What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Question: What Is Cognitive Psychology?


Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that studies mental processes including how people think, perceive, remember and learn. As part of the larger field of cognitive science, this branch of psychology is related to other disciplines including neuroscience, philosophy and linguistics.

The core focus of cognitive psychology is on how people acquire, process and store information. There are numerous practical applications for cognitive research, such as improving memory, increasing decision-making accuracy and structuring educational curricula to enhance learning.

Until the 1950s, behaviorism was the dominant school of thought in psychology. Between 1950 and 1970, the tide began to shift against behavioral psychology to focus on topics such as attention, memory and problem-solving. Often referred to as the cognitive revolution, this period generated considerable research including processing models, cognitive research methods and the first use of the term “cognitive psychology.”

The term “cognitive psychology” was first used in 1967 by American psychologist Ulric Neisser in his book Cognitive Psychology. According to Neisser, cognition involves “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations… Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon.”

How is Cognitive Psychology Different?

  • Unlike behaviorism, which focuses only on observable behaviors, cognitive psychology is concerned with internal mental states.
  • Unlike psychoanalysis, which relies heavily on subjective perceptions, cognitive psychology uses scientific research methods to study mental processes.

Who Should Study Cognitive Psychology?

  • Because cognitive psychology touches on many other disciplines, this branch of psychology is frequently studied by people in a number of different fields. The following are just a few of those who may benefit from studying cognitive psychology.
  • Students interested in behavioral neuroscience, linguistics, industrial-organizational psychology, artificial intelligence and other related areas.
  • Teachers, educators and curriculum designers can benefit by learning more about how people process, learn, and remember information.
  • Engineers, scientists, artists, architects and designers can all benefit from understanding internal mental states and processes.

Major Topics in Cognitive Psychology

  • Perception
  • Language
  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Problem-Solving
  • Decision-Making and Judgment
  • Intelligence

Important People in the History of Cognitive Psychology


  • Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. Meredith Publishing Company.
  • Sternberg, R. (2003). Cognitive Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.