What Is Cognitive Psychology? Examples, Definition, And Benefits

By Julia Thomas

Updated May 17, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Psychology is the study of the mind. In simplest terms, cognitive refers to thinking. So, what makes cognitive psychology so different? To understand better, you might need some examples of what cognitive psychologists study, as well as a complete definition and some of its benefits.

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Cognitive Psychology - Definition

The definition of cognitive psychology is deceivingly simple. Cognitive psychology is defined as the branch of psychology devoted to studying mental processes. What may not be so easy to grasp, though, is how many different types of mental processes there are and how people use them in their unique ways to draw conclusions and make decisions. Thus, cognitive psychology encompasses a very broad range of subjects.

Cognitive Psychology - Examples

Cognitive psychologists study the mental processes of humans. So, what are these mental processes? They include:

  • Thinking
  • Reasoning
  • Judgment
  • Attention
  • Mental imagery
  • Language
  • Recognizing numbers
  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Creativity
  • Forming concepts
  • Making decisions
  • Solving problems
  • Making choices
  • Meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking)

An important thing to remember about cognitive psychology is that it isn't just about the thoughts you have but also about how those thoughts impact your behavior. Cognitions, or thought processes, are what happens to you between perceiving something with your senses and behaving outwardly in response. Or, they can happen without a sensory stimulus.

An example of sensory stimuli leading to behavior via a thought process might happen if you step outside on a winter day and feel the cold wind on your face. You step back inside and put on a scarf. Between the feeling of coldness and the behavior of putting on a scarf is a thought process. Maybe you think you'll be more comfortable if you wrap up a bit. Or, maybe you know you're prone to sore throats and think the scarf will protect you from getting ill. Whatever that thought is, you allow it to change your behavior.

Metacognition Examples

Cognitive psychology is based on thinking about the thoughts people have and how they influence behavior. So, it's a form of metacognition or thinking about thinking. There are several other interesting examples of metacognition that have fascinated people throughout history.

  • If you feel you're repeating an experience, you have a sense of déjà vu.
  • If you have a thought you believe is unique and find out that it's a memory of something you read, heard, or saw, you have cryptomnesia. If you write it down, you may plagiarize unconsciously.
  • If you hear a statement and every time you hear it again it seems more reasonable, you're suffering from the validity effect.

History Of Cognitive Psychology

People have been thinking about the ways thought influences behavior for millennia. In the writings of the Ancient Greeks, there are many discussions about thinking. As a field of psychology, cognitive psychology is a much more modern branch of study.

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In the 1800s, Paul Broca discovered an area of the brain where language is produced, and Carl Wernicke discovered an area of the brain where language is comprehended. With these introductions of thought into the scientific realm, cognitive psychology made sense as a new form of scientific study.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, behaviorism was the predominant theory of psychology. However, several factors made the study of thought increasingly important. First, soldiers needed to be trained to use the new war technology that came after WWII. Then, computer science came with comparisons between human thought and computer functions.

Finally, when Noam Chomsky critiqued behaviorism, he suggested cognitive psychology as a better way to approach the study of the mind. Aaron Beck, now considered to be the father of cognitive psychology, wrote extensively on this branch of study. From there, the field has grown, with entire research centers devoted to cognitive psychology studies.

Applications Of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology has been applied to many other aspects of psychology. Many psychologists who do not call themselves cognitive psychologists do use cognitive approaches to a wide range of psychological problems. Here are some examples.


Antidepressants are commonly used to improve the mood of people with depression. However, most psychiatrists suggest their patients also have counseling along with their medications. Why? The reason is that they need to develop positive patterns of thought and behavior. Otherwise, when they're taken off the antidepressants, they'll return to their depressed state. To avoid this, they need to change the way they think about and respond to depressed feelings.

Aggressive And Anti-Social Behavior

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Cognitive psychology has produced several different social information processing models. These are models of how people think and behave in response to others. As it turns out, children who develop the ability to process social information well become adults who behave in more socially-acceptable ways. Kenneth Dodge identified five steps in the process of evaluating and interpreting others' behavior. They include:

  • Encoding social cues
  • Interpreting social cues
  • Searching for a response
  • Evaluating responses
  • Carrying out the response.

As you learn and become aware of this process, you're better able to make better choices in your social behavior. These concepts can be used to help people curb their aggressive behavior as they learn to take their time and think out each step as they come to it.


Jean Piaget was a famous psychologist who studied and wrote about cognition from a developmental standpoint. His cognitive development stages outline the way people's thought processes change throughout their lives.

Piaget's four stages of cognitive development have been used extensively to guide teachers in helping their students progress at rates that are appropriate for their level of cognitive development. Piaget's theory was based on biological readiness for each stage, and teachers must take readiness into account when creating learning experiences for their students.

Cognitive psychology has also influenced education in other ways. For example, the idea of metacognition is used to help students assess their learning and develop better learning strategies. Cognitive psychology also distinguishes between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. In other words, the first step is to know how to think about doing something and the second step is to develop the skills to do it.

Also, cognitive research has shown how knowledge is organized in the brain. By knowing how knowledge is naturally organized, teachers can supply a useful framework for the information they give their students. And, as students learn cognitive strategies for setting goals and assessing their study habits, their learning improves.

Using Cognitive Strategies In Learning

Whether you're a college student or just an adult who enjoys learning, using the right cognitive strategies can help you comprehend and remember the information better. These strategies help you understand the material better and enhance your memory of it. Some of the cognitive strategies you can use include summarizing or annotating readings, predicting outcomes, and reflecting on what you've learned.


The benefits of cognitive psychology are easy to understand. Cognitive psychology can:

  • Help you understand yourself and others better.
  • Learn more effectively.
  • Make better life choices.
  • Change unwanted behaviors.
  • Diminish mood problems.
  • Understand past traumas differently.
  • Remember past experiences and put them in perspective with your current life.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy was developed during the 1960s by Aaron Beck. Cognitive therapy is based on cognitive psychology. CT is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. However, there are some differences, starting with the fact that CBT is a part of many different types of therapy while CT is just one type of therapy.

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In cognitive therapy, the patient and the therapist work together to target thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and physical responses. The goal is to make changes in the mental processes in the here and now. Cognitions are uncovered and examined. You then challenge those cognitions and decide if you want to hold onto them or replace them with other more realistic and positive cognitions.

Cognitive therapy is used in specific ways for different types of disorders. And, unlike CBT, cognitive therapy focuses on the mental processes behind the behavior rather than on the behavior itself. Cognitive therapists assume that if the cognitions that lead to behavior can be changed, the behavior will change more easily.

Still, cognitive therapy does address what to do about unwanted behaviors. The main theme is that if you think differently, you're more likely to respond differently. So, thinking behaviors are targeted. You come to understand that you not only choose your behaviors, but you also choose the thoughts that lead to those behaviors.

A cognitive therapist can help you with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and anger management. Instead of focusing on what's happening to you, you concentrate on how you can think differently to have a different outcome. When you take charge of your thoughts, you can also change the way you respond to your feelings. For example, if you think about how you can overcome depression rather than about how bad you feel, you can make positive changes, such as taking care of your physical health, that diminish your depression.

You can talk to a cognitive therapist about any mental health problem that you don't know how to solve. Through CT, you can examine your thoughts and make the changes that make sense to you. Therapists are available at BetterHelp to assist you with cognitive therapy. Whether you choose cognitive therapy or some other form of treatment, you can get the help you need to resolve your mental health issues and build a better life.

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