The origins of psychology and the cognitive approach - Approaches

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The origins of psychology and the cognitive approach


Wundt (1875) established the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, using introspection as his research tool, whereby researchers examined their own conscious thoughts, feelings and sensations in a controlled environment. However, findings proved not to be replicable, as they were based on only one person’s subjective viewpoint. Introspection was soon abandoned, but it was from this starting point that psychology developed to use increasingly scientific methods. Although not all aspects of modern psychology are totally scientific, nor are all psychologists scientists, the majority of the subject and its practitioners are seen as scientifically based.

Neisser (1959) is credited with starting cognitive psychology. Although a more modern approach, cognitive psychology has links with introspection, as both see behaviour as being understood by reference to the mental processes underpinning it. The approach has 4 assumptions:

1 Scientific study — mental processes should be investigated through scientifically based studies.

2 Mind as a computer — the mind can be seen as similar to a computer in having an input of sensory information, which is then processed to produce an output in the form of behaviour.

3 Importance of mental processes — the role of stimulus and response in behaviour can only be truly understood by reference to the mental processes occurring between them.

4 The role of schemas — behaviour is affected by schemas, mental representations of the world formed from experience, which affect how individuals perceive the world. Ultimately an individual will perceive what they expect to perceive based on previous experience.


Fig 5.3 Simons & Chabris found that many observers did not notice a man in a gorilla suit. Figure provided by Daniel Simons.

Focal study

Simons & Chabris (1999) investigated to what extent people are aware of information present in their visual field. 228 participants watched films of 2 teams of 3 players, one team dressed in white T-shirts and the other in black T-shirts, passing a basketball to team members. Participants were specifically asked to count the number of passes made by the white team. After doing this, participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual. 54 per cent failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit or a woman with an umbrella who were prominent in the films. This suggests that humans are only aware of information in their visual field that they select to pay attention to. The study also illustrates how scientific means of investigation can be used to explore the role of mental processes in behaviour.


• Postman & Bruner (1947) showed participants a photo of a black man and a white man arguing, with the white man brandishing a knife. When asked to recall the photo, many participants wrongly recalled the black man having the knife. This illustrates how schema affect mental processes such as perception, as the stereotype of black people being aggressive and carrying weapons was a common view held at the time.

• Hemond et al. (2007) gave participants pictures of faces and objects to look at while simultaneously scanning their brains with an fMRI scanner. It was found that the fusiform gyrus brain area was activated significantly more during face recognition than during object recognition, which suggests this brain area is associated with processing faces. This demonstrates how the cognitive and biological approaches can be combined together to investigate mental processes.

Positive evaluation

Image Cognitive psychology has been successfully combined with the biological approach of neuroscience to create cognitive neuroscience. The approach uses scientific experimentation and scanning techniques to investigate where in the brain different mental processes are based.

Image Because cognitive psychology tends to use experimental methods, its research can be seen to have scientific rigour. For example, research is easily replicable to test the validity of findings.

Image The cognitive approach can be considered as superior to behaviourism. This is because it sees behaviour as understood through reference to the mental processes occurring between stimuli and responses and not just the stimuli and responses themselves.

Negative evaluation

Image The strong emphasis on laboratory experiments means that research can often lack external validity, as the mental processes assessed are often not investigated in everyday situations and contexts.

Image The perception of the human mind as working similarly to a computer is criticised as being over-mechanistic. Humans have strong elements of free will in their thinking and behaviour, which arguably computers do not have.

Image The cognitive approach has been accused of failing to properly consider the important role of emotion in determining human behaviour.

Practical application

Findings from research into mental processes have produced practical applications, such as devising strategies for people with impairments to their working memory to help them focus better on tasks at hand. Examples include breaking instructions down into individual steps and getting sufferers to periodically repeat these instructions.