The Cognitive Perspective

Cognitive psychology is the study of how people perform mental operations. The cognitive approach sees human beings as information processors that work in the same way as a computer. In humans, our brains are the hardware, receiving, interpreting and responding to information. Cognitive psychologists are only interested in studying mental activities and believe that the brain prefers organized information and the way we achieve this is by storing information about any one thing as a schema.

This is a packet of organized information that is constantly updated according to new learning. Supporters of the cognitive perspective propose that once we know how the human brain works it will be possible to create a computer that behaves exactly the way a human would. This is called Artificial Intelligence; examples of this are computer games such as chess and card games. Cognitive psychology focuses on mental functions such as memory and perception.

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George Miller (1956, cited in Hill 2001) investigated the capacity of the short-term memory. He referred to what he found as ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two’. In his study Miller found that by packaging information into larger units or ‘chunks’ the amount of information retained could be increased although still only seven plus or minus two of these chunks were retained by the short term memory. The table below (cited in Hill 2001) shows two sets of the same information.

It is almost impossible to remember all of the items in the first section after looking at them for a few seconds then trying to recall them, but by chunking the items into larger units (as in the second section) they are much easier to recall. This process is called chunking. The ability to recall chunks of information is made easier if the ‘chunks’ have meaning from the long-term memory. Visual perception involves the brain and the senses working together. One particular group of cognitive psychologists, called Gestalt psychologists, believed that when we perceive something we see the ‘whole’ effect, pattern or shape.

The Gestalt school’s early studies dealt with illusions for example the Kanizsa triangle, this forms an important part of the Gestalt theory of perception. When we look at the Kanizsa triangle it seems obvious that a triangle is there although there are no lines to indicate a triangle, just six separate shapes. Only by seeing these shapes as ‘a whole’ do we perceive a triangle. This perspective is useful in explaining mental functions and the way the brain processes information.

The knowledge we gain about the brain functions can help us to overcome difficulties such as reading problems and can help us to use techniques to help the brain work more effectively. However, this perspective completely ignores the emotional aspects of human behaviour, which make man more complex than computers. The cognitive perspective favours the ‘scientific method’ for their research and human behaviour, it is argued, is not suitable for the use of scientific experiments. This perspective is very cold and de-humanizes man.