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What is Cognitive Psychology?. Broad Definition –empirical investigation of mental events and knowledge involved in recognizing an object, remembering a name, having an idea, understanding a sentence, and solving a problem

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What is Cognitive Psychology?

  • Broad Definition –empirical investigation of mental events and knowledge involved in recognizing an object, remembering a name, having an idea, understanding a sentence, and solving a problem

  • Specific Definition - the empirical investigation of mental processes and activities used in perceiving, remembering, and thinking, and the act of using those processes.

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  • “Pay attention!”

    • Concept: Attention -- how we filter or select important information from the environment.

  • “I don’t know.”

    • Concept: Knowledge -- the store of general information and algorithms for performing tasks.

  • “I don’t remember.”

    • Concept: Memory -- a process for storing, retrieving and working with information.

  • “I can’t decide.”

    • Concept: Decision making – set of higher-level processes that work together allow us function day to day

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History of Cognitive Psychology

  • Early history – Philosophical roots

    • Socrates – interested in the origins of knowledge

    • Aristotle – interested in origins of knowledge & memory

      • Proposed first theory of memory

    • Descartes – how is knowledge represented mentally

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History of

  • Recent history – Psychological roots

    • Wilhelm Wundt (1879)

      • First psychological laboratory in Leipzig, GE

        • Founder of psychology as a science

        • Many early psychologists had roots in Wundts lab

          • Produced over 200 Ph.D students in philosophy and psychology

      • Topic: Human cognition

        • Used introspection to report contents of consciousness

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History of

  • Edward Titchner

    • Student of Wundts, taught at Cornell University in 1892

      • Proponent of introspection

      • Narrow view of psychology

        • Excluded mental illness, education apps., and social psych, b/c not open to introspection

        • Note: Method defined what was allowable science

      • Founder of Structuralism

        • Study of: Sensations, images, and feelings that were elements of the mind

      • Often argued with Wundt over findings

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History of

  • Herman von Ebbinghaus

    • Contemporary of Wundt in GE

      • Big influence on cognitive psych.

      • Developed method for studying forgetting as function of time

        • Stimuli: lists of Consonant-Vowel-Consonant’s (CVC’s)

        • Method: Learn list of CVC’s, count number of trials to recall perfectly  Wait 2 days  re-learn list.

        • Savings score = # of trials to learn the 1st time - # of trials to learn 2nd time

      • One subject entire career – himself

      • Learned over 40,000 CVC’s

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History of

  • William James

    • Wundt’s student, hired at Harvard

      • Philosopher, but started first American psych. lab

    • Proposed Functionalism

      • Stressed the functions over the mind rather than contents

        • How does mind adapt to new circumstances?

        • Proposed multicomponent memory system: Primary Memory vs. Secondary memory

      • Authored: Principles of Psychology, chapters on Sensation, perception, attention, consciousness, memory, reasoning

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History of

  • Modern History

    • Human Performance (WWII)

      • Attention and perception,

        • training of solders to use radio and radar

      • Signal detection

        • Blips on radar or sonar

      • Information theory –

        • abstract method for analyzing information processing

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History of

  • Artificial intelligence

    • How can we make computers behave intelligently?

    • Contributed host of concepts

      • Idea of study machine, allowed us to study our own processes

  • Linguistics

    • Interested language and language development

    • Contributed new mode of analyzing structure of language

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Emergence of Cognitive Psychology

  • 1950’s – 1970’s, no agreed upon date

  • Ulric Neisser’s “Cognitive Psychology” text published in 1967

  • Why did Cog. Psyc emerge?

    • Two major factors

      • Dissatisfaction w/ behaviorism’s account of complex behavior (e.g., Chompsky’s new model of language)

      • Convergence of several other fields during WWII

        • Linguistics, Human performance, AI

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Contributors to Cog. Psych

  • Human Performance

    • Abstract way to analyze processing of info. (development of psychological tools!)

    • Research ideas in attention and perceptions

  • AI

    • Idea of computer as info. Processor

    • Computer model

    • Tool for studying cognition

    • Focus on complex processing (decision making, reasoning)

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Contributors to Cog. Psych

  • Linguistics & Verbal learning

    • Questions about language and its complexity

    • Reason to reject behaviorism

      • Complexities of lang. Not handled by behaviorism

  • Philosophy

    • Age old questions about knowledge and Memory

  • Behaviorism

    • Strong empirical methods and laboratory research

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  • Cog. Psych began with Wundt

    • Cognitive issues of mental states

    • But, introspection method not strong

      • Replication difficult, methodology determined acceptable sub-disciplines

      • These problems fueled behaviorist movement

  • Behaviorism was major paradigm from 1910’s to 1960’s

    • Focus shifted to overt behavior

      • Stimulus  response

      • Mind considered a black box, can’t study what you can’t see, hear, feel, or touch

    • Psychologists need reason to abandon behaviorism

      • Linguistic’s criticisms provided the stimulus

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  • War time efforts - scientists from different fields came together for one purpose

    • Focus on attention and perception

    • Expansion of methodological toolboxes

      • Enabled Psychologist to go beyond S-R psych.

    • Idea of humans as “Active” info. Processors

      • Contrast with behaviorism – Organisms respond to environment

  • Invention of computer & focus on mental processes

  • Chompsky’s review of Skinner’s book on language

    • Illuminated inadequacies of behaviorism

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Cognitive Psychology

  • Information processing approach – decomposition of mental processes

    • Multi-component memory system

  • Assumptions of Cog. Psych.

    • Mental processes exist

    • People are active information processors

    • Mental processes and structures can be revealed by time and accuracy measures

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Info. Processing model

Short-term / Working




Overt Response




Long-term Memory





is concerned with

what goes on in here.

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Component of Model

  • Sensory memory – input device

    • What info is sent to the processor

  • Short-term / Working memory

    • Central processor, actively processes info

  • Long-term memory / Knowledge

    • Library of programs, algorithms, data, and experiences that are stored for use

  • †Note similarities to computer!

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Sternberg Paradigm

  • Test of how info is processed

  • Subjects (Ss) memorize list of digits

    • {4, 6, 5, 9, 3, 2}

  • Given recognition test

    • 9?

    • Yes/No

  • Measure both accuracy and reaction time (Msec.)

    • Some trials were false (8?)

    • Some were true (9?)

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Think in terms of Memory system!

















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6, 9, 3, 2


Perceive Stimulus



Make decision

Generate response




Perceive Stimulus

Make decision

Generate response





What would happen if the search string were 6 items?

What would happen if degraded the probe?

What would happen if we biased the decision process?

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