Introduction - Cognitive psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Cognitive psychology

Andrew Gilbert

Cognitive psychology is a term used to describe that field of psychology that studies what goes on in the mind. Cognition concerns the mental processes or capacities that exist when people are engaged in activities such as learning, thinking, remembering, being creative, planning, analysing, reasoning and solving problems.

At different times in the history of psychology, different aspects of cognition have received particular attention. As a result, there are a number of specific areas of focus within the broad field of cognitive psychology. Among these are the following:

•Learning and conditioning, which explains how animals and humans learn behaviour

•Motivation, which describes the basic urges of our bodies and the highest desires of our minds

•Thinking, which has a more general focus on how people reason, solve problems and think in their everyday lives

•Attention, which describes how and what information people select to attend to from the vast array of information with which they are confronted

•Language, which focuses on the relationship between thought and language

•Memory, which is concerned with how and why people remember or forget things

•Intelligence, which is concerned with the measurement of individual differences in the capacity for intellectual activities

In this part, each of these areas is dealt with in a separate chapter.

However, there are a number of issues that are present in all these different areas. You will find them constantly reappearing, sometimes in disguised ways, as you work your way through the next seven chapters. To help you see some of the common threads, three particular issues are highlighted here.

First, all seven chapters work with the assumption that thinking is a mental process. Mental processes are generally understood as internal processes going on in the mind. The study of such processes creates a huge challenge because it is difficult to examine something that cannot be directly observed. One of the ways psychologists address this problem is to develop theories that make assumptions regarding what these internal processes might be like. As you read these chapters, you will notice some very different assumptions about these internal processes. Some psychologists use the computer as a metaphor for looking at mental processes, others consider thinking to be a mental process linked to the individual’s adaptation to the environment, and still others see mental processes as being the internalisation of cultural ways of doing things.

Second, while historically the focus in cognitive psychology has been on internal mental processes, a growing number of psychologists recognise that this focus is based on an artificial separation of the personal internal world from the outside social or cultural world. This inside—outside tension is one of the dualisms we grapple with in contemporary psychology. You will find, as you read these chapters, that some theories focus mainly on the internal while others seek to break down the internal—external distinction.

Third, linked to the above two themes is another tension to be found across the chapters between whether it is important to seek universal or local understandings of cognition. Some psychologists try to establish concepts, laws and principles of cognition that are true for everyone everywhere, while others are more interested in how cognition is influenced by specific social settings.

As you read the next seven chapters, keep these issues in mind and seek other common threads. Doing so will bring out a deeper understanding of the promise and prospects of cognitive psychology.