Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes. This includes trying to understand how people perceive the world around them, store and recall memories, acquire and use language, and engage in problem-solving.
Although not the first to study mental processes, Ulric Neisser helped cement the term in the field of psychology in his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology.
He offered an elaborate definition of cognitive psychology, with key points quoted below:
“The term cognition refers to all processes by which sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, recovered, and used…Giving such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do” (p. 4).
In the mid-20th century, there was significant divide in psychology between behaviorism and cognitive psychologists.
The behaviorists, such as Skinner, argued that only observable phenomena should be studied. Since mental processes could not be observed, they could not be studied scientifically.
Neisser countered, stating that:
“Cognitive processes surely exist, so it can hardly be unscientific to study them” (p. 5).
Cognitive Psychology Examples (Famous Studies)
1. The Forgetting Curve and The Serial Position Effect
The contributions of Hermann Ebbinghaus to cognitive psychology were so significant that his individual studies could consume all 10 examples in this article.
Some believe that his book Über das Gedächtnis (1902) “…records one of the most remarkable research achievements in the history of psychology” (Roediger, 1985, p. 519).
Two of his most influential discoveries on memory include: the forgetting curve and the serial position effect.
To make his research on memory scientific, he created a list of over 2,000 nonsense syllables (e.g., BOK, YAT). Using commonly used vocabulary words would be too heavily associated with meaning, but nonsense syllables had no prior associations.
By conducting testing on himself, he was able to eliminate numerous other variables that would result from using people with varied backgrounds, experiences, and mental acuities.
So, he would present himself with lists of nonsense syllables and then test his memory at various intervals afterward.
This led to the discovery of the forgetting curve: forgetting begins right after the initial presentation of information and continues to degrade from then on.
The serial-position effect is the tendency to remember the first and last items in a list more so than the items in the middle.
2. The Magical Number 7
One of the most often cited papers in psychology was written by cognitive psychologist George Miller of Harvard University in 1956.
The paper did not describe a series of experiments conducted by Miller himself. Instead, Miller outlines the work of several researchers that point to the magical number 7 as the capacity of short-term memory.
He made the case that this capacity is the same no matter what form the stimuli takes; whether talking about tones or words.
He also suggested that information is organized in “chunks,” not individual bits. A word is just one chunk for a native speaker, but for someone learning the language, the word consists of several bits of information in the form of individual letters.
Therefore, the capacity of the native speaker is 7 words, but for the beginner, it may only be two, or just 7 letters.
Miller concludes the paper by making a point about the number 7 itself:
“And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week?” (p. 96).
3. The Framing Bias
Tversky and Kahneman (1981) discovered the framing bias, which occurs when a person’s decision is influenced by the way information is presented.
A typical study involved presenting information to participants, but varying one or two words in how the information was described.
“Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people.
If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. [22 percent]
If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. [78 percent]
Which of the two programs would you favor?” (p. 453).
Although both programs lead to the same mortality rate, most research participants preferred Program D.
As the researchers explain, “the certain death of 400 people is less acceptable than the two-in-three chance that 600 will die” (p. 453).
Moreover, the effects were far from trivial:
“They occur when the outcomes concern the loss of human lives as well as in choices about money; they are not restricted to hypothetical questions and are not eliminated by monetary incentives” (p. 457).
4. Schema: Assimilation and Accommodation
Jean Piaget’s research in the 1950’s and 60’s on cognitive development had a profound impact on our understanding of children. He detailed the way in which children perceive and make sense of the world and identified the stages of that developmental sequence which we still follow today.
According to Piaget, children develop a schema, usually defined as a mental framework that organizes information about a concept.
As the child grows and experiences the world, everything they encounter will be processed within that schema. This is called assimilation. When the schema is altered or a new schema is developed, it is called accommodation.
He conducted a great deal of his research by observing his own three children and taking excruciatingly detailed notes on their behavior.
During the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years old), Piaget highlights a milestone that demonstrates the infant is now exploring their environment with intent.
“…the definitive conquest of the mechanisms of grasping marks the beginning of the complex behavior patterns which we shall call “assimilations through secondary schemata” and which characterize the first forms of deliberate action” (Piaget, 1956, p. 88).
Although this milestone takes place in the sensorimotor stage, it is much more than a sensory experience. It is driven by intent, a purely cognitive construct.
Priming occurs when exposure to a stimulus has an effect on our behavior or how we respond to information presented subsequently. It can occur outside of conscious awareness.
Priming affects how we process all kinds of information and is a widely used concept in marketing.
Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971) were among the first to study priming.
They presented research participants with various pairs of associated words (Bread/Butter), unassociated words (Bread/Doctor), or nonwords.
The participants were instructed to indicate “yes” if both words were real words or “no” if one was not a real word.
The results revealed that participants were able to make this decision much faster when the pair of words were associated than when they were unassociated.
Although not conclusive and in need of further research, this pattern indicated that words that have strong connections in memory are activated more easily than words that are less connected.
Research since has identified numerous types of priming, including: perceptual, semantic, associative, affective, and cultural.
6. Semantic Memory Network and Spreading Activation
Further research on priming was conducted by Collins and Loftus (1975). Their studies led to more conclusive evidence that information is stored in a memory network of linked concepts.
When one concept is activated, that activation spreads throughout the network and activates other concepts.
The stronger the connection between concepts, the more likely one will activate the other. Eventually, the activation loses energy and dissipates.
Collins and Loftus provide a thorough explanation of the semantic memory network:
“The more properties two concepts have in common, the more links there are between the two nodes via these properties and the more closely related are the concepts…When a concept is processed (or stimulated), activation spreads out along the paths of the network in a decreasing gradient” (p. 411).
This research led to a more complete understanding of how information is stored and organized in memory. This has helped us understand a wide range of psychological phenomena such as how we form impressions of others and make decisions.
7. The ELM Model of Persuasion
Understanding how people form an attitude has been an area of study in cognitive psychology for more than 50 years.
Researchers Petty and Cacioppo (1986) formulated the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion to explain how message factors and personality characteristics affect attitude formation.
The ELM identifies two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral.
The central route to persuasion is activated when the message recipient engages in a critical analysis of the message content. This occurs when the message is about an issue considered important by the recipient.
In this scenario, a person will be persuaded by the quality of arguments in the message.
The central route results
“…from a person’s careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented…” (1986, p. 125).
The peripheral route to persuasion involves very little cognitive processing of the message content. This occurs when the issue is unimportant to the recipient.
In this scenario, a person will be persuaded by the status of the person expressing their opinion.
The peripheral route results from:
“…some simple cue in the persuasion context (e.g., an attractive source) that induces change without necessitating scrutiny of the true merits of the information presented” (p. 125).
Findings from ELM research apply to everything from product advertising, to public health campaigns, to political debate.
Go Deeper: The Six Types of Persuasion
8. The Bobo Doll Study
The Bobo Doll study by Albert Bandura in 1963 may be one of the most famous studies in psychology and a founding study for the social cognitive theory. It had a tremendous impact on society as well.
It took place at a time in the U. S. in which there was great concern and debate over the growing prevalence of violence depicted on television.
In the study, children watched a video of an adult either playing violently or not violently with a Bobo doll.
Afterwards, each child was placed in a room with a Bobo doll. Their behavior was carefully observed by trained raters.
Children that watched the violent video were more aggressive towards the doll than those that watched the non-violent video.
This type of study was among the first demonstrate the powerful effect of television on children’s behavior. It led to decades of research and intense debate throughout society.
9. Bystander Intervention: The First Study
In 1964 in New York City, late at night, a young woman was murdered just steps away from her apartment.
The newspapers reported that nearly 40 residents heard her pleas for help, but that no one actually did anything. That reporting has now been found to have many inaccuracies.
However, the story created a national debate about crime and helping those in need.
This was the impetus for a study conducted by Latané and Darley (1968) on “the bystander effect.”
The methodology was simple. Over 60 college students at New York University were taken to individual rooms to discuss an issue via an intercom system.
The students knew that several people would be participating in the discussion simultaneously.
One “participant” spoke about their difficulties adjusting to college life and their medical condition which sometimes led to seizures. This was a pre-recorded script and included a part where the “participant” acted as if they were feeling physical distress. They eventually stopped communicating with the other participants.
The results revealed that:
“The number of bystanders that the subject perceived to be present had a major effect on the likelihood with which she would report the emergency. Eighty-five percent of the subjects who thought they alone knew of the victim’s plight reported the seizure before the victim was cut off, only 31% of those who thought four other bystanders were present did so” (p. 379).
This was the beginning of a long program of research that identified the decision-making steps that determine the likelihood of a bystander intervening in an emergency situation.
10. The Car Crash Experiment: Leading Questions
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and her undergraduate student John Palmer designed a study in 1974 that shook our confidence in eyewitness testimony.
Research participants watched videos that depicted accidents between two cars. Afterward, participants were asked to estimate how fast the two cars were traveling upon impact.
“How fast were the two cars going when they ______ into each other?”
However, the word in the blank varied. For some participants the word in the blank was “smashed” and for other participants the word was “contacted.”
The results showed that estimates varied depending on the word.
When the word “smashed” was used, estimates were much higher than when the “contacted” was used.
This was the first in a long line of research conducted on how phrasing can result in leading questions that affect the memory of eyewitnesses.
It has had a tremendous impact on law enforcement interrogation practices, line-up procedures, and the credibility of eyewitness testimony.
Today’s article was about 10 famous studies in cognitive psychology. Ten is actually a low number given how many studies have had substantial impact on the field.
The studies described above include the famous work of Ebbinghaus, who used himself as a test subject. This entire article could have consisted of his work.
Also included above was just one study by Tversky and Kahneman. The two researchers have identified so many heuristics and cognitive biases that only choosing one was just unfair.
Two studies by Loftus were included because they were both groundbreaking: one in memory and the other in eyewitness testimony.
Of course, Bandura’s Bobo Doll study was included because of its fame and impact on public discourse.
The ELM model and the earliest study on bystander intervention were also included. Both have had profound impacts in not just our understanding about the given subjects, but have also had substantial practical applications in various professions and matters in real-life.
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Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0048687
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Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.