Cognitive Psychology
eBook - ePub

Cognitive Psychology

A Student's Handbook

Michael W. Eysenck, Mark T. Keane

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eBook - ePub

Cognitive Psychology

A Student's Handbook

Michael W. Eysenck, Mark T. Keane

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Rigorously researched and accessibly written, Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook is widely regarded as the leading undergraduate textbook in the field. The book is clearly organised, and offers comprehensive coverage of all the key areas of cognitive psychology. With a strong focus on considering human cognition in context, the book has been designed to help students develop a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of cognitive psychology, providing them with detailed knowledge of the very latest advances in the field.

New to this edition:

  • Thoroughly revised throughout to include the latest research and developments in the field

  • Extended coverage of cognitive neuroscience

  • Additional content on computational cognitive science

  • New and updated case studies demonstrating real life applications of cognitive psychology

  • Fully updated companion website

Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook will be essential reading for all undergraduate students of psychology. Those taking courses in computer science, education, linguistics, physiology, and medicine will also find it an invaluable resource.

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Approaches to human cognition


We are now well into the third millennium and there is more interest than ever in unravelling the mysteries of the human brain and mind. This interest is reflected in the substantial upsurge of scientific research within cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. It is striking that the cognitive approach has become increasingly important within clinical psychology. In that area, it is recognised that cognitive processes (especially cognitive biases) play an important role in the development and successful treatment of mental disorders. In similar fashion, social psychologists increasingly assume that cognitive processes help to explain much of social communication.
What is cognitive psychology? It is concerned with the internal processes involved in making sense of the environment and deciding what action might be appropriate. These processes include attention, perception, learning, memory, language, problem solving, reasoning and thinking. We can define cognitive psychology as aiming to understand human cognition by observing the behaviour of people performing various cognitive tasks. Note, however, that the term “cognitive psychology” can be used more broadly to include brain activity and structure as relevant information for understanding human cognition. It is in this broader sense that it is used in the title of this book.
The aims of cognitive neuroscientists overlap with those of cognitive psychologists. However, there is one important difference between cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the narrow sense. Cognitive neuroscientists argue convincingly we need to study the brain as well as behaviour while people engage in cognitive tasks. After all, the internal processes involved in human cognition occur in the brain. We can define cognitive neuroscience as using information about behaviour and the brain to understand human cognition. Thus, the distinction between cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the broader sense is blurred.
Cognitive psychology
An approach that aims to understand human cognition by the study of behaviour; a broader definition also includes the study of brain activity and structure.
Cognitive neuroscience
An approach that aims to understand human cognition by combining information from behaviour and the brain.
Cognitive Science
Cognitive neuroscientists explore human cognition in several ways. First, there are brain-imaging techniques of which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (discussed later) is probably the best known. Second, there are electrophysiological techniques involving the recording of electrical signals generated by the brain (also discussed later). Third, many cognitive neuroscientists study the effects of brain damage on human cognition. It is assumed the patterns of cognitive impairment shown by brain-damaged patients can inform us about normal cognitive functioning and the brain areas responsible for various cognitive processes.
The huge increase in scientific interest in the workings of the brain is mirrored in the popular media – numerous books, films and television programmes have communicated the more accessible and dramatic aspects of cognitive neuroscience. Increasingly, media coverage includes coloured pictures of the brain indicating the areas most activated when people perform various tasks.

Four main approaches

There are four main approaches to human cognition (see below). Bear in mind, however, that researchers increasingly combine two or even more of these approaches. We will shortly discuss each approach in turn, and you will probably find it useful to refer back to this chapter when reading other chapters. You may find Table 1.1 (towards the end of this chapter) especially useful because it provides a brief summary of the strengths and limitations of all four approaches, which are:
1 Cognitive psychology: this approach involves trying to understand human cognition by using behavioural evidence. Since behavioural data are also of great importance within cognitive neuroscience and cognitive neuropsychology, cognitive psychology’s influence is enormous.
2 Cognitive neuropsychology: this approach involves studying brain-damaged patients to understand normal human cognition. It was originally closely linked to cognitive psychology but has recently also become linked to cognitive neuroscience.
3 Cognitive neuroscience: this approach involves using evidence from behaviour and the brain to understand human cognition.
4 Computational cognitive science: this approach involves developing computational models to further our understanding of human cognition; such models increasingly take account of our knowledge of behaviour and the brain.


It is almost as pointless to ask, “When did cognitive psychology start?”, as to enquire, “How long is a piece of string?” However, the year 1956 was of crucial importance. At a meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Noam Chomsky gave a paper on his theory of language, George Miller discussed the magic number seven in short-term memory (Miller, 1956) and Newell and Simon discussed their extremely influential model called the General Problem Solver (see Newell et al., 1958). In addition, there was the first systematic attempt to study concept formation from a cognitive perspective (Bruner et al., 1956).
At one time, most cognitive psychologists subscribed to the informationprocessing approach based loosely on an analogy between the mind and the computer. A version of this approach popular in the 1970s is shown in Figure 1.1. A stimulus (an environmental event such as a problem or a task) is presented. This causes certain internal cognitive processes to occur, and these processes finally produce the desired response or answer. Processing directly affected by the stimulus input is often described as bottom-up processing. It was typically assumed that only one process occurs at any moment in time. This is serial processing, meaning the current process is completed before the next one starts.
The above approach is drastically oversimplified. Task processing typically also involves top-down processing. Top-down processing is processing influenced by the individual’s expectations and knowledge rather than simply by the stimulus itself. Read what it says in the triangle shown in Figure 1.2. Unless you know the trick, you probably read it as, “Paris in the spring”. If so, look again and you will find the word “the” is repeated. Your expectation that it was a well-known phrase (i.e., top-down processing) dominated the information available from the stimulus (i.e., bottom-up processing).
Bottom-up processing
Processing that is directly influenced by environmental stimuli.
Serial processing
Processing in which one process is completed before the next one starts; see also parallel processing.
Top-down processing
Stimulus processing that is influenced by factors such as the individual’s past experience and expectations.
The traditional approach was also oversimplified in assuming processing is typically serial. In fact, more than one process typically occurs at the same time – this is parallel processing. We are much more likely to use parallel processing when performing a highly practised task than a new one (see Chapter 5). For example, someone taking their first driving lesson finds it almost impossible to change gear, steer accurately and pay attention to other road users at the same time. In contrast, an experienced driver finds it easy.
Parallel processing
Processing in which two or more cognitive processes occur at the same time.
For many years, nearly all research on human cognition consisted of experiments on healthy individuals under laboratory conditions. Such experiments are tightly controlled and “scientific”. Researchers have shown great ingenuity in designing experiments to reveal the processes involved in attention, perception, learning, memory, reasoning and so on. This research has had a major (and ongoing) influence on the studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists. Indeed, nearly all the research discussed in this book owes much to the cognitive psychological approach.

Task processes

An important issue for cognitive psychologists is the task impurity problem – most cognitive tasks require a complex mixture of processes, thus making it hard to interpret the findings. This issue has been addressed in various ways. For example, suppose we are interested in the processes involved when a task requires deliberately inhibiting a dominant response. Miyake et al. (2000) studied three such tasks: the Stroop task; the anti-saccade task; and the stop-signal task. On the Stroop task, participants name the colour in which colour words are presented (e.g., RED printed in green) and avoid saying the colour word (which is hard to inhibit) (see Macleod (2015, in press) for a discussion of this task). On the anti-saccade task, a visual cue is presented. The task involves not looking at the cue but rather inhibiting that response and looking in the opposite direction. On the stop-signal task, participants categorise words as rapidly as possible, but must inhibit their response when a tone sounds.
Figure 1.1
An early version of the information processing approach.
Figure 1.2
Diagram to demonstrate top-down processing.
Miyake et al. (2000) found all three tasks involved similar processes. They used complex statistical techniques to extract what was common to the three tasks. This was assumed to represent a relatively pure measure of the inhibitory process.
Cognitive psychologists have developed several ways of understanding the processes involved in complex tasks. Here we will briefly co...