Understanding Cognition In Psychology Studies

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Per the American Psychological Association, cognition can include all forms of knowing and awareness—including stimuli perception, reasoning, remembering, judging, and imagining. Cognition in this context can be either unconscious or conscious brain activity. Conscious cognition is typically referred to as "perception thinking;" the individual is aware of their thought process and what their thoughts consist of. Unconscious cognition, in contrast, can happen behind the scenes without the individual's awareness.

Cognitive psychologists specialize in cognitive psychology: cognitive psychology focuses on the study of
understanding the human brain in terms of how individuals think and process information.

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Cognition is thought by many to be heavily studied in psychology, including social psychology, especially the mental processes of conscious cognition. This problem-solving process can be directed inward and focused on an individual's own cognitive processes. With this in mind, an individual analyzing their own thoughts and using the awareness of their cognition to change their thought process may be engaging in metacognition

Metacognition is generally thought to be central to cognitive-behavioral therapy and other therapies that address maladaptive cognitive processes.

Below, we’re exploring a range of cognition-related models, contributing factors to one’s ability to experience cognition, and applications of cognition in our daily lives. We'll also explore metacognition—a form of introspective cognition that can facilitate personal betterment and growth. 

The tripartite model: Applications of cognition

Cognition is one factor of the mind that can influence a person's attitude. For context: An attitude is generally defined by the APA as a person's general evaluation of an object, person, group, issue, or concept. People's attitudes are generally thought by many to be their summary evaluations of a particular topic or thing and can be derived from specific beliefs, emotions, and past behaviors.

One of the most common frameworks psychologists might reference to describe how an individual's attitudes are changed through the cognition lens is called the tripartite model

The tripartite model considers three categories that influence attitude: affective, conative, and cognitive. We’ve summarized these three elements below: 

Affective factors

A person's affect can refer to their mood and emotion across contexts. A person's attitude towards a thing or topic may have an emotional component, and the person's affect can change depending on how they feel regarding a certain stimulus. 

In short, the affective component is generally defined as how a person feels about a specific topic or thing.

Conative factors

Conative (or behavioral) factors can include past actions and future intentions surrounding a particular topic or thing. The conative component, for example, might refer to how a person might be likely to act when encountering a specific topic or thing.

Cognitive factors

The cognitive component of the tripartite model can refer to the thoughts and beliefs a person might hold regarding a certain topic or thing. Any knowledge acquired over a person's lifetime can be a part of the cognitive component. 

Cognition (or at least conscious cognition, in this context), can be a rational process— meaning that a person might be more likely to reach a conclusion that makes sense to them logically. 

We do want to note that what is "rational" might be unique to each person. A decision that can appear rational to one person may not make logical sense to another. Acknowledging this concept from the start of our summary of cognition can result in a wider range of experiences being validated, possibly helping those who experience a range of cognitive displays and factors to feel seen and accepted.

Applying the cognitive components of the tripartite model: How do we think and function?

Readers who are familiar with psychology or mental health concepts may recognize that the tripartite model can go by another name: The ABC model of attitudes. In this model, ABC generally refers to "affect, behavior, and cognition." As we review this model, it may help to remember that the conative factors of the tripartite model are generally thought to be behavioral in nature.

Many believe that the components of the ABC model can influence each other, possibly changing the underlying attitude that can guide one’s emotional experiences. The interplay between the model's three components can be leveraged in cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapies that may focus on shifting cognitive processes to change feelings or behaviors.

For example: Consider a fictional case study, led by a person named Eddie. Eddie can experience severe social anxiety disorder and is seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist for further support. Upon examination, they find that his ABC model features possible contributing cognitive factors that can influence his experience, with ABCs that appear like: 

  • Affective: “Eddie feels negative about socializing and experiences worry, fear or anxiety when considering social situations”.
  • Behavioral: “Eddie avoids social situations or limits the time he spends socializing”.
  • Cognitive: “Eddie believes that socializing is extremely difficult and does not think he possesses the skills to socialize normally”.

After metacognition on his experiences, Eddie seeks therapy for his social anxiety disorder—and his therapist notes both the negative emotional response (affect) and Eddie's unwillingness to socialize with others (behavior). The therapist also notes Eddie's beliefs about himself and his ability to socialize, which generally fall into the cognitive realm.

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Eddie's therapist, after further assessment, moves to diagnose Eddie with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Eddie then indicates that his goal is to increase the amount of time he spends socializing and decrease the negative emotions associated with socialization over time. His therapist agrees with his goal and begins treating Eddie with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

While this is a fictional case study for our intents and purposes, it does highlight the core philosophy of CBT—which generally follows the principles outlined by the ABC model. In Eddie's case, the therapist attempts to address faulty and unhelpful cognitions to change his social behavior. Affect is also considered, but CBT generally assumes that as thought processes and behaviors improve, so too does a person's affect.

Eddie and his therapist work then together to address his thought process (otherwise known as: What he "knows") surrounding social situations. Eddie is then asked to consider his thoughts about socializing and logically analyze where they may be inaccurate or harmful. 

As Eddie confronts his maladaptive beliefs, his attitude toward socialization might slowly become more positive—and he participates more frequently in social situations. As he receives positive feedback for his social behavior, his attitude can become even more positive, and he can then begin to display a positive affect when considering socialization.

Eddie's case highlights the importance of understanding cognition for many. Out of all the components of cognition and emotion, humans generally have the most significant control over their conscious thought processes. This makes cognition one of the most powerful tools* for addressing negative attitudes, behaviors, and feelings in some. 

*While CBT relies heavily on modifying cognitive processes, it is not necessary to engage in formal therapy to improve maladaptive cognition.

What is metacognition? 

The concept of metacognition is believed by many to have been heavily studied in educational psychology and the pedagogical sciences. It can be summarized as "thinking about thinking”. 

In education, metacognition refers to a student's planned approach to cognitive tasks, such as studying, although metacognitive approaches are helpful outside of academic settings as well.

Metacognition is suggested to have three distinct phases: Planning, monitoring, and evaluating. The planning phase generally involves developing a plan of action and deciding how to approach a particular task. Monitoring can include key tasks, such as assessing the effects of the plan while it is occurring. Evaluating may refer to determining the impact of the plan after it has happened—and making changes to the plan for the next time it is used.

Consider Eddie's case as reported above. The cognitive components of his social anxiety disorder experience generally consisted of his negative beliefs about his ability to socialize. Eddie's therapist then chose to address his social anxiety disorder through cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has many metacognitive underpinnings—but what if Eddie had tried a metacognitive approach alone?

Eddie might then develop a plan to control his thoughts while socializing. He may develop certain strategies or techniques to keep his thought process from becoming too negative. He might also keep tabs on himself during social events and note when negativity and self-doubt enter his thoughts. After socializing, Eddie could then analyze the event to see what could be done better next time.

While metacognition can be a powerful tool, especially for practical tasks like studying or completing work objectives, it can be challenging to apply metacognitive strategies in real time. In fact, it’s possible that Eddie's attempt to use metacognitive processes while socializing (a task that he believes is already difficult for him) may have made his socialization worse—simply because he had less mental energy to dedicate to the act of socialization itself.

Why is understanding cognition functionality important?

Understanding the basic principles of cognition can illustrate the power our thought processes can hold over us—and, conversely, the power we can hold over them. Cognition is one of the only factors affecting a person's attitudes that can be consciously controlled and manipulated for many, possibly increasing its importance in therapeutic settings. Cognitive deficits can be seen in individuals with certain challenges, such as bipolar disorder.

A deeper understanding of cognition can help people recognize maladaptive thought processes. Many people can spend their entire lives without considering why they think a certain way or where their thought processes originated. A metacognitive approach to the study of cognition can allow a person to analyze and understand themselves more deeply, possibly promoting feelings of peace. Applying metacognitive strategies can begin simply, sometimes only with a rudimentary understanding of cognitive processes.

How can online therapy help?

If your thoughts and beliefs aren't aligned with your goals, a therapist can help you to reach a higher quality of life. Online therapy can help you address your cognitive concerns in several ways. Licensed therapists use evidence-based techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy or metacognitive therapy, to help their clients manage maladaptive thought patterns or negative beliefs. This can be done in the comfort of one’s own home, which may be more appealing to some than being this vulnerable in an office. Patients may also appreciate the general degree of flexibility and convenience that this form of therapy can offer. 

Is online therapy effective?

The methods used by online therapists during a session of virtual cognitive behavioral therapy are generally administered in the same way as traditional therapy is. 

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Takeaway

Cognition can refer to anything we "know," including our thoughts and beliefs. Humans generally have more control over their cognitive processes than any other psychological process. As a result, many believe that it can be possible to change thoughts and beliefs through logical analysis of cognitive processes. Understanding our cognitions and analyzing them through metacognitive processes can be a helpful part of many psychotherapeutic approaches, virtual or otherwise. If you’re looking for online therapy solutions, you may consider connecting with BetterHelp. We can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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