The idea that humans conduct mental processes on incoming information – i.e. human cognition – came to the fore of psychological thought during the mid twentieth century, overlooking the stimulus-response focus of the behaviourist approach. A dominant cognitive approach evolved, advocating that sensory information is manipulated internally prior to responses made – influenced by, for instance, our motivations and beliefs.
Introspection – a subjective method predominantly used by philosophical and psychodynamic approaches – was rejected in favour of experimental methodology to study internal processes scientifically.
Using experimental research methods, the cognitive approach studies internal mental processes such as attention, memory and decision-making. For example, an investigation might compare the abilities of groups to memorize a list of words, presenting them either verbally or visually to infer which type of sensory information is easiest to process, and could further investigate whether or not this changes with different word types or individuals.
Theoretical and computer models are proposed to attempt to explain and infer information about mental processes. For example, the Information-Processing Model (Figure 1) describes the mind as if a computer, in terms of the relationship between incoming information to be encoded (from the senses), manipulating this mentally (e.g. storage, a decision), and consequently directing an output (e.g. a behaviour, emotion). An example might be an artist looking at a picturesque landscape, deciding which paint colour suits a given area, before brushing the selected colour onto a canvas.
In recent decades, newer models including Computational and Connectionist models have taken some attention away from the previously dominant information-processing analogy:
A key concept to the approach is the schema, an internal ‘script’ for how to act or what to expect from a given situation. For example, gender schemas assume how males/females behave and how is best to respond accordingly, e.g. a child may assume that all boys enjoy playing football. Schemas are like stereotypes, and alter mental processing of incoming information; their role in eyewitness testimony can be negative, as what somebody expects to see may distort their memory of was actually witnessed.
This related field became prevalent over the latter half of the twentieth century, incorporating neuroscience techniques such as brain scanning to study the impact of brain structures on cognitive processes.
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