Graziano and Raulin (8th ed)Graziano & Raulin
Research Methods (8th edition)

XII. COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

For more than 2000 years, philosophers have speculated about the nature of the universe, including phenomena such as human consciousness, awareness, intelligence, knowledge, and memory. Philosophers had long considered such questions as:

  • What is knowledge?
  • What is(are) the source(s) of knowledge?
  • How do humans obtain knowledge? Is knowledge derived from experience (empiricism) or is it innate (nativism)? 
  • How is knowledge stored and remembered?

By the 18th Century, science had become an alternative way of systematically studying nature, and it did so first in its focus on the physical universe--astronomy, physics, and biology. But it was not until the mid 19th Century that science attempted to systematically study human phenomena, such as consciousness, and address scientifically the philosophers’ questions about consciousness and knowledge. 

As we discussed earlier in the section on 19th Century science, researchers such as Weber, Fechner, and Helmholtz, with their training in physics and physiology, studied sensation. They created a scientific background for others, such as Helmholtz, Wundt, Brentano, Stumpf, Ebbinghaus, Muller, and Titchener, to focus on the study of consciousness. Early modern psychology (structuralism) was clearly focused on human mental issues--what is the nature of consciousness, how is it structured, and how does it function? For the structuralists, the subject matter for psychology was consciousness.  

In time, the limitations of structuralism became apparent. One major issue that brought about its demise was that one of its major research procedures, introspection, was problematic and ultimately was rejected. At the same time, the functionalist movement in psychology was developing into a major school in the United States. 

Functionalists, such as James, Hall, Dewey, Cattell, Witmer and Angell, accepted the importance of consciousness as a focus for psychology. However, they maintained, it is not the structure of the mind that is important but, rather, its function. How consciousness is used in order to engage with and to succeed in the environment is the major question for the functionalist school. With this emphasis, the functionalists turned psychology toward the consideration of applied issues of human adaptation to social environments. This perspective spawned research in human development, education, personality and adjustment, psychopathology, and work. Thus, while structuralism was the start of modern psychology, it was soon displaced by other developments, such as functionalism.

The major factor in turning modern American psychology away from its traditional focus on human consciousness was the emergence of behaviorism. Researchers, such as Romanes, Morgan, Loeb, Small, Turner, Yerkes, and Washburn, turned to the study of animals. Pavlov and Thorndike developed the study of animal behavior and refocused psychology on the study of behavior. Thorndike and Watson bridged the focus on animal and human behavior and studied both. Watson was the great proponent of behaviorism, and his books and lectures were highly influential, not only for other psychologists, but also for the general public, which soon began to define psychology as behaviorism. From the early part of the 20th Century and into the 1970s, behaviorism dominated academic psychology. 

Behaviorism not only redefined psychology as the study of behavior, but also suggested that consciousness was an inappropriate focus for psychology. Consciousness was too subjective a concept for behaviorists; it could not be studied with objective scientific procedures. Observable behavior, not subjective consciousness, was the proper subject matter of psychology; objective scientific approaches, not introspection or clinical interpretation, were its proper methodologies.

Such behaviorists as Guthrie, Hull, and Skinner developed learning theories that focused on behavior and the specific elements that account for behavior. Hull’s model was a refined and elaborate system that tried to explain human functioning in behavioral terms, and it made no mention of such concepts as consciousness. Behaviorism culminated in Skinner’s operant conditioning model, which had considerable success in such applications as education and the treatment of behavioral problems. The basic unit of behavior for the behaviorists is the reflex arc--the simplest association of stimulus and response. Behavioral theories proposed that even highly complex human behavior, including language, is the complex elaboration of that basic association.

Behaviorism was primarily an American phenomenon, and while American academic psychology was dominated for decades by behaviorism, psychology in Europe was not. There, the study of consciousness, cognition, and the subjective states of emotions continued. For example, Freudian psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic movement was largely a European development. Gestalt psychology, with its concepts of the critical importance of cognitive representations of reality, emerged in Germany and was brought later to the United States. Lewin’s field theory and inferences about cognitive function was developed while he was in Europe. Piaget’s studies of the cognitive development of children was likewise nurtured and evolved in Europe. In England, Bartlett (1967, 1958) broke with traditional methods of studying thinking and memory. He developed a theoretical model in which the person is characterized as an active learner, who organizes past and current experience into meaningful cognitive units or schemas. Memory, for Bartlett, seemed more of a constructive process, rather than the straightforward recall of events as they happened. 

European psychology had an influence in the United States, although behaviorism remained dominant. The influence of Gestalt psychology can be seen in the Kurt Lewin’s work and the eventual development of social psychology. Even within behaviorism, the Gestalt influence on Tolman led him to develop cognitive behaviorism. That model posited that animals and humans develop cognitive maps that represent their worlds and are critical in explaining behavior and learning. 

Just as it had attacked the psychology of consciousness at the beginning of the century, behaviorism itself came under attack shortly after the middle of the century. The criticisms were that behaviorism had reached its limits, and while it could adequately deal with many phenomena, it could not deal with many others. 

For example, the ethologists Tinbergen and Lorenz were finding evidence that some critical and complex animal behavior emerged at particular points in maturity, without any learning trials and with no rewards or punishments involved. There appear to be innate aspect of these behaviors, perhaps based in some gene-controlled process of activation. But behaviorism had no inclusion of complex, genetically-determined behavior, and could not explain how those organized behaviors occurred without practice and reinforcement. In addition, Gestalt psychologists, field theorists, psychoanalysts, and others continued to criticize behaviorism.

The most telling criticisms involved the growing dissatisfaction with behaviorism’s continued rejection of subjective, internal states (consciousness, cognition). Perhaps the major criticism came from those who had become interested in the study of language development, which they saw as a cognitive phenomenon and not as a behavioral phenomenon. In the 1940s, George Miller, with a degree in English and speech, became interested in psychology, and received his Ph. D. from Harvard. Initially a behaviorist, Miller found behaviorism lacking in its ability to deal with human language and thinking. His book, Psycholinguistics (1951) became an influential work that attracted others to this development of cognitive psychology. Miller and Jerome Bruner then founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard University in 1960. 

In 1957, Skinner published Verbal Behavior, in which he analyzed language from a behavioral perspective. For Skinner, language is a set of behavioral phenomena. He argued that the acquisition and use of language could be understood and explained like any behavior. He believed that language was learned through operant conditioning. 

Central in Skinner’s analysis is the S-R association. A child emits behavior--in this case, verbal behavior, such as a sound like “da.” The parents reward the behavior, and with repetitions the response “da” becomes associated with many different stimuli. That is, it comes under stimulus control, such as the parents’ repeated urgings to “Say da”. In a far more elaborated manner than this example, language grows as the child continues to experience patterns of reinforcement for producing ever-more complex language. 

Two years later, a linguist named Chomsky (1959) published a highly critical review of Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior. The review took Skinner to task for trying to reduce such a highly complex phenomenon as language to simplistic S-R concepts. Behavioral models, Chomsky claimed, were not adequate to explain the phenomenon of language. While behaviorism can explain the strength of some sounds or words through reinforcement, how can it explain completely novel sounds and creative phrases that have never been experienced by the person? How is it that that children, at about the same age, seem to have a good sense of grammar, without having studied grammar? Much of language is not dependent on learning through experience and reinforcement. 

Chomsky claimed, there is a nativistic (in-born) component through which language emerges with maturation--guided, of course, into specific languages (French, English, etc.) by the child’s social environment. It is not specific conditioning of specific words and combinations that make up language. Rather there is a set of rules--a grammar--that allows humans to create an infinite number and variation of meaningful, organized phrases, and to distinguish those that are grammatically correct from those that are not. These nativistic components are linguistic universals (Chomsky, 1966), and they are shared by all languages. Further, Chomsky hypothesized that there is a critical period for language development. 

A year later, Neisser (1967) published an influential book, Cognitive Psychology, in which he defined cognition as including all of the processes that are brought to bear on sensory information to transform, elaborate, store, recover, and use sensory input. Cognition, he maintained, is central for virtually all human activity. It is therefore a necessary domain for psychological study. Later, Neisser (1976) wrote Cognition and Reality, in which he criticized the narrow laboratory research of cognitive psychology. Neisser argued that such research lacked real-world relevance. Laboratory experimentation in cognition should, he maintained, be generalizeable to the real world--that is, it must have ecological validity and must be able to help solve practical, as well as theoretical, issues. In this we can see the continued influence of American functionalism.

Another important development that influenced the growth of cognitive psychology was the development of computer technology. The creation of mechanical calculating machines dates to the 17th Century. The first electronic computers were developed in the 1940s, the most famous being the giant 30-ton ENIAC, with its 17,468 vacuum tubes. These machines evolved into the far more powerful and efficient microprocessor-based computers used today. 

Computers are machines that receive external information, process that information (manipulate, store, and retrieve it), and produce some type of output. The operation of computers provided a convenient and meaningful metaphor for the operation of the human brain, and cognitive psychologists adopted that metaphor. An assumption of this metaphor is that the machine may process information in much the same way as humans. Is this intelligence, albeit in a machine, which is a question that shaped the field of artificial intelligence (AI). 

At first, researchers optimistically hoped that computers would soon be designed to duplicate human thought processes, but that proved to be an extremely complex task. Computers (silicon-based brains) are much faster than carbon-based human brains. However, computers are not yet able to match the proliferation of connections that exist in the human brain and, therefore, do not yet equal the total capability of the organic brain. Some theorists (e.g., Solso, 2001) point out that, with the current exponential growth of computer power, computers may match human functioning by the year 2020. If that does occur, it will generate critical philosophical, social, and scientific issues of the relationships between the silicon-based brain and the carbon-based brain. 

The field of artificial intelligence is not limited to the search for silicon brains that emulate human brains. Rather, its importance in cognitive psychology is that the computer provides a metaphor for the functioning of the brain and a greatly expanded technical tool for studying a multitude of issues involved in information processing. The underlying metaphor is that the computer operates in some ways as if it were a human brain. Thus, research in human information processing can be carried out with computers. The analog--the “as if” assumption--allows us to draw conclusions about computer processing and make tentative generalizations to the human brain as if the brain operates in the same way as the computer. The importance for psychology of the development of AI is thus largely heuristic. AI has been a major stimulating factor in the creation of hypotheses, research findings, and theories in cognitive psychology. 

Not only has cognitive psychology developed as a separate discipline, but it has also been part of the emergence since the 1950s of an interdisciplinary field--cognitive science. This field includes such areas as cognitive psychology, computer science, cultural anthropology, and linguistics. 

Although separate disciplines, these areas share many interests, particularly in questions regarding the nature, source, development, and use of knowledge. As Goodwin (2008) pointed out, this development is a recognition that human cognition is so important, large, and multifaceted, that such single disciplines as cognitive psychology or linguistics cannot adequately investigate or understand it.

A new area, cognitive neuroscience, is an integration of neurology and cognitive psychology. This area investigates the relationship of neurological structures and function to the mental activity they produce. Neuroscientists have made considerable progress in mapping the brain and identifying specific areas of the brain that underline specific behaviors and/or sensations. 

Research in cognitive psychology now influences virtually all of psychology. For example, applied psychology, particularly behavior modification, has brought cognition back into its paradigm in its development of cognitive behavior therapy. Consciousness has even been brought back into animal psychology, with research that assesses how nonhuman organisms evaluate and react to the physical world (Schultz & Schultz, 2008).

Thus, by the 1960s, debates over language provided an important focus for the argument that behaviorism had reached its limits and that consciousness is a necessary focus for psychology. By the 1970s, cognitive psychology had emerged as the most recent school of thought in psychology and, by the late 1980s, had displaced behaviorism to become the dominant contemporary school of psychology.

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