Cognitive Psychology For Dummies
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Cognitive psychology is the study of all things to do with thinking. It’s the part of psychology that covers perception, attention, memory, knowledge, thinking, reasoning, decision-making and language. To study it, cognitive psychologists develop ingenious experiments that manipulate a small part of the cognitive system.

Understanding the information processing model for cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychologists use the information processing model to explain cognition. This model assumes that human cognition is a lot like a computer and the way the human brain works is by processing information through a series of stages:

  1. Perception: Input stage.

    People need to encode information from the world in order to process it and then respond to it appropriately. In part, perception is guided by experience, which changes the way people see the world. If information is attended to, it’s transferred from perception to memory.

  2. Memory: Storage centre.

    Information is stored in long-term memory and processed and used by short-term memory. All knowledge is stored in long-term memory.

  3. Thinking: A high-level cognitive function.

    Information from perception and memory is used to make decisions, to reason and to make deductions.

  4. Language: A high-level output stage of cognition.

    Often, the results of thinking need to be acted upon in terms of speaking or writing.

    The information processing model of cognition shows how information enters and leaves the mind.

    The information processing model of cognition shows how information enters and leaves the mind.

Cognitive Psychology: Working Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is memory for things currently in mind. It’s the active state of memory in cognitive psychology, like the RAM on a computer. According to the working memory model of British psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, different types of short-term memory exist:

  • Phonological loop: The inner ear. This system comprises the phonological store, a short-term store for sounds, and an articulatory rehearsal mechanism, which is where sounds are repeated for a short time to keep them active in memory.

  • Visuospatial sketchpad: The inner eye. This system comprises the visual cache, a store for mental images, and an inner scribe, which is a mechanism that plans sequences of actions.

  • Episodic buffer: This system binds and integrates information into discrete pieces. The brain stores new discoveries and information by linking together how something looks with other sensory information and anything already known about it.

  • Central executive: Like a computer’s central processing unit. It directs the resources of the remaining parts of working memory. It focuses attention on a particular task, switches attention between tasks and divides attention between tasks.

    The working memory model of short-term memory.

    The working memory model of short-term memory.

Cognitive psychology: Classifying long-term memory

Understanding long-term memory is essential in cognitive psychology. Long-term memory isn’t a unitary structure ‒ many different types of memory exist, which can independently be damaged due to brain injury. Research suggests the existence of the following different types of memory:

  • Episodic memory: A conscious declarative (verbalisable) memory store for recent events that have occurred.

  • Autobiographic memory: A declarative memory for all life events that have happened to you, usually important ones that are highly personal and emotional.

  • Semantic memory: A declarative memory for all facts that you’ve accumulated throughout your lifetime.

  • Procedural memory: An unconscious non-declarative memory for every skill or behaviour that you have.

  • Priming: A non-declarative memory store due to the repetition of information and its effect on behaviour and perception.

  • Associative learning: A non-declarative memory for unconscious associations formed between things and conditioned learning (learning based on linking two stimuli ‒ such as light and sound ‒ together sometimes with a reward).

  • Non-associative learning: A non-declarative memory store for habits.

    The different types of long-term memory.

    The different types of long-term memory.

Cognitive psychology and creating new words

Cognitive psychology can provide insight in how people create new words. Language is a human form of communication ‒ it’s highly complex, creative, spontaneous and constantly changing. When people create new words, they usually do so in a consistent way such that new words fit with the grammatical structure. The following rules and findings apply to how new words and phrases (see figure for how to generate new insults!) are created:

  • Inflectional morphology: In English, adding an ‘-s’ to the end of a word automatically makes it plural, even if the word is new or has never been pluralised before: for example, the made-up animal ‘wug’ would be pluralised to ‘wugs’.

  • Derivational morphology: When words are created taking the name of someone or something and using that to describe something similar: for example ‘Corbynistas’ to represent followers of the politician Jeremy Corbyn.

  • Combining words: Two words can be linked together that have never previously been linked together in order to form a new concept: for example ‘keyboard’ is the combination of ‘key’ and ‘board’.

  • Creating new open-class words: Open-class words are nouns, verbs and adjectives, which people can easily create when the need arises. For example, ‘tweeting’ is a new word created from the social media device Twitter.

  • Creating new closed-class words: Closed-class words are functional words, such as articles and pronouns. People can’t easily add new ones to language: for example, ‘Peh’ as a singular but gender-neutral form of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

    Insult generator for 10 million insults.

    Insult generator for 10 million insults.

Cognitive psychology and deciding to solve problems

Humans are thinking animals and cognitive psychologists are aware that people make decisions all the time. These decisions can be trivial (what should I have as a snack?) or much more life-changing (should I marry my current boyfriend?). Humans don’t appear to be that rational and use a number of mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to help them make decisions (quite often badly):

  • Availability heuristic: People make decisions based on how easy they find thinking of examples or outcomes, which leads to poor decisions if only certain information is easily available.

  • Anchoring: People often make decisions based on the piece of information they’re presented with first.

  • Ignoring the base-rate: People tend to ignore base-rate statistical information (that is, information about the frequency of particular events occurring), because it complicates the decision-making process.

  • Familiarity heuristic: People’s decisions are biased due to past experience. These experiences influence how they make decisions, instead of focusing on the novelty of the current situation (see figure for an example where familiarity and experience can impact people’s ability to solve a problem).

  • Recognition heuristic: People make decisions based on their recognition memory. When they see something they recognise, they’re likely to believe that it’s better or more common than something they don’t recognise.

    A problem to solve that’s often affected by people’s familiarity with the objects. You&

    A problem to solve that’s often affected by people’s familiarity with the objects. You’re given a box of drawing pins (thumb tacks), a candle and a book of matches. Your task is to fix the candle to a wall. Tip: think beyond your assumptions about these items’ normal uses.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Dr Peter J. Hills, PhD, is a principal lecturer and Head of Education in psychology at Bournemouth University. Dr J Michael Pake is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

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