Cognition

Cognition is defined as mental processes that aid learning and is thought to determine behaviour. It is our awareness of the world, in a sense, and how we reason, judge, and perceive the things around us. Cognition is thought to develop throughout our lives as our mental capacities become more advanced and mature, and cognition is one of the major components of the mind.  

Cognition Cognition

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    There are different forms of cognition that humans and animals have that support the learning process of information, for example:

    • Thinking
    • Language
    • Attention
    • Perception
    • Reasoning

    Cognition Illustration of a child and mother playing with boxes on the table StudySmarterCognitive Development growing up, freepik.com/vectorjuice

    Some of the aspects of cognition and behaviour that will be covered in this topic are:

    Cognitive meaning

    As we established briefly above, cognitive refers to the mental processes in the mind and how we learn and use the knowledge we have learned. Our awareness of the world, how we perceive it and imagine it, and how we ultimately solve problems all revolves around our cognitive abilities.

    Cognitive psychology

    Several areas of cognition and behaviour are touched up in cognitive psychology.

    Cognitive psychology: Memory

    Memory is probably the most known and talked about cognition. It is the active process of remembering, storing and retrieving information. This topic is widely researched in psychology in various settings such as clinical, forensic and developmental. Some of the topics covered in this field are:

    • Memory models such as the multi-store model of memory
    • Memory processes
    • Accuracy of memory
    • Forgetting of memories

    Cognitive psychology: Perception

    Perception is a form of cognition. This internal cognitive process is used to see the world. Internal perceptual mental processes influence how we see things such as colour and interpret dimensions. How visual information is perceived is influenced by our subjective experience (personal experiences) and how our brain integrates the perceived information that has been received from sensory systems.

    Some of the topics covered in this section are:

    • Gibson's direct theory of perception

    • Illusions

    • Core research, such as:

      • The Gilchrist and Nesberg study of motivation

      • The Bruner and Minturn study of perceptual set

    Cognitive development

    Developmental psychology looks at the topic of how humans develop throughout their lifespan. This area of psychology investigated how behaviour how changes over time. Cognition has been found to develop throughout the lifespan. Developmental psychology research often investigates how changes in cognition throughout the lifespan affect behaviour and mental illnesses.

    Some of the topics covered include:

    • Early brain development

    • Piaget's theory of cognitive development

    • The effects of learning on development

    Research methods in psychology and data handling

    Research methods in psychology and data handling cover topics to show how the methods, techniques, and data analysis techniques are used in psychology to investigate cognition and other phenomena in this field of study. Some of these include:

    • The scientific approach used in psychology research

      • The ethical standards of psychological research

    • Different types of experiments and research designs used

    • The types of data that are collected and how they are analysed in psychology research

    How do cognitive psychologists view cognition?

    Cognitive psychologists argue that psychology should measure cognitive processes (such as the elements in cognition) to understand behaviour. Therefore, it is argued that behaviour results from these cognitive processes.

    In psychology, there are several approaches. These approaches explain the causes and effects of these types of cognition differently.

    • Biological psychologists argue that genetic factors influence cognition
    • Cognitive psychologists argue that internal mental processes such as schemas influence cognition

    The cognitive approach to understanding behaviour and cognition

    Cognitive psychologists explain cognition and behaviour with a computer analogy. Information is inputted (via our senses) and then processed (via cognition). This leads to an output to be created (behaviour).

    • Schema Theory – schemas develop through experience. These mental structures are used to organise our knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour.

      • According to cognitive psychologists, cognitive processes are directed by schemas that integrate new information with previous knowledge acquired and organised in schemas.

    Cognition An illustration of a human head that has a gear for a brain StudySmarterMechanism in the brain, flaticon.com/free-icon

    How are cognition and dysfunctional behaviour related?

    According to cognitive psychologists, faults in cognition are the causes of maladaptive behaviour and psychological illnesses.

    Cognition and maladaptive behaviour

    Cognitive psychologists propose that faulty thought processes and cognitive distortions cause maladaptive behaviour. Humans' schema is developed through interpreting experiences and knowledge. Schemas are needed to understand and learn about the world, the self and different concepts. When processing this information, faults in mental processes can sometimes cause cognitive bias or distortions.

    According to cognitive psychologists:

    • Irrational and dysfunctional thought processes are the causes of maladaptive behaviour.

      Cognitive distortions are recurrent, faulty, negative, inaccurate ways of thinking about something, which results in biased thinking.

      There are different types of cognitive distortions: - Catastratophising: automatically think of negative outcomes when thinking about situations - Overgeneralising: believing if something negative happens once it will keep happening - All-or-nothing thinking: seeing things as only good or bad

    These cognitive distortions can cause the individual to have a negative triad, which is a concept Beck developed to explain depression, known as the cognitive triad. People with a negative triad tend to negatively see the world and their current and future selves.

    People with depression have developed negative schemas and continuously see events negatively (this is known as the vicious cycle).

    Cognitive behavioural therapy

    Beck developed cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which has now become one of the most common therapy methods used today. This therapy aims to change negative cognitive and behavioural patterns. CBT can be considered an effective treatment if it has successfully changed an individual to have adaptive cognitions and behaviour.

    What does cognitive behavioural therapy involve?

    CBT is when someone with maladaptive behaviour talks with a trained therapist

    • The therapist's role is to adapt an individual's core beliefs, dysfunctional thoughts and negative automatic thoughts from maladaptive to adaptive ones (negative to positive).

      Core beliefs refer to how an individual sees themself, others, and the world.

      Dysfunctional assumptions are rules for living that people form for themselves. These tend to be rigid, dysfunctional and maladaptive – 'I will not try because I will fail'.

      Negative automatic thoughts – when thinking about something, it tends to be thought about negatively and evokes negative emotions

    How do other psychological approaches explain cognition?

    There are multiple approaches to psychology. These approaches differ in how they understand and explain behaviour such as cognition.

    Like the cognitive approach, biological psychologists try to understand internal processes to understand cognition.

    However, behavioural psychologists try to understand behaviour via measuring observable phenomena and external processes, which is contrasting with the cognitive approach.

    The biological approach to understanding cognition and behaviour

    The biological approach is somewhat similar to the cognitive approach, and it has a few key theories that attempt to explain cognition and behaviour.

    Cognition: Evolution theory

    The natural selection theory suggests that cognition is an adaptive feature that has developed through evolution via survival of the fittest. During evolution, humans with successful genes or mechanisms are more likely to survive and reproduce. In this case, cognitive processes that are more successful at ensuring survival are passed to the next generation.

    According to evolutionary psychologists, the purpose of cognition is to determine and influence behaviour that ensures survival.

    Cognition: Neurobiological processes

    Neuronal and neurotransmitter activity is essential for cognitive processes to work. For example, language processing occurs when specific brain regions associated with language are activated (frontal, temporal, and parietal lobe). The ‘typical’ functioning of mental processes has been associated with electrical activity, a determinant of neuronal activity (Bell, 2001).

    Essentially, neurobiological processes focus on the brain's neuronal activity as a determining factor in cognition and behaviour.

    Cognition A computer screen with a leaf and DNA on it StudySmarterBiological research, flaticon.com/premium-icon

    The behavioural approach to understanding behaviour and cognition

    The behavioural approach differs from the biological and cognitive approaches. They believe behaviour is learnt and is not innate (essentially, we learn a behaviour and are not born with it), and humans learn in the same way as animals. The mind itself is not relevant to the conversation, as we can not truly measure it. We can only measure behaviours.

    Cognition: Behaviourists approach

    Behavioural psychologists believe that behaviour that is not observable, such as cognition and other internal processes, cannot be objectively measured. Therefore, behaviourists believe that although internal measures cannot be measured, the outcome of internal processes can be. Behaviourists try to measure changes in behaviour that happen due to environmental factors and use this to understand cognition.

    Social-cognitive theorists and mediational processes

    Social-cognitive theorists combine aspects of the cognitive and behavioural approach to understand behaviour. The theorists believe that we learn behaviour from our environment (similar to behaviourists), but mediational processes are required to work to learn new behaviour (similar to cognitive theory).

    Mediational processes are internal mental events that occur between learning a new behaviour via associations between a conditioned stimulus and response.

    Mediational factors are essentially the different types of cognition that lead to learning.

    Cognition An illustration showing a building behind a river and trees StudySmarterEnvironment, flaticon.com/premium-icon

    Cognition - Key takeaways

    • Cognition is defined as mental processes that aid learning and is thought to determine behaviour.
    • Cognition develops throughout the lifespan due to these evolving and learning from our thoughts, experiences and senses.
    • Some of the topics that are covered in the GCSE cognition and behaviour topics are:
      • Memory
        • Memory is probably the most known and talked about cognition. This topic is widely researched in psychology in various settings such as clinical, forensic and developmental.
      • Perception
        • A perception is a form of cognition. This internal cognitive process is used to see the world. Internal perceptual mental processes influence how we see things, such as colour, and our subjective experiences influence dimensions.
      • Developmental psychology
        • Developmental psychology research often investigates how changes in cognition throughout the lifespan affect behaviour and mental illnesses.
      • Research methods in psychology and data handling
        • These topics show the method used to investigate cognition and other psychological phenomena.
    • Cognitive psychologists explain cognition and behaviour with a computer analogy.
    • CBT is used to change an individual to have adaptive cognitions and behaviour successfully.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cognition

    What is cognitive behavioural therapy?

    Cognitive behavioural therapy is an intervention used to successfully change an individual to have adaptive cognitions and behaviour. 

    What does cognitive mean?

    Cognitive refers to the underlying mental processes that determine behaviour.

    What is cognitive development?

    Cognitive development is the development of how people think, perceive things and organise new things learned in the brain and use these later to apply context to further information. Cognitive development is a critical part of childhood. 

    What is the cognitive approach?

    The cognitive approach is a discipline of psychology that attempts to describe and explain behaviour as a result of cognition. 


    Cognitive psychologists explain cognition and behaviour with a computer analogy. Information is inputted (via our senses) and then processed (via cognition), leading to an output to be created (behaviour). 

    What is the cognitive theory? 

    An example of a cognitive theory is the human body as a computer. This theory explains cognition and behaviour with a computer analogy. Information is inputted (via our senses) which is then processed (internal cognitive processes), leading to an output to be created (behaviour).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    If the researcher's subjective opinion influences a study, then can it be considered valid? 

    Which of the following does reliability refer to? 

    Which of the following does validity refer to? 

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