What Is Cognitive Theory?

Helen Akers

Cognitive theory is built around the premise that a person's thoughts control his actions, personality, and to some degree his circumstances. It is an area of psychology that is in sharp contrast with behavioral theory, which states that there is an interrelationship between an individual's behaviors and his physical environment. Some psychologists merge the two theories to form what is called cognitive-behavioral theory. One of the more controversial aspects of cognitive theory is the idea that severe mood disorders can be altered by patterns of thinking.

Cognitive therapy may be used to treat depression in children.
Cognitive therapy may be used to treat depression in children.

The main idea behind cognitive theory is that an individual becomes what he thinks. Behaviors are the direct result of internal thoughts, which are able to be controlled. The theory purports that thought processes and patterns can be changed if a person learns how to recognize and correct destructive tendencies. For example, a person's personality and identity can be reshaped through thought manifestation.

A therapist that follows cognitive theory focuses on helping the patient change his or her thinking patterns.
A therapist that follows cognitive theory focuses on helping the patient change his or her thinking patterns.

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In fact, some would go so far as to say that entire life circumstances and outcomes can be directly controlled through the thought process. According to cognitive theory, one way to encourage and unlock new thought patterns is through meditation. Mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety have been shown to be responsive to cognitive forms of therapy. Some experts agree that cognitive therapy is a more effective treatment method than antidepressants alone.

In some ways, cognitive theory is similar to Eastern religious concepts, particularly those found in Buddhist teachings. Sayings such as, "I think, therefore I am," and "we become our thoughts," are reflective of the theory. It is the idea that a person's outward expression is a result of his inner one.

Cognitive theory began to gain a stronghold in the 1980s and 1990s. Many self-help resources are built around the idea of changing a person's life and mood through a change in thought patterns. For example, happiness will continue to elude those who think they are unhappy or who do not see the positive aspects in their situations. Criticisms of this theory revolve around the idea that the thought process is too complex and abstract to understand completely.

Some might argue that an individual's thought process is not only influenced by his own perceptions, but by the perceptions of others in his environment. Feedback, especially criticism, might stimulate thoughts that are beyond the control of the person who is on the receiving end. While that person can certainly attempt to change those thought patterns and reframe the way the criticism is processed, those negative thought patterns might unintentionally reemerge. An additional criticism of cognitive theory is that it is relatively undefined and difficult to apply to the population as a whole.

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