What is Cognitive Psychology? Definition, History, Topics, and Careers

What is Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the study of internal mental processes, such as perception, memory, thinking, problem-solving, and learning, that occur within the human brain. It is also called brain science as it studies how the human brain works, how we think, remember, and learn.

It seeks to understand how people think and process information, shedding light on the complexities of the human mind. By examining the ways in which individuals receive, interpret, and make sense of information from the world around them, cognitive psychologists aim to develop models that explain these cognitive processes.

This scientific field of psychology explores various aspects of cognition, including attention, language, and consciousness. By gaining insights into how the mind functions as an information processor, cognitive psychology contributes to both our understanding of the human brain and our ability to help individuals overcome psychological difficulties.

History of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology gained popularity during the “cognitive revolution” in the 1950s to 1970s, marking a shift in focus from behavior to the study of internal mental processes. Prior to this, behaviorism dominated psychology, emphasizing observable behavior rather than thoughts and emotions.

However, researchers became increasingly interested in understanding the internal processes that influence behavior. They believed that these mediational processes, including memory, perception, attention, and problem-solving, were crucial for comprehending human behavior [1].

Also Read: The 4 Major Goals of Psychology

The cognitive approach introduced the idea that these internal mental behaviors could be studied through experiments, challenging the notion that the mind was an impenetrable black box. Cognitive psychology rapidly grew to become one of the most popular subfields, with research on topics like memory, attention, and language acquisition flourishing.

In 1967, Ulric Neisser coined the term “cognitive psychology” to encompass the study of perception, information processing, storage, and retrieval [2]. This marked a significant milestone in the development of cognitive psychology as a recognized field within psychology.

What Does a Cognitive Psychologist Do?

Cognitive psychologists engage in various activities including clinical research, training, education, and practice. They utilize their understanding of how people think and process information to assist individuals in developing effective strategies for addressing problem behaviors and improving their lives.

Cognitive psychologists possess specialized knowledge in areas such as applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy, learning theories, and emotional processing theories. They apply this knowledge to help treat a range of conditions, including anxiety disorders, academic performance difficulties, personality disorders, substance abuse, depressive disorders, relationship issues, autism spectrum disorder, trauma, and emotional regulation challenges.

By integrating their expertise in cognitive processes with therapeutic techniques, cognitive psychologists offer valuable insights and interventions to enhance mental well-being and promote positive change.

Also Read: What is Psychology? Definition, Types, History, Uses, and Goals

Topics in Cognitive Psychology

There are numerous topics that are studied under cognitive psychology, from them the most common nine topics include the following. As the field is diverse, researchers may explore various subtopics within these broader categories.

  1. Attention: Investigating how individuals selectively focus on specific information while filtering out distractions.
  2. Memory: Examining how information is encoded, stored, and retrieved in the mind, including processes such as working memory and long-term memory.
  3. Perception: Studying how individuals perceive and interpret sensory information from the environment, including visual, auditory, and tactile perception.
  4. Language Processing: Investigating how individuals understand and produce language, including comprehension, speech production, and language acquisition.
  5. Cognitive Development: Exploring the changes in cognitive abilities and processes that occur throughout the lifespan, from infancy to old age.
  6. Problem-Solving: Analyzing how individuals approach and solve problems, including strategies, decision-making, and creativity.
  7. Cognitive Control: Examining the mechanisms that regulate attention, memory, and other cognitive processes, including inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.
  8. Executive Functions: Investigating higher-order cognitive processes involved in goal-directed behavior, such as planning, organization, and self-regulation.
  9. Cognitive Neuropsychology: Integrating cognitive psychology with neuroscience to understand how brain damage or neurological conditions affect cognitive processes, providing insights into brain-behavior relationships.

Careers in Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychologists pursue diverse career paths in academia, private sectors, and clinical settings. Here are some career options in cognitive psychology:

Academic Research and Teaching

Cognitive psychologists can work at universities or research institutions, conducting research on various aspects of cognition and teaching courses in psychology.

Organizational Psychology

Cognitive psychologists may apply their knowledge to improve workplace productivity, employee satisfaction, and organizational behavior by studying cognitive processes related to decision-making, problem-solving, and human performance.

Software Development and User Experience (UX)

Cognitive psychologists can contribute to the design and development of software, websites, and technology interfaces by applying principles of human cognition to enhance user experience and usability.

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

Cognitive psychologists may work in HCI, studying how humans interact with computer systems and technology, aiming to improve the usability, accessibility, and overall user experience.

Clinical Practice

Cognitive psychologists can specialize in clinical settings, providing assessment, therapy, and intervention for individuals with cognitive impairments or disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, speech problems, memory issues, or sensory difficulties.


Cognitive psychologists with expertise in neuropsychology can assess and treat individuals with brain injuries or neurological conditions, examining the relationship between cognitive processes and brain functioning.

Education and Training

Cognitive psychologists can contribute to educational settings by developing instructional strategies, designing curricula, and conducting research on effective learning methods based on cognitive principles.


Cognitive psychologists may work as consultants, providing expertise to organizations, businesses, or government agencies on topics such as cognitive assessment, decision-making, and human factors in product design.

Research and Development

Cognitive psychologists can be involved in research and development in various industries, such as healthcare, technology, or gaming, focusing on understanding and improving cognitive processes.

It’s important to note that while entry-level positions may be available with a bachelor’s degree, more advanced opportunities typically require a master’s or doctorate degree in cognitive psychology. Master’s-level professionals often work under the supervision of doctoral-level cognitive psychologists in research settings.

Cognitive Psychology Vs. Cognitive Science

Cognitive psychology and cognitive science are related but have distinct focuses. Cognitive psychology primarily explores psychological phenomena and applies findings to clinical psychology, using experiments with human participants.

Cognitive science, on the other hand, has a broader scope and interdisciplinary nature, incorporating philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. Cognitive science provides the foundational knowledge that informs the theories used in cognitive psychology.

Cognitive scientists may conduct research using non-human subjects to investigate areas that would be ethically challenging with human participants. They also explore the intersection of artificial intelligence and understanding mental processes.


  1. Krapfl JE. Behaviorism and societyBehav Anal. 2016;39(1):123-9. doi:10.1007/s40614-016-0063-8
  2. Cutting JE. Ulric Neisser (1928-2012)Am Psychol. 2012;67(6):492. doi:10.1037/a0029351
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_psychology
  4. Cognitive Science: “Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices.”
  5. Sternberg RJ, Sternberg K. Cognitive Psychology. Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. 
  6. Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human Memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Leave a Comment