Cognitive Psychology

Understanding What’s Really Going on in Your Head


Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on how a person acquires, processes, and stores information. Prior to the 1950s, the dominant school of thought had been behaviorism. For the next twenty years, the psychology world began to shift away from studying observable behaviors and moved towards studying internal mental processes, focusing on topics such as attention, memory, problem solving, perception, intelligence, decision making, and language processing. Cognitive psychology differed from psychoanalysis because it used scientific research methods to learn about mental processes, instead of simply relying on the subjective perceptions of a psychoanalyst.

The 1950s through the 1970s is now commonly referred to as the “cognitive revolution” because it was during this time period that processing models and research methods were created. American psychologist Ulric Neisser rst used the term in his 1967 book, Cognitive Psychology.

The Two Assumptions of Cognitive Psychology

Individual parts of mental processes can be recognized and understood by scientic method, and one can describe internal mental processes with algorithms or rules in information processing models.


In cognitive psychology, attention refers to how an individual actively processes information specically present in his or her environment. When you read this book, you are also experiencing the numerous sights, sounds, and sensations around you: the weight of the book in your hands, the sounds of the person next to you talking on the phone, the feeling of sitting on your chair, the sight of the trees outside your window, the memory of a previous conversation you had, and more. Psychologists that study cognitive psychology want to understand how a person can experience all of these dierent sensations and still focus on just a single element or task.

Four Types of Attention

  • Focused attention: A short-term response, which can be as short as eight seconds, to very specic auditory, tactile, or visual stimuli. For example, a phone ringing or a sudden occurrence might cause someone to focus on it for a few seconds, but then they will turn back to the task they were performing or think about something unrelated to the ringing phone.
  • Sustained attention: A level of attention that will produce consistent results involving a task performed over time that is continuous and repetitive. For example, if a person washing dishes shows sustained attention, they will perform the task until completed. If a person loses focus, they may stop halfway through and move on to another task. Most adults and teenagers cannot show sustained attention on one task for more than twenty minutes, and will instead repeatedly choose to refocus on the task, which enables them to pay attention to things that are longer, like movies.
  • Divided attention: Paying attention to several things at a single time. This is a limited ability, and it impacts how much information gets processed.
  • Selective attention: Paying attention to specic things while ltering out others. For example, if you are at a loud party, you are still able to maintain a conversation with someone even though there are other sensations going on around you.

Inattentional Blindness and the Invisible Gorilla Test

Inattentional blindness shows what happens when a person is overloaded with sensations. This takes place when a person does not notice obvious stimuli, even though they are right in front of the person. Inattentional blindness happens to everyone because it is mentally and physically impossible to notice every stimulus. One of the most famous experiments showcasing inattentional blindness is Daniel Simon’s Invisible Gorilla Test.

A group of subjects were asked to watch a short video of two groups of people (one group wearing white T-shirts, the other black T-shirts) as two basketballs were passed around within their respective groups. The subjects were asked to count how many times the basketball was passed in one group.

Meanwhile, as the two groups passed their basketballs to each other, a person in a gorilla suit walked to the center, beat his chest, and then walked o screen.

When the video was over, the test subjects were asked if they noticed anything unusual, and in most cases, 50 percent had not seen the gorilla. This experiment demonstrates that attention plays a signicant role in the relationship between a person’s perception and visual field.


In cognitive psychology, a problem is dened as a question or situation that involves diculty, uncertainty, or doubt. The mental process of problem solving consists of discovery, analysis, and solving the problem, with the ultimate goal being to overcome an obstacle and resolve the issue with the best possible solution.

The Problem-Solving Cycle

Researchers believe that the best way to solve a problem is through a series of steps known as the problem-solving cycle. It is important to note, however, that even though the steps are listed sequentially, people rarely follow this series of steps rigidly and will instead skip various steps or go back as many times as needed until they have reached a desired result.

  1. Identify the Problem: It is in this rst step that the existence of a problem is rst recognized. Though it sounds simple enough, mistakenly identifying the source of the problem will render any attempts to solve it inecient and possibly useless.
  2. Define the Problem and Identify Limitations: Once the existence of a problem has been identied, a person must fully dene what his or her problem is in order for it to be solved. In other words, now that there is an acknowledgment of a problem’s existence, the denition of what the problem actually is becomes clearer.
  3. Form a Solution Strategy: The approach to creating a strategy will depend on the situation and the unique preferences of the individual.
  4. Organize Information about the Problem: A person must now organize any available information so he or she can be prepared to come up with a fitting solution.
  5. Allocate and Use the Mental and Physical Resources Needed: Depending on the importance of the problem, it might be necessary to allocate certain resources of money, time, or something else. If the problem is not as important, using too many resources may not be essential to coming up with a solution.
  6. Monitor Progress: If no progress is being made, then it is time to reevaluate the approach and search for different strategies.
  7. Evaluate the Results for Accuracy: To make sure the solution was the absolute best outcome, the results must be evaluated. This can either be done over time, such as evaluating the results of a workout regimen; or it can be immediately, such as checking the answer to a math problem.


There are two types of problems: well-dened problems and ill- dened problems. Problems that are well-dened have goals that are clear, feature a very specic path leading to a solution, and have obstacles that are easy to identify based on the provided information. Problems that are ill-dened do not feature a specic path or formula leading to a solution and need to be investigated so that the problem can be dened, understood, and solved.

Because using a formula cannot solve ill-dened problems, information must be collected and analyzed to come up with a solution. Ill-dened problems can also feature well-dened sub- problems. In order to nd a solution, a combination of problem- solving strategies may be required. Researchers have reportedly found more than fty dierent strategies for problem solving. Some of the most common include:

  • Brainstorm: List every option without evaluating them, analyze the options, and then choose one.
  • Analogy: Use an option that has been learned from similar problems.
  • Break down: Take a problem that is large or complex and break it down into problems that are smaller and simpler.
  • Hypothesis testing: Create a hypothesis based on the cause of the problem, gather information, and test it.
  • Trial and error: Test random solutions until you have found the right one.
  • Research: Adapt and use existing ideas for problems that are similar.
  • Means/Ends analysis: At each phase of the problem-solving cycle, take an action to get closer to the goal.


Memory in cognitive psychology refers to the processes used in acquiring, storing, retaining, and retrieving information. There are three main processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

To create a new memory, information must rst go through encoding so it can be transformed into a useable form. Following encoding, the information is stored in our memory so that it can be used later. Most of our stored memory is actually outside of our awareness until it is needed. When it is needed, this information goes through the retrieval process, allowing for stored memory to be brought into our conscious awareness.

To understand the basic function and structure of memory, one can look at the stage model of memory, which proposes three separate stages:

Memory model


1. Sensory Memory

This is the earliest stage in the memory process. Sensory information that has been gathered from the environment as an exact copy of what is seen or heard is stored for a short period of time. Auditory information is stored for three to four seconds, while visual information is usually stored for no longer than half of a second. Only particular aspects of the sensory memory are attended to, and this allows some information to move on to the next stage.

2. Short-Term Memory

Also known as active memory, this is the information that we are currently thinking about or aware of. This information will be kept for twenty to thirty seconds, and it is generated by paying attention to sensory memories. Though short-term memories are often quickly forgotten, if this information is attended to by repetition, it will move on to the next stage.

3. Long-Term Memory

This is the continuous storage of information. Freud would refer to long-term memory as the unconscious and preconscious. The information here is outside of a person’s awareness but can be called upon and used when needed. While some information will be easy to recollect, other information can be much more dicult to access.

The Dierences Between Short-Term Memory and Long-Term Memory

The differences between short-term memory and long-term memory become very clear when discussing memory retrieval. Short-term memory is stored and recollected in sequential order and is mostly comprised of sensory memories. So for example, if you were told a list of words and were asked to recall the sixth word, you would have to list the words in the order you heard them to get the right information. Long-term memory, however, is stored and recalled based on meaning and association.


Because we can access and recollect information from long-term memory, a person can then use these memories when interacting with others, making decisions, and problem solving. But how the information is organized still remains a mystery. What we do know, however, is that memories are arranged in groups through a process known as clustering.

In clustering, information is categorized so that it becomes easier to recall. For example, take a look at the following group of words:


If you were to read this list, look away, and then try to write down the words, your memory would likely group the words into dierent categories: colors, fruits, and furniture.

Tip of the Tongue?

Research suggests that the more time spent trying to gure out the word you were going to say actually increases the chances that you’ll struggle with that word again later on.

Memory plays an extremely large role in our lives. From the short-term to the long-term, our experiences and our way of looking at the world are shaped by our memory. And even with all that we do understand about the subject, what memory truly is, at its most basic level, still remains a mystery.

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