Cognitive Approach

Behaviorism’s emphasis on objectivity and focus on external behavior had pulled psychologists’ attention away from the mind for a prolonged time. The early work of the humanistic psychologists redirected attention to the individual human as a whole, and as a conscious and self-aware being. By the 1950s, new disciplinary perspectives in linguistics, neuroscience, and computer science were emerging, and these areas revived interest in the mind as a focus of scientific inquiry. This particular perspective has come to be known as the cognitive revolution (Miller, 2003). By 1967, Ulric Neisser published the first textbook entitled Cognitive Psychology, which served as a core text in cognitive psychology courses around the country (Thorne & Henley, 2005).

Although no one person is entirely responsible for starting the cognitive revolution, Noam Chomsky was very influential in the early days of this movement. Chomsky (1928–), an American linguist, was dissatisfied with the influence that behaviorism had had on psychology. He believed that psychology’s focus on behavior was short-sighted and that the field had to re-incorporate mental functioning into its purview if it were to offer any meaningful contributions to understanding behavior (Miller, 2003).

European psychology had never really been as influenced by behaviorism as had American psychology, and thus, the cognitive revolution helped reestablish lines of communication between European psychologists and their American counterparts. Furthermore, psychologists began to cooperate with scientists in other fields, like anthropology, linguistics, computer science, and neuroscience, among others. This interdisciplinary approach often was referred to as the cognitive sciences, and the influence and prominence of this particular perspective resonates in modern-day psychology (Miller, 2003). Today, the cognitive approach is the area of psychology that focuses on studying cognitions, or thoughts, and their relationship to our experiences and our actions.

Cognitive psychologists have research interests that span a spectrum of topics, ranging from attention to problem-solving to language to memory. The approaches used in studying these topics are equally diverse. Given such diversity, cognitive psychology is not captured in one chapter of this text per se; rather, various concepts related to cognitive psychology will be covered in relevant portions of the chapters in this text on sensation and perception, thinking and intelligence, memory, lifespan development, social psychology, and therapy.

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Piaget’s Psychological Constructivism

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) is another stage theorist who studied childhood development. Instead of approaching development from a psychoanalytical or psychosocial perspective, Piaget focused on children’s cognitive growth. He believed that thinking is a central aspect of development and that children are naturally inquisitive. However, he said that children do not think and reason like adults (Piaget, 1930, 1932). His theory of cognitive development holds that our cognitive abilities develop through specific stages, which exemplifies the discontinuity approach to development. As we progress to a new stage, there is a distinct shift in how we think and reason.

Piaget believed that we are continuously trying to maintain cognitive equilibrium or a balance or cohesiveness in what we see and what we know. Children have much more of a challenge in maintaining this balance because they are continually being confronted with new situations, new words, new objects, etc. When faced with something new, a child may either fit it into an existing framework (schema) and match it with something known (assimilation) such as calling all animals with four legs “doggies” because he or she knows the word doggie, or expand the framework of knowledge to accommodate the new situation (accommodation) by learning a new word to more accurately name the animal. This is the underlying dynamic in our cognition. Even as adults, we continue to try and make sense of new situations by determining whether they fit into our old way of thinking or whether we need to modify our thoughts.

As we mature and develop our schemas, we move through four distinct stages of cognitive development. Piaget proposed that specific developmental tasks were to be mastered during each stage, and as children progressed, they became more cognitively sophisticated.

Figure 3.8.1. Jean Piaget

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Table 3.8.1. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development

Age Stage Description of Cognitive Development Major Developmental Tasks
Infancy(0-2 years) Sensorimotor Take in sensory information and respond through motor activity. Motor responses begin as reflexes, become purposeful, and then become more sophisticated in response to sensory information.
  • Master object permanence·  
  • Learn to use symbols, images, and words to represent objects and thoughts·  
  • Develop a sense of “self” separate from others


Preschool(2-7 years) Pre-Operational Display of intelligent thought. Children attempt to understand and explain their world but will make many errors in their assessments.
  • Correct errored thinking·  
  • Overcome egocentric perspective


Elementary School(7-11 years) Concrete Operational Children use operations (internal operations) to think logically and systematically. Operations allow the mental manipulation of information.
  • Master conservation· 
  • Understand reversibility·  
  • Spontaneously classify information/objects·  
  • Understand deception


Adolescence (11+ years) Formal Operational Teens and adults develop systematic, logical algorithms for thinking through problems.
  • Capable of abstract thought· 
  • Thinking about hypotheticals·  
  • Tends to be idealistic


As with other major contributors to theories of development, several of Piaget’s ideas have come under criticism based on the results of further research. For example, several contemporary studies support a model of development that is more continuous than Piaget’s discrete stages (Courage & Howe, 2002; Siegler, 2005, 2006). Many others suggest that children reach cognitive milestones earlier than Piaget describes (Baillargeon, 2004; de Hevia & Spelke, 2010). Looking across cultures reveals considerable variation in what children are able to do at various ages, and Piaget may have underestimated what children are capable of given the right circumstances.

According to Piaget, the highest level of cognitive development is formal operational thought, which develops between 11 and 20 years old. However, many developmental psychologists disagree with Piaget, suggesting a fifth stage of cognitive development, known as the postformal stage (Basseches, 1984; Commons & Bresette, 2006; Sinnott, 1998). In postformal thinking, decisions are made based on situations and circumstances, and logic is integrated with emotion as adults develop principles that depend on contexts. One way that we can see the difference between an adult in postformal thought and an adolescent (or adult) in formal operations is in terms of how they handle emotionally charged issues or integrate systems of thought.

Information-Processing Theories

Information-processing theories have become an influential alternative to Piaget’s approach. The theory assumes that even complex behavior such as learning, remembering, categorizing, and thinking can be broken down into a series of individual, specific steps, and as a person develops strategies for processing information, they can learn more complex information. This perspective equates the mind to a computer, which is responsible for analyzing information from the environment.

The most common information-processing model is applied to an understanding of memory and the way that information is encoded, stored, and then retrieved from the brain (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968), but information processing approaches also apply to cognitive processing in general. According to the standard information-processing model for mental development, the mind’s machinery includes attention mechanisms for bringing information in, working memory for actively manipulating information, and long-term memory for passively holding information so that it can be used in the future.

This theory addresses how, as children grow, their brains likewise mature, leading to advances in their ability to process and respond to the information they received through their senses. The theory emphasizes a continuous pattern of development, in contrast with cognitive-developmental theorists such as Piaget, who thought development occurred in stages. Developmental psychologists who adopt the information-processing perspective account for mental development in terms of maturational changes in basic components of a child’s mind. At the same time, they do not offer a complete explanation of behavior. For example, they have paid little attention to behavior such as creativity, in which the most profound ideas often are developed in a seemingly not logical, nonlinear manner. Moreover, they do not take into account the social context in which development takes place.

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link to learning

View a brief video recapping some of the major concepts explored by cognitive psychologists.

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