks at the underlying biology that influences how information is processed.

  • How are cognitive and experimental psychology related?

    Cognitive psychology is a form of experimental psychology. Cognitive psychologists use experimental methods to study the internal mental processes that play a role in behavior.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sternberg RJ, Sternberg K. Cognitive Psychology. Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. 

  2. Cutting JE. Ulric Neisser (1928-2012). Am Psychol. 2012;67(6):492. doi:10.1037/a0029351

  3. Ruggiero GM, Spada MM, Caselli G, Sassaroli S. A historical and theoretical review of cognitive behavioral therapies: from structural self-knowledge to functional processesJ Ration Emot Cogn Behav Ther. 2018;36(4):378-403. doi:10.1007/s10942-018-0292-8

  4. Parvin P. Ulric Neisser, cognitive psychology pioneer, dies. Emory News Center.

  5. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Cognitive map. American Psychological Association.

  6. Forstmann BU, Wagenmakers EJ, Eichele T, Brown S, Serences JT. Reciprocal relations between cognitive neuroscience and formal cognitive models: opposites attract?. Trends Cogn Sci. 2011;15(6):272-279. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.04.002

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.