The Cognitive Approach (To Human Behaviour)

March 10, 2021 - Paper 2 Psychology in Context | Approaches to Human Behaviour

Main Assumptions of the Cognitive Approach:

  • People actively respond to environmental stimuli, depending on schemas and thoughts
  • People are information processors
  • Human mind operates in the same way as a computer
  • Cognitive processes can be modelled in order to make them observable and should be tested scientifically.

The Cognitive Approach: Internal Mental Process

Cognitive psychologists attempt to work out what the thought processes are that occur from a behaviour observed, (i.e. they observe behaviour and then try to understand what were the thoughts/motivators of this behaviour). These processes are ‘private’ and cannot be seen, so cognitive psychologists study them indirectly by making inferences (going beyond immediate evidence to make assumptions) about what’s going on inside people’s minds on the basis of their behaviour.

Behavioural Vs. Cognitive  Behavioural approach neglects areas of human behaviour, such as memory, perception and thinking. The cognitive approach argues that these factors should and can be tested scientifically.


The Role Of Schema:

  • Schema are ‘mental templates’ of ideas and information that are developed through experience and help to ‘frame’ our interpretation of incoming information (our experiences help to build our schemas).
  • Schemas are building all the time (for example, when we first visit the theatre, we have no understanding of what this experience will be like (the people who work there, the social norms/protocols that we follow etc ) once we visit the theatre, we develop an understanding of ‘what it’s like to go to the theatre,’ we store this information in a schema and use it when we are faced with the same/a similar situation again.
  • They help to determine how we’ll respond to each stimuli
  • e.g. a rollercoaster may be stressful for one person may be quite enjoyable for another, depending on each individual schema
  • Sometimes we assimilate our schemas, changing them to include new information that we have learned.
  • Sometimes we accommodate new information, changing our memories to keep our schemas intact. Bartlett (see below) explains how we do this by levelling and sharpening. Levelling involves removing or downplaying details from the memory and sharpening involves adding or exaggerating details this can happen as a result of our understanding of the content/experience that we have been exposed to.
  • Schemas are unique to each individual; as the way they experience the world is unique to them. This means the way we see the world is dependent on experience (or lack of).
  • Schemas are influenced by culture.

Bartlett War Of The Ghosts,

Memory uses schemas to organise things. When we recall an event, our schemas tell us what is supposed to happen, however, the schemas might fill in the gaps in our memory (confabulation) and even put pressure on our mind to remember things in a way that fits in with the schema, altering details along the way.

Bartlett came up with the idea of “reconstructive memory” during a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’. Bartlett developed a study to illustrate the idea of ‘reconstructive memory’ and ‘schemas.’ He showed 20 students a Native American ghost story titled; War of the Ghosts, which had unusual features (features that would have been ‘uncommon’ in most cultures). He asked them to read it then recall it on a number of occasions after a few hours, days, weeks, years. Bartlett compared the recalled and original story.

War of the Ghosts Story from Bartlett’s Research:
One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war-party”. They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:
“What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.”
One of the young men said,”I have no arrows.”
“Arrows are in the canoe,” they said.
“I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.”
So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.
And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.
So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.”
He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.
He was dead.


The findings from Bartlett’s study indicated that:

(1) Participants reduced when they reproduced it from approx 330 to 180 words

(2) Participants also confabulated details, changing unfamiliar parts of the story in line with their schemas: canoes became boats, paddles became oars, hunting seals became fishing.

(3) Participants rationalised the story, coming up with explanations for baffling parts of the story. For example, in later reproductions, participants missed out the “ghosts” and just described a battle between Native American tribes.


Theoretical And Computer Models:

Theoretical  The most important is the Information Processing Model, which suggests that information flows through the cognitive system in a series of stages that include input, storage and retrieval. The use of these models means that they components can be tested individually. If the data from these experiments does not ‘fit’ with the model, it can be adjusted. For example, someone driving on a road may see that there is a traffic jam in the direction that they are travelling, this will ultimately cause the driver to arrive at their destination late. This information is manipulated, considering if there is an alternate route which will allow the driver to arrive at their destination on time, the identification of this new alternate route is part of the decision making process the decision to follow the new route and avoid the traffic jam. The output is driving the car along the new route.

Diagram to illustrate the three components involved in the Information Processing Model.
Diagram to show the three components addressed in the Information Processing Model according to the Cognitive Approach

Computer  the core assumption of the cognitive approach is that the human mind functions like a computer, that there are similarities regarding the way information is processed. These models use the concepts of a central processing unit (the brain), the concept of coding (making information usable) and the use of stores.

Emergence Of Neuroscience:

Cognitive neuroscience the scientific (and objective) study of the influence of brain structures on mental processes. There is a long history of brain-mapping in psychology, advances in brain imaging techniques (fMRI and PET scans) have meant scientists can observe and describe the neurological basis of mental processes.

Diagram to illustrate the importance of neuroimaging (fMRI and PET scans) as part of investigating the Cognitive Approach.

For example; memory research has benefited significantly from the development of fMRI and PET scans, such pieces of research as part of neuroscience has allowed psychologists and neuroscientists to identify specific parts of long term memory (e.g. procedural, declarative, episodic) and identify memory tasks being completed as part of the short term memory and long term memory (e.g. think back to case studies such as Clive Waring and KF from the memory topic).


The focus of cognitive neuroscience has expanded recently to include the use of computer-generated models that are designed to ‘read’ the brain. This has led to the development of mind mapping techniques known as ‘brain fingerprinting’

The Cognitive Approach Evaluation (AO3):


(1) POINT: A strength of the Cognitive Approach is that it uses lots of scientific methods to measure the main assumptions of the approach. EXAMPLE/EVIDENCE: For example, research investigating the Cognitive Approach uses fMRI, PET scans etc to measure the processes and functions taking part in the human brain. ELABORATION: This is a strength because it can be seen that the key concepts of the Cognitive Approach are objectively and scientifically measured adding a degree of validity to the approach.

(2) POINT: A strength of the Cognitive Approach is that it uses a laboratory setting to conduct research in order to ‘rest’ the approach. EXAMPLE/EVIDENCE: For example, research investigating the Cognitive Approach often uses laboratory based tests that are highly controlled, EVs are accounted for and the IV can be manipulated and the DV can be accurately measured. Data is usually collected using fMRI and PET scans leading to the collection of objective data. ELABORATION: This is a strength because the controlled setting in which the Cognitive Approach is investigated provides a high degree of control in which the IV is the only variable to affect the DV leading to high internal validity allowing for a cause and effect relationship to be established.



(1) POINT: The Cognitive Approach can be criticised as being deterministic. EXAMPLE/EXPLAIN: For example, the approach assumes that we are pre-programmed in a way where we follow cognitive processes/cognitive processes are responsible for our behaviour. ELABORATION: This is a weakness because, the Cognitive Approach doesn’t consider the role of genetics/biology in the explanation of human behaviour.

(2) POINT: The Cognitive Approach can be criticised as being reductionist. EXAMPLE/EXPLAIN: For example, the approach assumes that all our actions and behaviours are as a result of internal-mental processes, thoughts etc . ELABORATION: This is a weakness because, the Cognitive Approach can be criticised as being too simplistic, failing to recognise that surely there are an array of factors that impact human behaviour (surely such complex behaviours as those displayed by humans cannot be reduced down to one explanation?)

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