19 Top Cognitive Psychology Theories (Explained)

cognitive psychology examples and definition

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes, including how memories are stored, acquired, and recalled. It examines phenomena such as perception, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.

This approach emerged as a reaction to behavioral psychology, which was dominant in the early 20th Century. Behavioral psychologists were adamant that only observable behaviors could be considered viable subjects of analysis.

But cognitive psychologists disagreed – they believed that it was worthwhile using scientific methods to attempt to understand internal thinking processes.

This field of psychology has, since, become a dominant player among the major psychological theories.

Cognitive Psychology Theories

1. Cognitive Development Theory (Piaget)

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory posits that children progress through a series of distinct stages of cognitive growth, each characterized by its own unique thought processes.

Piaget believed that children are active learners who construct their own understanding of the world through interactions with their environment.

He emphasized the importance of maturation and experience in cognitive development, suggesting that children move from one stage to the next when they encounter experiences that challenge their current understanding, leading to cognitive disequilibrium. This disequilibrium motivates them to adjust their mental frameworks, or schemas, in a process he termed “assimilation” and “accommodation.”

The stages proposed by Piaget are:

StageAge RangeKey Characteristics
SensorimotorBirth to 2 years– Learns through senses and actions
– Develops object permanence (understanding that objects continue to exist when out of view)
Preoperational2 to 7 years– Begins to use symbols and language
– Egocentric thinking (difficulty seeing things from another’s perspective)
– Lacks logic and operations
Concrete Operational7 to 11 years– Begins logical thinking but tied to concrete situations
– Understands conservation (e.g., volume of liquid remains the same in different containers)
– Begins understanding reversibility
Formal Operational12 years and up– Capable of abstract and hypothetical thinking
– Can test hypotheses and consider future possibilities
– Understands logical concepts and abstract symbols

See Also: Cognitive Development Theory Guide for Students

2. Schema Theory

Schema Theory suggests that our minds form a sort of mental framework or “schema” that helps us organize and interpret information.

This cognitive approach asserts that schemas are created through past experiences and shape our future interactions by providing expectations about what should happen in a particular situation.

Alterations to these cognitive structures are based on new experiences or information, which can reinforce, modify or entirely reshape our preexisting schemata. Ultimately, the Schema Theory explains how our brains process and utilize incoming information based on patterns we’ve already established.

This theory has been built-on and developed over time, helping to develop knowledge about a range of schema including gender schema.

Here are the five most common types of schema:

Type of SchemaDescription
Object SchemaPertains to our knowledge and understanding of objects, including their uses and properties.
Role SchemaConcerns our expectations about individuals in specific societal roles or positions.
Person SchemaRelates to our generalizations and expectations about certain groups of people or classes.
Self-schemaRepresents our beliefs and ideas about ourselves, influencing how we perceive our own traits and behaviors.
Event Schema(often called a script) Refers to our knowledge about sequences of events in particular situations, guiding our expectations and behaviors in familiar contexts.

3. Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger, purports that individuals experience psychological discomfort when they hold two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes simultaneously.

This discomfort, known as cognitive dissonance, might also arise when a person’s behavior conflicts with their beliefs or values.

According to Festinger, we naturally strive to reduce this discomfort and achieve a state of balance or consistency, known as cognitive equilibrium.

Usually, we do this by either altering our beliefs or perceptions or by justifying the conflicting behavior. If we alter our beliefs and perceptions to match reality, we’re engaging in a learning process, so this theory helps to explain how we learn.

Essentially, Cognitive Dissonance Theory explores the lengths that people will go to maintain internal consistency in their worldview.

See my Full Guide: Cognitive Dissonance Theory Guide for Students

4. Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory argues that there is a point at which our brains can no longer handle excess information or stress when working on a task.

The degree of mental effort required for a task, when too high, can have an inverse impact on the effectiveness of task completion.

The theory was pioneered by John Sweller in the 1980s. Sweller took note that the cognitive load associated with educational tasks can hinder the learning process if it exceeds the learner’s cognitive capabilities.

Cognitive Load Theory categorizes cognitive load into three types:

  • Intrinsic – The inherent difficulty of the material.
  • Extraneous – Additional difficulty created by how the material is presented.
  • Germane – How the material assists in creating lasting knowledge structures.

The theory’s key application lies in shaping how we approach education and instructional design. Its principles remind educators to present information in a way that optimizes learning, reducing unnecessary cognitive load and making the most of the learner’s cognitive resources.

5. Dual-Coding Theory

Dual-coding Theory suggests that our brains process verbal and non-verbal information in separate, related systems.

The idea, put forward by Allan Paivio in the 1970s, revolves around two distinct concepts:

  • Verbal representations: Our mind’s translation of text or speech into mental codes.
  • Non-verbal representations: Our cognizance of imagery, sound, or sensory stimuli.

Dual-Coding Theory states that our understanding and memory retention are optimized when both verbal and non-verbal systems are engaged simultaneously.

In effect, when properly employed, this principle can be instrumental in fostering more effective studying and learning strategies by making the most of our brain’s dual processing capabilities.

6. Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model is a theory within cognitive psychology that describes how attitudes form and change.

This model was developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo. It suggests there are two routes through which people process persuasive messages:

  • The central route to persuasion: Through this route, individuals critically evaluate the arguments or central merits of the message. They attentively consider the information, reflect on it, scrutinize its validity, and subsequently form an opinion based on their analysis.
  • The peripheral route to persuasion: This route implies less careful processing. Instead of dissecting the message’s content, individuals form attitudes based on surface characteristics of the message or the source.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model asserts that the direction a person takes depends on their level of motivation and ability to thoughtfully assess the message. This theory provides valuable insights for understanding the effectiveness of advertising, marketing, political campaigns, and other persuasive domains.

7. Mental Set Theory

Mental Set Theory suggests that heavily relying on past experiences and methods can sometimes hinder problem-solving and cognitive flexibility.

A ‘mental set’ is a kind of mental framework or cognitive schema that directly impacts how we approach problems and situations. It’s shaped by our past experiences and a habitual inclination to approach a situation in a certain way.

However, while mental sets can sometimes enhance problem-solving effectiveness (by streamlining the problem-solving process based on past success), they can also potentially constrain our cognitive abilities. For instance, if a past method is ineffective in a new situation, mental set fixation can lead to stalled problem resolution.

8. Metacognition Theory

The social psychology concept of metacognition refers to our awareness and understanding of our own cognitive processes, or simply put, thinking about thinking. The theory of metacognition was founded by American psychologist John H. Flavell.

Metacognition involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature.

The concept can be further divided into two categories:

  • Metacognitive knowledge: This includes knowledge about our own cognitive processes and understanding how to regulate those processes to maximize learning.
  • Metacognitive regulation: This is the adjustment and management of our cognition in response to the demands of the learning task.
chrisEditorial Note: In my article on the history of metacognitive theory, I also present 4 types of metacognition proposed by Flavell (1979). Head over to my metacognition guide now for more.

The Metacognition Theory is vital, as it plays a critical role in successful learning. It allows us to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and make strategic decisions about what to study and when.

See More: A List of Metacognitive Strategies

9. Gestalt Principles of Perception

The Gestalt Principles of Perception emphasize that the human mind perceives patterns and whole figures rather than disconnected elements.

Gestalt psychology, developed by Max Wertheimer and his colleagues in the early 20th century, suggests that when we perceive the world, our minds naturally seek out and recognize patterns. This leads to the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We aim for a complete, unified interpretation of our surroundings rather than just a collection of separate components.

The principles include:

  • Proximity: Elements close to each other are perceived as a group.
  • Similarity: Similar elements are seen as a group.
  • Continuity: Our eyes follow lines or paths and perceive shapes.
  • Closure: We tend to see complete figures or forms even if part of the information is missing.
  • Figure-Ground: We separate objects from the background to perceive them clearly.

The Gestalt Principles of Perception are foundational to many disciplines such as design, art, and user-experience in digital platforms.

10. Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to the ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge to oneself and to others.

Essentially, this is the cognitive skill that allows us to understand and predict others’ behavior based on their presumed thoughts and feelings.

ToM develops in early childhood and is critical for social interactions. It helps us comprehend that others have perspectives and experiences that are different from our own. When trying to make sense of social situations, Theory of Mind helps us to understand what others might be thinking or feeling, and predict what they may do next.

The development of Theory of Mind in children has been linked to emerging empathy skills, and difficulties with Theory of Mind can be seen in conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

See the Full Guide: Theory of Mind Guide for Students

11. Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, posits that learning is a social process that happens through observation.

Learning isn’t a behavioristic procedure of stimulus and response. Rather, our cognition plays a significant role, and our environments, behaviors, and personal factors perpetually influence each other in a triadic reciprocal causation model.

The theory identifies three central ideas:

  • Observation learning: We acquire new behaviors by observing others and imitating their actions.
  • Self-efficacy: Our beliefs in our capability to achieve intended results affect our actions, motivation, and feelings.
  • Outcome expectancies: Our behavior is ultimately determined by the outcomes we expect as a result of our actions.

Social Cognitive Theory, blending cognitive and social psychology, has contributed significantly to fields like communication, education, and public health with its focus on the social origin of behaviors and the dynamic nature of learning.

See my Full Guide: Social Cognitive Theory Guide for Students

12. Depth of Processing Theory

Depth of Processing Theory argues that the quality of learning and memory recall is directly linked to the depth the information is processed.

This theory, developed by Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart, suggests memory recall and the effectiveness of learning are not necessarily about repetition (as implied by previous theories), but rather the depth of mental processing.

The concept of ‘depth’ here, refers to the meaningfulness extracted from the information. ‘Shallow processing’ (like paying attention to the physical attributes of a word, such as font or color) leads to relatively weak memory recall. In contrast, ‘deep processing’ (like focusing on the semantics or meaning of a word) results in a much stronger memory recall.

The understanding and application of the Depth of Processing Theory have reshaped modern approaches to teaching and learning, emphasizing the importance of meaningful learning and deep understanding.

13. Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model

The Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model, also known as the Multi-Store Model of Memory, proposes three sequential stages of memory: Sensory Memory, Short-Term Memory, and Long-Term Memory.

Developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin, this model suggests that each stage of memory varies in terms of duration, capacity, and encoding.

  • Sensory Memory: Handles information from the five senses. This stage of memory is rapidly decaying and processes a large amount of data for very brief periods (about a second).
  • Short-Term Memory: This is a temporary storehouse where small amounts of information are kept for a short period (approximately 20 seconds). Its capacity is limited—typically around seven pieces of information.
  • Long-Term Memory: This is a limitless store that can hold information for extended periods, even up to a lifetime.

Understanding this model serves as a basic outline for how the process of memory works, from initial perception to lasting storage, and informs our understanding of cognitive functioning.

14. Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory

Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory, created by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, expands upon the concept of short-term memory, proposing that working memory is a multi-component system.

This model suggests that short-term memory is an active workspace where information is processed and manipulated. Unlike the Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model, which gives short-term memory limited functionality, Baddeley’s model breaks it into three parts:

  • The Central Executive: This directs attention and coordinates actions of the other components.
  • The Phonological Loop: This processes verbal and acoustic information.
  • The Visuospatial Sketchpad: This handles visual and spatial information.

Later, Baddeley added a fourth component, the “Episodic Buffer”, a temporary storehouse permitting different types of information to interact and providing a bridge to long-term memory.

Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory significantly enhances our understanding of the short-term memory processes integral to cognitive tasks like learning, reasoning, and comprehension.

See my Full Guide: Working Memory in Psychology

15. Encoding Specificity Principle

The Encoding Specificity Principle is a perspective on how recall is facilitated by the coincidence of cues present when memory is encoded and when it is retrieved.

Endel Tulving and Donald Thomson, the principle’s developers, proposed the idea that memorization creates a specific “memory trace” comprised of the to-be-remembered information plus elements of the context during encoding. Thus, providing similar context cues during recall can enhance the retrieval process.

The principle underpins many memory phenomena including state-dependent learning (where internal states like mood provide retrieval clues) and context-dependent memory (where environmental factors, like room conditions, aid memory).

The Encoding Specificity Principle shed light on how the conditions of our surroundings and our internal states can materially impact the process of memory recall. Hence, it offers a great deal of potential in the development of memory-boosting strategies.

See my Full Guide: Encoding Specificity Principle Guide for Students

16. Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) concerns motivation, proposing that our motivation to perform a task hinges on our cognitive response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

CET, developed in the context of Deci’s and Ryan’s broader Self-Determination Theory, suggests that our inherent desire to feel competent and self-determining in dealing with our environment impacts our motivation levels.

Intrinsic motivation, stemming from the pleasure and satisfaction inherent in the activity itself, is often contrasted with extrinsic motivation, which arises from the desire for rewards or the avoidance of punishments.

CET posits that introducing extrinsic rewards for an activity that is intrinsically rewarding can decrease overall motivation—a phenomenon known as the “overjustification effect.” In simpler terms, when individuals receive external rewards for activities that they enjoy, they may begin to view the activity as a means to an end, thereby reducing their intrinsic interest.

Go Deeper: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

17. Prototype Theory

Prototype Theory states that we categorize objects and ideas not by matching them to a fixed set of criteria, but by comparing them to an idealized representation—or prototype—of a category.

Developed by Eleanor Rosch, this theory suggests that prototypes are the cognitive reference points that contain the most typical attributes of a category. As per the theory, objects closer to the prototype are more readily recognized and processed.

For example, when you think about birds, you’re likely to imagine a typical bird, say a robin, before you think of a penguin. The robin more closely resembles our ‘bird prototype’ because it embodies the characteristics we typically associate with birds—feathers, a beak, the ability to fly, and so forth.

Prototype Theory provides a practical framework for understanding classification, emphasizing the importance of sensory, cognitive, and cultural factors in the process of categorizing and understanding the world.

See my Full Guide: Prototype Theory in Psychology

18. Script Theory

Script Theory proposes that our knowledge of the world is structured around commonplace activities or events, aiding our understanding and expectation of everyday situations.

A script, in this context, is a sequence of actions that define a well-known situation, like visiting a restaurant or taking a bus. Once we recognize that a situation fits a particular script, we have certain expectations about what will happen next.

Scripts, therefore, are a fundamental cognitive tool that allows us to make quick and efficient judgments, conserve cognitive resources, and navigate social interactions more smoothly. Lack of adherence to recognized scripts can lead to misunderstandings or social discomfort.

Script Theory impacts various fields, from artificial intelligence—where scripts aid in creating more natural interactions—to linguistics and psychology, where they offer insights into our understanding and prediction of human behaviors.

19. Cognitive Miser Theory

Cognitive Miser Theory posits that individuals prefer to save their cognitive resources whenever possible, often resorting to simple and effort-saving strategies when making decisions or judgments.

This theory, associated with social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, suggests that humans, as cognitive misers, avoid complex thought processes and prefer shortcuts. These shortcuts, or heuristics, are cognitive strategies that simplify decision making and perception. They’re efficient, but they sometimes lead to errors, biases, or stereotypes.

For example, rather than engaging in an in-depth analysis of a complex problem, a cognitive miser might rely on past experiences, base their decisions on available information, or follow the majority’s opinion.

It’s essential to note, though, being a ‘cognitive miser’ isn’t necessarily negative. Choosing less cognitively demanding ways can often be advantageous, as it allows us to make decisions more quickly and direct our mental resources to other tasks. Cognitive Miser Theory helps understand various cognitive biases and affords a glimpse into our decision-making process.

Before you Go

I’ve provided links throughout this piece to help you go deeper into your exploration of the various psychoanalytic theories. But it’s also worth zooming out to see the range of other theories in psychology, including:

  • Psychoanalytic Psychology: This branch studies the subconscious psyche and how it impacts our conscious worlds.
  • Behavioral Psychology: This focuses on observable behaviors and the effects of the environment on them.
  • Humanist Psychology: This emphasizes individual potential, self-actualization, and the intrinsic nature of human beings.
  • Developmental Psychology: This examines the psychological changes and growth that occur throughout the human lifespan.
  • Personality Theories in Psychology: These seek to explain the enduring patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion that characterize individual humans.
Website | + posts

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *