What is cognitive psychology?

by Dr Alon Zivony

5 Aug 2019

Cognitive psychologists are often hesitant to explain what they do for a living. The reason is that most people don’t know what cognitive psychology is – and to be honest, we are not very good at explaining what it is either. Let me try to set the record straight.

Cognitive psychologists are researchers who study various aspects of cognition, such as attention, memory, and consciousness. It’s a common misconception that cognitive psychologists are ultimately trying to cure cognitive disorders, such as attention-deficit disorder, but most of us are focused on understanding how cognition works in the “average” neurotypical individual. To understand what kind of research cognitive psychologists do, one needs to turn to its historical and philosophical foundation.

Historically, the field of cognitive psychology found its footing as a scientific discipline in the mid-20th century as a response to behaviourist psychology. B.F. Skinner, one of the fathers of behaviourism, was not interested in the human mind. For him, the mind was a black box, and was therefore outside the realm of proper scientific research.

Black box

Cognitive psychologists posited that if one is careful enough, even a black box can be studied. To do that, we present participants with certain stimuli (input) and record their responses (output). By manipulating the input and observing the output, we can sometimes infer what the hidden processes are that lie in-between.

For example, take Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ 1999 awareness experiment. Participants are asked to watch the video below and count the number of times the students wearing white shirts pass a ball. If you aren’t familiar with this experiment, please take a moment to watch it – be sure to watch it to the end.

Did you spot the gorilla?

About 50% of the people who watch this experiment for the first time don’t see the gorilla that slowly walks by. This outcome is striking because the gorilla is quite easy to spot, once you know what to look for. We might not see it on the first go because the task of counting the passes is taxing. This experiment shows that selective attention is a key component in conscious perception. It also explains why, for example, drivers might not notice a motorcyclist, even if they appear in their line of sight.

Now think of possible variations of the same experiment: what would have happened had participants counted passes between the group wearing black shirts? Or if the gorilla had been red? In both cases, the answer is that more people would have noticed the gorilla. Focusing on the black team, the black gorilla would have matched what the participants are looking for. If the gorilla had been red, it would have stood out. In both cases, it would have captured the participants’ attention.

Cognitive research is perhaps difficult to explain because it is not applicative. Rather, cognitive psychology is a ‘basic science’: it aims to advance knowledge for its own sake, to develop better theories about the mind.

Many of us follow Karl Popper’s philosophy of falsification, wherein a good scientific theory provides testable predictions. If the empirical evidence does not support the prediction, the theory is falsified, and should be rejected or revised. If two theories predict the same result, a prediction that differentiates between the two must be thought of in order to test which is better. In time, scientific theories about cognition develop and become more and more accurate.

As you may have guessed, this is a very slow process. As such, the likelihood that a single study will have immediate real-world applications is fairly low. However, that doesn’t mean that cognitive psychology isn’t important. Cognitive psychology provides both the theoretical knowledge and the methods that are the basis of applicative cognitive research. For example, theories about attention can inform research about effective road signage, about human-machine interfaces, and even about how to train doctors to spot tumours on mammograms. Sometimes, the cumulative knowledge gained from years of research can change the way we understand our everyday experiences.

For better or for worse, the human mind is infinitely complex, and we’ll never fully understand it. Studying the mind will therefore forever be an important human endeavour, whether its implications are immediate or not.

Dr Alon Zivony received a Newton International Fellowship in 2018. He is conducting his postdoctoral research onVoluntary Shifts of Attention: Behavioural and Electrophysiological Consequences’ at Birkbeck, University of London.

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