Principles of cognitive psychology (A guide)

In this article we will talk about the principles of cognitive psychology. Come and discover what cognitive psychology is, what is its history, its representatives and its main concepts.

Principles of cognitive psychology

One of the basic principles of cognitivism is the metaphor of the machine. Humans are viewed as biological machines that absorb, process, store, and use information. In the image of this metaphor, the goal of cognitivism is to investigate the functioning and regularities of this biological machine. 

Specifically, this means that cognitivism is about understanding the processes that take place in the brain, for example perception, attention, decision-making processes, problem solving, language.

At the beginning of the 20th century, behaviorism was the dominant trend in learning psychology. However, in the mid-1950s, it became increasingly clear that human behavior and processes cannot always be explained using behavioral means.

One of the most important critics of behaviorism was Noam Chomsky. He described why behaviorism cannot provide satisfactory answers to the complex aspects of language acquisition in children. In addition to Chomsky’s work, the publication of Ulric Neisser’s book ‘Cognitive Psychology’ was one of the cornerstones of the so-called ‘cognitive turn’.

Beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of psychologists emerged, turning their backs on the strict limits of behaviorism and investigating human cognition and higher mental processes such as language and consciousness. This was the birth of cognitive psychology.

Every time we talk about what psychology is and what “psychologists say,” we are oversimplifying. 

Unlike what happens in biology, in psychology there is only no unified theory on which the entire discipline is based, but the different psychological currents that exist are based on positions that are largely irreconcilable and often do not even share an object of study.

However, that does not mean that today there is no mainstream that has imposed itself on the others. This current of psychology is, in our days, cognitivism, on which cognitive psychology is based.

Cognitive psychology is currently one of the most influential and effective therapeutic currents when it comes to recovering from mental disorders. Although the term “cognitive” is unusual in colloquial language, in the world of behavioral science it is used with great frequency.

For the reader who is not particularly familiar with psychology, we will say that cognitive is synonymous with knowledge or thought.

Cognitive psychology, therefore, is dedicated to the study of human behavior that focuses on the unobservable, mental aspects that mediate between the stimulus and the overt response.

Said in a more understandable language: cognitive psychology is in charge of knowing what ideas arise in the patient’s mind and how these influence their emotional and behavioral response – how they feel and what they do about it.

Today, we frequently use cognitive therapy to solve a multitude of psychological problems. This is because we have been able to observe how these cognitions or thoughts of which we speak influence, and even in many cases determine, the patient’s behavior.

Therefore, treatment from this perspective focuses on identifying those thoughts, beliefs and mental schemes that do not correspond to the surrounding reality. They can also be maladaptive, exaggerated or harmful approaches to the person.

The professional will therefore try to question these internal realities through a debate consisting of asking questions that cast doubt on these cognitions.

Once the person or the patient is able to identify and question his own beliefs, he will be ready to reformulate them and emit new cognitions, more adjusted to objective reality. Let us therefore see more data and aspects to understand in depth this psychological aspect.

The cognitive revolution

In the 1950s the prevailing paradigm was behavioral or learning psychology. Thus and although he had managed to explain a multitude of psychological phenomena, he was still quite reductionist.

He could only explain the observable. Everything that could mediate between stimuli and responses – the so-called behaviorist “black box” – was either considered an epiphenomenon or something irrelevant to observable behavior.

When the behavioral psychologist reached a dead end, he began to give importance to the phenomena that occurred in our minds. The focus of interest was put on everything that could go through our minds while we received a stimulus and gave a response.

That is when the researchers began to study the processes of reasoning, language, memory, imagination …

The same happened with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, a current that also prevailed at the time and that was not capable of responding to a multitude of mental disorders despite the revolution that it had entailed.

The so-called “cognitive revolution” inevitably arises, by which psychology is reoriented towards the private mental processes of the individual.

Broadly speaking, there are some lines of research that gave rise to the emergence of cognitive psychology, such as:

  • Advances in computing and computing (Turing, Von Neumann …) that allowed the creation of programmable machines. They were able to make decisions by making a simile with how the human mind processes information.
  • Advances in cybernetics, hand in hand with Wiener.
  • Information theories with Shannon, who conceived information as a choice and reduction of alternatives.

The reorientation of psychology

The irruption of cognitive psychology and the cognitivist paradigm supposed a radical change in the object of study of psychology.

If for the radical behaviorism of BF Skinner what psychology should study was the association between stimuli and responses that can be learned or modified through experience.

Cognitive psychologists began to hypothesize about internal states that allowed to explain memory, attention, perception, and countless topics that until then had only been timidly touched by Gestalt psychologists and some researchers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The methodology of cognitive psychology, which inherited many things from behaviorism, consisted of making assumptions about the functioning of mental processes, making inferences from these assumptions, and testing what is assumed by scientific studies, to see if the results fit the assumptions from which they are based.

The idea is that the accumulation of studies about mental processes would outline how the human mind could work and how it does not work, this being the engine of scientific progress in the field of cognitive psychology.

Postulates or principles

There are 4 main postulates in Cognitive Psychology, which are the mentalist, the computational, the restrictive and the functionalist

Mentalist principles

Is specified in the belief that human activity cannot be understood or explained scientifically without appealing to internal constructs. Cognitive psychologists consider mental constructs as the causal antecedents of behavior.

Computational principle

Explains that mental activity consists of a general-purpose symbolic processing system, that is, it computes symbols in the same way as computers do, either in an identical way (strong version) or in an analogous way (version weak). 

Symbols are activated by various processes that manipulate and transform them into other symbols that are eventually related to other things in the external world. The purpose of psychological research is to specify the processes and symbolic representations that underlie performance in all cognitive tasks.

Restrictive principle

Information processing presents various internal constraints in the human being: cognitive processes have a certain duration, the mind is a processor with limited capacity, having structural and resource limits.

Functionalist principle

The symbolic system depends on a neurological substrate, but it is not totally constrained by it nor can it be explained at the level of neurological analysis. 

In contrast to mind-body dualism, the mind is no longer the res cogtans, but rather a level of functional analysis of a part of the extensive network, of an art of the body that is none other than the brain; 

The mind is thus a different level of description from the physical: it cannot be identified with the brain, but with the result of its functional organization. The so-called functionalist dualism of cognitive psychology implies that the mind is to the brain like the software to the hardware in a computer.

Criticisms of this conception of the mind

Cognitive psychology has been strongly criticized by psychologists and researchers associated with the behaviorist current. The reason is that, according to his perspective, there is no reason to consider that mental processes are something other than behavior, as if they were fixed elements that remain inside people and that are relatively separate from what happens to them. Around us.

Thus, cognitive psychology is seen as a mentalistic perspective that, either through dualism or through metaphysical materialism, confuses the concepts that are supposed to help understand behavior, with the object of study itself. For example, religiosity is understood as a set of beliefs that remain within the person, and not a disposition to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.

As a result, the current heirs of behaviorism consider that the cognitive revolution, instead of providing weighty arguments against behaviorism, limited itself to showing that it had refuted it, putting one’s own interests ahead of scientific reasoning and dealing with attributions made about what may be happening in the brain as if it were the psychological phenomenon to be studied, instead of the behavior itself.

Cognitive psychology today

Currently, cognitive psychology continues to be a very important part of psychology, both in research and in intervention and therapy. 

Its progress has been helped by discoveries in the field of neuroscience and the improvement of technologies that allow scanning the brain to obtain images of its activation patterns, such as fMRI, which provides extra data about what happens in the head. of human beings and allows the information obtained in the studies to be “triangulated”.

 However, it should be noted that neither the cognitivist paradigm nor, by extension, cognitive psychology is free from criticism. 

Research carried out within cognitive psychology rests on various assumptions that do not have to be true, such as the idea that mental processes are something other than behavior and that the former causes the latter. 

For something is that, even today, there is behaviorism (or a direct descendant of it, rather, and not only has it not been fully assimilated by the cognitive school, but also harshly criticizes it.

FAQS: Principles of cognitive psychology

What are cognitive principles?

Rather than the reaction to stimuli, cognitive learning concepts rely on what you learned. You operate on your thinking patterns and link them to your memories while you apply a cognitive learning theory, rather than simply listening to what is happening to you or how you feel.

What are the 3 main cognitive theories?

The three main cognitive theories are Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, and information-processing theory.

What is the main focus of cognitive psychology?

Cognitive Psychology is the branch that studies the mental processes that intervene in our ability to reason and think, assimilate new knowledge and solve problems. These cognitive processes are determinants of both informal learning and school or academic.

What are the main principles of psychology?

The principles are organized into five areas of psychological functioning: cognition and learning; motivation; social and emotional dimensions; context and learning; and assessment.

What is the principle of effective cognition?

This is a series of five brief videos on the cognitive basis of effective teaching.

In this article we talked about the principles of cognitive psychology. We discovered what cognitive psychology is, what is its history, its representatives and its main concepts.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Solso, R. L., MacLin, M. K., & MacLin, O. H. (2005). Cognitive psychology. Pearson Education New Zealand.

Best, J. B. (1986). Cognitive psychology. West Publishing Co.