AbstractUlrich Neisser is the father of cognitive psychology. This branch of psychological theory is a scientific reductionist approach to figuring out human behaviors. Cognitive psychologists assert that all human behaviors can be explained by the biological functioning of the brain. Experiments in cognitive psychology are amongst the most famous in all of Psychology’s history: The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram’s Study, The Asch Conformity test, plus many more. The reason these experiments have become seminal in cognitive psychology is because the results have disturbing implications for predicting and manipulating social behaviors. The flaws of this theory include that it does not account for non-biological influences on behavior, such as emotions. The theory is a comprehensive theory; however, cognitive psychology is not a complete theory because it does not account for the behaviors that psychodynamic theory or humanistic theory accounts for. Cognitive psychology is a sound foundation to build other approaches upon.

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Cognitive psychology is an active branch of psychological theory because this approach lends itself to many applications. A cognitive theorist approaches psychological studies as the study of the mind’s processes in any given context. A good working definition of cognitive psychology is that it is a reductionist theory: “…all behavior, no matter how complex can be reduced to simple cognitive processes, like memory or perception.” [italics] (McLeod, 2016). Cognitive psychology differs from other psychological theories, such as humanistic psychology or psychodynamic psychology in many ways. Humanistic psychology sees behaviors as a product of the individual’s perception, and it disallows for a purely scientific approach. Psychodynamic psychology is the study of the force of emotions and the sub conscious upon our conscious actions. This type of psychology results in psychoanalysis as a treatment. Freud was a famous founder of this approach. Unlike both psychodynamic psychology and humanistic psychology, cognitive psychology is a scientific approach that aims to understand all behaviors, thoughts, and feelings as a biological equation.

Cognitive psychology is a science
Cognitive psychology seeks to prove that behaviors can be justified and predicted through the biological brain reactions that occur when exposed to certain stimuli. (Hyman, 2012). The manner that cognitive psychology goes about interpreting behavior is through research that uses the scientific method. This method involves using study groups of participants who cannot fully know the scope of their participation. This is why many cognitive psychology experiments seem, or are, inhumane. The need to have informed consent to ethically have any type of psychology experiment is sometimes undermined by the need to keep the purposes of the experiment a secret. For example, the Stanford Prison Experiment could not ever have fully disclosed its intentions to the participants or else there would never have been a scientific study of the mental process that happens given an extreme authority situation.

Famous experiments reveal disturbing behaviors
Cognitive psychology views any behavior as the result of triggering and firing neurons. That is the basis of cognitive psychology. The research in cognitive psychology has been about methods to manipulate these brain functions, usually in a social environment. By manipulating the reactions and behaviors of participants in various cognitive psychological experiments, researchers are able to confirm that the mind will perform in a certain manner under certain conditions and then be able to justify these actions, (Mason, 2014). These types of experiments have assisted psychologists to predict social and personal behaviors in new contexts. Examples of famous experiments seem like a list of unethical torture experiments: The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram’s study, Little Albert, and the Asch Conformity test are some stellar examples of questionable (yet productive) research in the area of cognitive psychology. All of these tests have things in common, such as they are viewed with contempt from those concerned with the ethics of the experiments. However, although these experiments would not be permitted in modern times, due to ethical concerns, their results have contributed valuable data to the field of psychology.

Ethical dilemmas. These experiments would probably not be reproduced today because of current APA standards; however, prior to these standards, the freedom to perform “questionable” research existed. The reasons that these experiments are considered “questionable” are because they do not conform to APA standards for ethical research. The primary oversight, in most of these experiments, was that there was no informed consent, (Mason, 2014). In the Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, the participants did not understand the extent of the experiment that they had agreed to; the experiment ran for six days and was cut short due to extremely inhumane conditions of the experiment, (Mason, 2014). Although the experiment was morally questionable, it provided valuable information about the psychology of power relationships. Milgram’s study provided compelling results in moral conflicts, because the participants were conflicted about following authority or not inflicting pain, (Mason, 2014). Little Albert’s study was carried out by the researcher, John Watson in 1920. This study was similar to Pavlov’s conditioning study, but was the first to prove that the human mind is prone to conditioning. Little Albert was afraid of a rat because he expected to hear a loud bang from the hammer of Watson. (Mason, 2014). The Asch Conformity test was one that was carried out by the researcher Solomon Asch, and it proved that the human tendency is to conform, even to an idea that is blatantly false, (Mason, 2014).

The ethical dilemmas of having informed consent were set aside in these experiments. Ethically, one must also ask if the results were worth the damage? If the research that is performed does not produce valuable insight, then what is the point of research? One can argue both for, and against, the Stanford Prison Experiment, or Milgram’s study, etc. Although the researchers were unethical in many ways, the conclusions from the research have become valuable information that has provided insight into the patterns of human behavior according to cognitive psychology.
Cognitive psychology as a response to behaviorism: Ulric Neisser
The man who fathered, and started all of these “questionable” cognitive research pursuits, is Ulric Neisser, in the year 1967: “With the publication of Cognitive Psychology (1967), Neisser brought together research concerning perception, pattern recognition, attention, problem solving, and remembering.” (Hyman, 2012). Neisser was a pioneer because he rejected behaviorism as the best method for evaluating psychological behaviors. Behaviorism, for Neisser, was not an adequate means of research: “Neisser [became] disenchanted with information-processing theories, reaction-time studies, and simplistic laboratory research… He argued that research should be designed to explore how people perceive, think, and remember in tasks and environments that reflect real world situations.” (Hyman, 2012). Therefore, Neisser was a pioneer of realism in his research. Neisser argued that: “Information picked up through perception activates schemata, which in turn guides attention and action leading to the search for additional information.” (Hyman, 2012). Perception is therefore the basis for cognitive psychology, and the ways that perception can be manipulated is a common theme for cognitive psychology experiments.
Flaws in cognitive psychology. The pit falls of Neisser’s approach are that his theory disregards the things that humanistic psychology or psychodynamic theory accounts for. Neisser’s theory is a scientific approach that does not consider things like emotions and past history. These are psychoanalytic influences that contribute to one’s behavior, (McCleod, 2016). The external pressures that create the character of a person are not considered by the cognitive psychological theory. These are limitations of the cognitive approach.
The cognitive approach is a comprehensive approach to understanding human behavior, however it is not a complete and whole approach. The pitfalls that cogntitve psychology overlooks, such as emotions, or the role of childhood on the adult, are oversights that cognitive psychology cannot account for. However, the benefits of cognitive psychology include that behaviors are certainly caused by the brain, so it is beneficial to learn about these processes. However, behavior is not limited solely to brain function, but also to individual history, memories, and emotions. Therefore, cognitive psychology is perhaps one of the best approaches to research psychology, because it allows for scientific inquiry, however, it does not account for the more phenomenological aspects of human psychological behavior.

  • Hyman, I. (2012). Remembering the father of cognitive psychology: Ulric Neisser (1928-2012). Observer. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/
  • Mason, A. (2014). Famous cognitive psychology experiments. Infomory.com. Retrieved from: http://infomory.com/
  • Mason, A. (2014). Famous cognitive psychology experiments. Infomory.com. Retrieved from: http://infomory.com/