What Is Cognitive Psychology? Definition, Example, And Benefits

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychology is the study of the human mind. In simplest terms, the word ‘cognitive’ refers to thinking. Cognitive psychology focuses on the inner workings of the human mind. It seeks to understand how people process, solve problems, and make decisions in their everyday life. By examining the cognitive processes involved in these activities, cognitive psychologists help us gain a deeper understanding of how the brain functions. 

So, what makes cognitive psychology a unique field? To understand, you might need some examples of what a cognitive psychologist studies, as well as a complete definition and a rundown of some of its benefits. Increasing your knowledge of this field can help you decide whether working with this type of therapist could be something you’re interested in.

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Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you unpack your thoughts

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 unique ways to draw conclusions and make decisions. Thus, cognitive psychology can encompass a very broad range of subjects.

Examples of psychological cognition

Cognitive psychologists study the mental processes of humans. This includes activities like problem-solving, informational processing, short-term memory, and language processing. They also investigate the effects of emotions on our behavior and how we can improve our mental processes through behavioral psychology. So, what are these mental processes? They can 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 can impact your behavior. Cognitions, or thought processes, are what happens to you between perceiving something with your senses and behaving outwardly in response. They can also 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. The time 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. Whatever that thought is, you allow it to change your behavior.

No matter how the thought process works, it's always changing and can lead to different behaviors from a previous experience. It’s important to identify and understand these examples of cognitive processes to understand how to make better decisions.

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 as if you’re repeating an experience, you have a sense of déjà vu.
  • If you have a thought that 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 experiencing the validity effect.

History of cognitive psychology

People have been thinking about the ways thought can influence 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.

In the 1800s, Paul Broca discovered the area of the brain where language is produced, and Carl Wernicke discovered the area of the brain where language is comprehended. With these introductions of thought into the scientific realm, experimental psychology emerged 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 the cognitive revolution, wrote extensively on this branch of study. From there, the field has grown, with entire research centers devoted to cognitive psychology studies. 

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Applications of cognitive psychology

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

Depression

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 to develop positive patterns of thought and behavior. Otherwise, when they’re taken off the antidepressants, they may quickly return to their depressed state. They may be able to avoid this if they change the way they think about and respond to their feelings of depression.

Aggressive and anti-social behavior

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 can become adults who behave in more socially acceptable ways. With these behavioral methods, psychology can influence child development. This type of intervention can help children learn how to manage their feelings and affect their moral development. 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 may be able to make healthier 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. These cognitive psychology examples can be applied to both children and adults. 

Education

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. Jean Piaget's psychology was a route for changing people's perceptions of children as unique creatures rather than a simple version of adults. It provided information about how cognitive processing develops in the human brain and how it should be considered when discussing how people perceive their behavior.

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 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 can be 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.

Cognitive research has also shown how knowledge is organized in the brain. By understanding how knowledge is naturally organized, teachers can supply a useful framework for the information they give their students. This change in perception is part of what has led to a renewed emphasis on the importance of critical thinking in education. By using information from cognitive psychology studies, teachers can create more effective learning environments. As students learn cognitive strategies for setting goals and assessing their study habits, their learning can improve.

Cognitive psychology enhances learning process

Whether you’re a college student or just an adult who enjoys learning, using the right cognitive strategies can help you comprehend and remember information more accurately. There is a limited capacity for what we can recall, but cognitive strategies can help us process information in greater depth and influence our long-term memory. These strategies may help you understand the material more efficiently 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 relatively clear. Cognitive psychology can help you:

  • Understand yourself and others on a deeper level.
  • Learn more effectively.
  • Make healthier life choices.
  • Change unwanted behaviors.
  • Diminish mood problems.
  • Understand past traumas differently.
  • Recall eyewitness testimony more accurately.
  • Remember past experiences and put them in perspective with your current life.
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Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you unpack your thoughts

Cognitive psychology: Applications in therapy

Cognitive therapy (CT) 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 therapies while CT is just one kind of therapy.

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 thoughts.

Cognitive therapy can be used in specific ways for different types of disorders. 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 led 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 often targeted. You come to understand that you not only choose your behaviors, but you also choose the thoughts that can 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 more positive outcome. When you take charge of your thoughts, you can also change the way you respond to your feelings. For example, if you try to focus on how you can overcome your depression rather than on how bad you feel, you can make positive changes, such as taking care of your physical health, that diminish your depression.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

While some problems can be solved on your own, other issues may require assistance from an outside source. If you’re going through mental health concerns that you don’t know how to get past, consider speaking with a therapist who has experience with cognitive behavioral therapy. You can get connected with an online cognitive counselor through BetterHelp, an online counseling platform. Without having to leave your home, drive long distances, or wait weeks or months for an appointment, you can start getting the mental health care you deserve with the click of a button. 

The efficacy of online counseling

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to successfully treat a wide range of mental health disorders. Internet-based CBT can be equally as effective. CBT can change your brain activity by creating new neural pathways. One study found that online CBT interventions can be efficacious in reducing symptoms of depression and other psychiatric conditions in the adult population. Researchers also note how these interventions can successfully address “barriers that hinder effective treatment.” 

Read about the experiences that others like you have had with BetterHelp below.

Therapist reviews

“I really enjoy Emmanuel’s deep understanding of psychology and cognitive science. and how he can apply techniques to my situation. It’s clear to me that how the mind works is very intuitive for him. He’s also friendly and a good person to talk to about my issues. I don’t feel judged by him.”

“Brad is patient and a great listener. He has great understanding and explanations of psychology theory, and also gently offers new insights or perspectives.”

Takeaway

The field of cognitive psychology focuses on human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When someone is experiencing problems in one of these areas, therapeutic interventions are common. CBT has shown promise in managing and even treating a variety of mental health conditions. With the advent of enhanced telecommunications technology, cognitive psychology, and CBT treatments are becoming more widely available than ever. What’s more, they have overwhelmingly been shown to deliver the same results as in-person options. If you believe you could benefit from CBT, you can gain quick access to online CBT-certified therapists from the comfort of your home. Over time, you may be able to change your negative thoughts into more helpful ones and improve your life in the process.

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