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The Science of Thinking: An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology

One crucial pursuit has persisted in science, psychology, and philosophy throughout human history. That is, the desire to understand the complexities of the human mind. Today, in a world where the intricacies of cognition guide our daily experiences, this quest has never been more pressing. At the forefront of our modern exploration of the mind […]

isbell oliva garcia grow therapy By Isbell Oliva-Garcia

Updated on Feb 15, 2024

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One crucial pursuit has persisted in science, psychology, and philosophy throughout human history. That is, the desire to understand the complexities of the human mind. Today, in a world where the intricacies of cognition guide our daily experiences, this quest has never been more pressing.

At the forefront of our modern exploration of the mind lies the school of cognitive psychology – a combination of intellectual curiosity, empirical investigation, and deciphering the intricate phenomena of thought, perception, and memory.

But cognitive psychology isn’t confined to academia; it’s a journey into the very essence of the human mind, with practical implications that extend into every facet of our lives. Cognitive psychologists are scholars and pragmatic problem-solvers, using their research, analysis, and insights to navigate the mind and help people improve their mental wellbeing globally.

All of that said, one question remains: What exactly is cognitive psychology? What does it entail, where did it come from, and why does it matter? In this article, we’ll cover everything there is to know, from the historical roots of this field to its contemporary significance. 

What is Cognitive Psychology?

“Cognitive psychology looks into why we think and act like we do,” writes Nicole Kleiman-Reck, LMHC. “It looks at the internal processes behind decision-making, the unique perspectives individuals have, and the impact one’s past has on our thinking processes.”

Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on studying mental processes such as thinking, perception, memory, language, problem-solving, and decision-making. It seeks to understand how humans acquire, store, process, and use information daily. Cognitive psychology explores the mind’s inner workings and investigates how individuals perceive, evaluate, and solve problems.

Key aspects of cognitive psychology include:

What Do Cognitive Psychologists Do?

A cognitive psychologist studies how people think, learn, remember, and problem-solve. They use research methods, like case studies and controlled experiments, to understand mental processes and apply their findings to improve learning, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving in real-world contexts. 

Beyond research, cognitive psychologists are also proponents of practical change. They translate their insights into actionable strategies to enhance people’s everyday lives. Whether it’s designing more effective educational programs, optimizing user experiences in technology, or improving workplace performance, their findings have far-reaching applications.

Cognitive psychologists who practice cognitive therapy focus on thinking patterns and distorted thought processes that often get in the way of happiness.

- Nicole Kleiman-Reck, LMHC

Moreover, cognitive psychologists are instrumental in clinical settings, where they assess and treat cognitive disorders. They use therapeutic techniques grounded in science to support those seeking change. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, is a therapeutic technique grounded in the discoveries of cognitive psychology.

In essence, cognitive psychologists bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and real-world problem-solving, offering valuable insights into how we navigate the landscape of human cognition.

How Cognitive Psychology Differs from Other Branches of Psychology

Cognitive psychology stands as a distinct branch of psychology due to its unique emphasis on studying mental processes and cognition. Cognitive psychology is an academic discipline which focuses on brain science and human cognition. Cognitive therapists take a practical, clinical, therapeutic approach that applies cognitive psychology principles and research to help individuals address and manage psychological issues. 

 “Cognitive psychologists who practice cognitive therapy focus on thinking patterns and distorted thought processes that often get in the way of happiness,” writes Nicole Kleiman-Reck, LMHC. 

“Identifying limiting beliefs and challenging these maladaptive thinking patterns are a primary goal for cognitive psychologists.” These distinguishing features set cognitive psychology apart from other psychological disciplines, which often focus on different aspects of human behavior and mental health.

While behaviorism, an influential school of thought in psychology, concentrated on observable behaviors and responses to stimuli, cognitive psychology shifted the focus to the internal mental processes that underlie behavior. It examines how individuals think, perceive, remember, and problem-solve, providing insights into the mechanisms of human thought.

Clinical psychology, in contrast, is primarily concerned with diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. Cognitive psychology complements clinical practice by exploring the cognitive aspects of these disorders. It examines how distorted thought patterns or cognitive biases can contribute to conditions like depression or anxiety. CBT, a widely used therapeutic approach, targets these cognitive processes to alleviate emotional and behavioral issues.

Developmental psychology, another field, examines the psychological growth and changes individuals undergo across the lifespan. Cognitive psychology contributes by exploring how cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving and reasoning, develop and evolve at various stages of life.

Social psychology investigates social influence and interactions, while cognitive psychology delves into the cognitive processes underlying social perception, attitudes, and decision-making. By understanding how individuals think in a social context, cognitive psychology adds depth to social psychological research.

Neuropsychology, on the other hand, focuses specifically on the relationship between brain function and behavior. Cognitive psychology complements this field by examining how cognitive processes are localized in the brain, often utilizing brain imaging techniques to understand the neural basis of cognition.

Educational psychology focuses on learning, memory, and instructional design. Cognitive psychology provides insights into how students acquire, process, and retain information, which informs the development of effective teaching methods and educational practices.

Finally, forensic psychology, which applies psychological principles to legal issues, relies on cognitive psychology to understand eyewitness testimony, memory accuracy, and decision-making in legal contexts.

Cognitive psychology influences several fields of psychology. This shows how the overarching field of psychology comprises not just solitary schools but intricately interlinked subdivisions in pursuit of one common goal: To understand the human mind’s complexities better.

The History of Cognitive Psychology

The history of cognitive psychology can be marked by a departure from the behaviorist era and a profound shift toward understanding the intricate workings of the human mind. The early 20th century was dominated by behaviorism, a school of thought popularized by B.F. Skinner, that focused exclusively on observable behaviors while neglecting the study of internal mental processes. However, this behaviorist reign began to fade in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the cognitive revolution.

Key figures in this cognitive revolution, such as Ulric Neisser, the ‘father of cognitive psychology’, challenged behaviorism’s dominance. They argued that understanding human behavior required exploring the unobservable cognitive processes underpinning it. George Miller’s famous paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” highlighted the limitations of human working memory, catalyzing the interest in cognition.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist, contributed significantly to the cognitive approach by critiquing behaviorist language acquisition theories. He argued that language development couldn’t be explained solely through observable behaviors, paving the way for studying internal mental processes.

The rise of computational modeling and computer science provided a metaphor for understanding cognitive processes. Researchers began to view the human mind as an information-processing system, akin to a computer that encodes, stores, and retrieves information.

Cognitive psychology rapidly expanded into various subfields, including cognitive neuroscience. This branch uses brain imaging techniques, such as EEG, MRI, and PET, to explore the neural underpinnings of cognitive functions, shedding light on how the human brain supports human thought and decision-making.

Experimental methods became the hallmark of cognitive research, with cognitive psychologists using rigorous empirical studies to understand memory, perception, problem-solving, and decision-making. Developing cognitive models and schemas provided frameworks for comprehending complex cognitive processes.

Today, cognitive psychology is a thriving field within the broader cognitive science community. Its influence extends into various domains, including neuropsychology, human memory, cognitive development, and clinical psychology, where cognitive behavior therapy is a prominent therapeutic approach.

Education & Training for Cognitive Psychologists

Education and training for cognitive psychologists typically involve a series of steps to build a strong foundation in the field:

Licensure for Cognitive Psychologists

Licensure requirements vary by region and specialization. In some cases, cognitive psychologists may seek licensure as clinical psychologists if they intend to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. The licensure process typically includes:

Board certification is an optional but prestigious credential for cognitive psychologists, demonstrating advanced competence in the field. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers board certification in various specialties, including cognitive and behavioral psychology. 

Board certification signifies a high level of expertise and dedication to cognitive psychology and can enhance career prospects and professional recognition.

The World of Human Cognition

In conclusion, cognitive psychology is a fascinating and distinctive branch of psychology, marked by its focus on exploring mental processes and cognition. The field has transformed significantly throughout history, challenging the dominance of behaviorism and opening doors to new methods of exploring the human mind.

This discipline has enriched our understanding of thought, perception, memory, and problem-solving. By bridging the gap between theories of the mind and the practical applications of findings, cognitive psychology has had an enormous influence on many fields, including clinical psychology, education, and the social sciences.

In the ever-evolving landscape of cognitive psychology, the journey continues, with ongoing research and technological advancements that seek to uncover even more profound insights into the human mind. 

As we move forward, cognitive psychology remains a crucial school of study, guiding us further into the world of human cognition, and clearing the path to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.


  • A cognitive psychologist's role is to investigate and understand mental processes, including thinking, memory, perception, and problem-solving. They apply this knowledge to various practical contexts, such as therapy, education, and human-computer interaction.

  • Key concepts in cognitive psychology encompass memory, perception, attention, language, problem-solving, decision-making, and information processing.

  • An example of cognitive psychology is the study of cognitive biases, like confirmation bias. This bias describes the tendency for people to seek or interpret information that confirms their existing beliefs while disregarding contradictory evidence.

About the author
isbell oliva garcia grow therapy Isbell Oliva-Garcia

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a licensed mental health counselor, bilingual in English and Spanish. Isbell specializes in treating individuals with depression, anxiety, and issues during difficult life transitions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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