What is the Cognitive Approach?

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  • Written By: J.S. Metzker Erdemir
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2018
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The cognitive approach is an area of psychology that focuses on mental processes, perception, and language as a way of explaining and understanding human behavior. It started to develop in the 1960s, and by the end of the 20th century, it had become the dominant school of thought in psychology. Psychotherapy based on this approach attempts to alter behavior by attempting to change the behavior’s underlying cognition, or thought processes.

There are a few assumptions that are central to the cognitive approach. One is that human behavior can be understood by scientific processes. Unlike Freudian psychology, cognitive psychology developed through empirical testing. Another assumption is that human behavior is a series of responses to external stimuli mitigated by people's thoughts, perceptions, moods, and desires.

Cognitive psychology differs from the older, behaviorist approach to human behavior. Behaviorists believe that all people are essentially the same at birth, but their personality is affected and formed by environmental factors and outside stimuli. They also believe that behavior can be permanently altered by changing the environment. Behaviorism views people as blank slates passively reacting to their surroundings.


The cognitive approach, on the other hand, considers thought processes as the primary determinant of behavior. These thought processes include reasoning, intelligence, memory, attention, and sensory perception. Language and how it is used in mental processing is also considered. This approach builds on behaviorism by assuming that people’s behavior is a result of external stimuli, but argues that the way a person's mind actively processes his or her environment is what determines behavior and personality.

Behaviorism is not entirely rejected in psychological treatment that is based on this school of thought. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, attempts to combine the two approaches to treat patients. For example, a psychologist might treat a phobia by examining the mental processes that are causing the irrational fear. Rather than attempt to directly change a person’s behavior or environment, the psychologist might work on getting the patient to identify and alter the thought processes that are causing the fear.

There are some criticisms of the cognitive approach. Human thinking is an invisible process, and therefore cognitive processes are hypothetical constructs. Another important criticism is that biology, genetics, culture, and past experience have not been sufficiently tested as factors in mental processing. In cognitive psychology, human information processing is likened to computers, which perhaps oversimplifies the human mind.


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Post 6

@jeancastle00: "Accepting the cognitive approach to examining the human mind is the fact that it states that there must be some kind of logic behind every process of the human mind."

This is true in a way. The psychologist in charge of my graduate program used to tell us, "No matter the background of a person, a substance user, a newly married couple, or just a child, each one of them will have a logical reason for their actions or feelings. The logic may not be logical, but it is to the individual" (subjective logic).

Post 5

I have been up for three days writing a ten page essay on the cognitive and existential approaches to anxiety. I still struggle to understand both of them fully and have just handed in an essay that is well below par. Give me one second while I go throw myself off a cliff. P.S. The only thing I did understand is that there is a need for a new approach combining the two, which is touched on in this explanation.

Post 4

i think that the information is good and hopefully inshallah i shall get a distinction when i give my work in. i hope i do because i have spent all my time doing this for my GCSE exam, so good luck me!

Post 3

The author nails the biggest issue with the cognitive approach right on the head with his final statement. Comparing the workings of the human mind to the way that a computer functions is unfortunately a very bad oversimplification of the process thoughts and emotion go through.

I do think that someday we will be able to decode the brain as MrPolitic99 mentions. Beyond decoding the electrical code I also think that advancements in other areas of science including the understanding of different wavelengths coming from the human mind will open up the possibilities of us actually dissecting the though process.

Yes, as crazy as it sounds I do think that what we now call extra sensory perception, or

ESP, will someday be explainable. We may not learn how to communicate telepathically but I do think that we can develop technology that will further understand the thoughts emitting from the human mind.

Right now we can use magnetic resonance imaging to see the activity in different parts of the brain but we have still a very primitive way of decoding the activity.

I have hope that no matter what the correct or more proper way of analyzing the brain comes to be that we will be capable of further helping those with psychological and mental disorders.

Post 2

@jeancastle00, you might be right in the fact that we could never measure the amount of feeling in an emotion for an individual mind but I do think that we can dissect the cause and reason behind certain behavioral patterns.

If a child is acting out in a particular manner, we can use research patterns and logic to come to a conclusion why they are doing so. A cognitive approach to psychoanalysis is the leading way to help people overcome their emotional and mental health issues.

Besides, we already have a meter that we can put on a finger and see what the bodies current emotion is, they are called mood rings, HAHA!

Post 1

My biggest issue with accepting the cognitive approach to examining the human mind is the fact that it states that there must be some kind of logic behind every process of the human mind.

To admit this is saying that there is a scientific explanation for every emotion that enters the human mind. I can't agree with this fact solely because I think that human emotions are too subjective and unquantifiable to ever be measured scientifically.

While I can understand that certain brain chemicals can be monitored and their interactions with hormones can even be studied but until we can decode the electrical signal of the human mind we could never test the actual interaction of these brain

chemicals with the neurons that they excite.

I look forward to the day when we have this technology and maybe then we can prove that all emotion and human thought has some logical approach or reason but then, what would the fun of life be?

If emotions and sentiment can be mapped then where would the joy of experiencing the ups and downs of life be. Would we strap on monitors to our wrists that tell me if happiness is on the way with the next turn of a stoplight? It seems unreasonable and inhuman.

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