Cognitivism and Behaviorism in Learning Theory

Cognitive Psychology

Absolutely nothing interests humans more than humans. For this reason, numerous fields of study have arisen regarding humans. These fields of study include, but are not limited to, anatomy, anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology. The focus here is the study of psychology, specifically the study of cognitive psychology. The American Psychological Association states that, “Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of human experience-from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. This is true in every conceivable setting from scientific research centers to mental health care services. The understanding of behavior is the enterprise of psychologists” (2012). More specifically, the American Psychological Association defines cognitive psychology as “the study of higher mental processes such as attention, language, use, memory, perception, problem solving, and thinking” (2012). Thus, cognitive psychology seeks to understand not just the behavior, but the mental processes associated with the behavior.

While the path to cognitive psychology was relatively short in the grand scheme of things, many key milestones had to occur to advance the study of cognitive psychology to this point. Of course, there was the usual method of trial and error which the behaviorists lent to the development of cognitive psychology (Stone, 2011). Then there was the computer metaphor which compared the inner workings of the human mind to that of a computer (Stone, 2011). In fact, technology both benefited from and helped develop this field; understanding artificial intelligence and how it works contributed significantly to cognitive psychology (Stone, 2011). Another milestone was employing the information regarding artificial intelligence and the abstract strategies on which it is designed (Stone, 2011). Finally, the incorporation of neuroscience into the field of psychology was yet another key milestone in the development of cognitive psychology (Stone, 2011). All of these advances led to the field of cognitive psychology as it is known today.

Of course, cognitive psychology did not develop in a vacuum, but against a background of preexisting knowledge and scholarship about psychology. It is important to note that without the school of behaviorism within the study of psychology, cognitive psychology may never have risen in prominence. Behaviorism acted as a stepping stone to the acceptance of cognitive psychology by insisting on the use of the scientific method and stressing the importance of observing behavior as a means to understanding it (Davenport, 2001). Behaviorists held that all behavior was controlled by the external environment and had nothing to do with internal processes (Davenport, 2001). Keep in mind that behaviorists did not have the technology that is available today and can not have foreseen the ability to map the workings of the human mind as is done in neuroscience (Davenport, 2001). Without the technology which is available today they were limited. However, they chose to deny the correlation between the inner processes of the mind and the behavior exhibited (Davenport, 2001). Ultimately, it was this adamant denial which allowed for the rise in cognitive psychology which chose to acknowledge the connection (Davenport, 2001).

With the advent of the computer, came a dramatic change in the way psychology is viewed. The technology allowed psychologists to theorize about the internal human mechanisms making decisions regarding behavior as computers used programming to come to logical ends. It was this comparison to the human mind that provided cognitive psychology with a model upon which to speculate about human behavior (Stone, 20011). Thus, this milestone became known in psychology as the computer metaphor (Stone, 2011). While the human brain cannot actually be reduced to mechanistic functions like a computer can be, how a computer operates can help explain how the brain functions.

Artificial intelligence is an important milestone in cognitive psychology as it could not exist without it. In General Psychology, “Cognitive psychology did not only benefit from the development of computers; at one end, it also stirred further growth of computer technology. Artificial intelligence was developed from the rise of cognitive psychology. Artificial intelligence is a technological innovation for machines that perform intelligent functions, such as diagnosing medical illnesses, prescribing treatments, examining equipment failure, evaluating loan applicants, and advising students on college courses” (Unk.).

Neuroscience was another milestone in the development of cognitive psychology. Neuroscientists were no longer content to consider the mind the mystery it had been considered for years. Instead, they wanted to understand not just what the brain did, but how the brain did it. One of the first things that neuroscientists were able to do was to work with people who were brain damaged, and knowing what area of the brain was damaged and how that damage impacted functioning. These observations allowed people to begin to develop an understanding of how the brain actually functioned, which led to advances in cognitive psychology.

Obviously, behavioral observation in cognitive psychology is of the utmost importance. Behavioral observation allows the psychologist to look into the human mind by comparing the abstract construct and comparing it against the actual behavior (Stone, 2011). In this way, the psychologist may determine if the theory hypothesized regarding the inner processes of the mind were either right or wrong (Stone, 2011). It is only by inference from actual human behavior, that it is possible to study the higher mental functions of the human mind (Stone, 2011).


American Psychological Association. (2012). How does the APA define ‘psychology’?

Retrieved November 30, 2012 from APA website:

Davenport (2001 April 28) Cognitivism vs. Behaviorism in Learning Theory. Retrieved November 30, 2012 from the Greenspun Family Server website:

General Psychology. (Unk.). How Did the Cognitive Revolution Take Place in Psychology?

Retrieved November 30, 2012 from General Psychology website:

Stone, Deborah. (2011, Feb 28). Defining cognitive Psychology. Retrieved November 30,

2012 from the Psychological Musings blogspot:

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