Cognitive Psychology

In the middle of this century, the cognitive (~thinking) approach, which dominates much of psychology today, first took form. This approach evolved from the study of perception, memory, and thinking. It is now the dominant approach to the study of psychology. It returned mental processes to the center of psychology, but in a radically different way (Mandler, 1984). Unlike the Structuralist psychologists of the late 19th century, whose goal was to understand the structure of the mind, the modern cognitive approach studies the information processing -- extracting, saving, and retrieving information -- that go on in the mind.

Many different kinds of mental processes contribute to information processing: selecting important information (attention), reorganizing (recoding) the selected information, categorizing it (thinking), storing it in memory by attaching it to information already in memory, and retrieving it from memory as it is needed, etc.

Furthermore, the cognitive approach recognizes that mental processes cannot be studied directly. Instead, they must be studied indirectly by inference from behavior. Inference means to figure out what happened from the traces or effects of what happened. For example, tire tracks on your lawn mean that a car or truck drove on it. An expert can tell the kind of tire and even the kind of vehicle.

Inferring mental processes from behavior means that you figure out what mental processes occurred from what a person does in different conditions. For example, at a party, Emily smiles and speaks with a lot of emphasis and action in her voice. From these objective observations you infer that she is happy and enjoying herself. But suppose you notice that Emily's left hand keeps squeezing the remains of a napkin, the glass she has in her right hand shakes slightly, and that her smile is forced, not the natural smile of pleasure (Ekman, 1992; see also asgn4? on emotion). These objective observations (anyone can see them) may make you change your inference: Emily may be feeling rather tense, not relaxed and happy.

Recently, however, some researchers have raised the question of whether the inference process can ever really be successful in studying the mental processes underlying perception, thinking, language, etc. They have begun to question whether it will every be possible to decide among competing models, because a research study that fails to show a process can be criticized as not using the appropriate method and because it is probably artificial to separate the internal mental process from the conditions that produce it and from the behavioral processes that express it. These researcher propose instead to study the dynamic interaction among the various variables that may influence a behavioral process. In some respects this approach is a return to a behaviorist approach, but without its excessive zeal in avoiding mental processes.

For example, some researchers argue that because animals regulate their body weight quite accurately, the brain contains a set-point process that detects deviations from the proper weight and adjusts eating and metabolism to bring weight back to the proper level. An alternative explanation states that an animal's body weight reflects several processes, including taste and variety of the available food, past history of eating, caloric density for food (vegetables have low caloric density, fats have high density, time in day-night cycle when food is available, etc. If all these remain fairly constant, an animal maintains a fairly steady weight, as if it had a set point. It may not be possible to tell the difference between these two explanations

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