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Cognitive Psychology

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cognitive psychology

Stand up on one leg...

Now pat your head and rub your belly while singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Seems pretty hard doesn't it? Your hand might want to rub your head, and you're likely to forget the lyrics to the song after a few lines. But try practicing it a few times, and it almost becomes an easy, normal feeling. Why is this?

Cognitive psychologists seek to examine the complex and intricate procedures that take place when individuals talk, use language, make decisions, physically move, divide attention to multiple areas, perceive information, and remember certain memories more vividly than others. For more information see

More simply put, cognitive psychologists examine the ins and outs of human thinking.

Ulric Neisser, considered one of the fathers of the field of Cognitive Psychology, envisioned the human mind as a structured system for handling information. In this system, information is picked up by the senses, stored in memory, and later used for various reasons.

By examining this information processing system through empirical studies, cognitive psychologists seek to understand the complex procedures that underlie everyday mental functioning.

The Information-Processing System

Imagine a man walking through a crowded city plaza. The sights, smells, and sounds of the food vendors, street performers, and other people walking through the area assault him, overwhelming his senses. But through all of this noise and confusion, he distinctly makes out the smell of funnel cake.

When thinking too much doesn't help

Have you ever had to make a decision that seemed simple, but became much more difficult as time passed?

After going back and forth, weighing the positives and negatives of something, what seemed like an easy answer becomes considerably harder. In fact, the more time we devote to deciding something, often the more frustrating it becomes.

Read more about Thinking Too Much...

The smell reminds him of visiting a fair with his friends nearly 15 years ago, and the nostalgia alone pushes him to find the stand, changing his direction and immediate plans.

This seemingly simple and common process hides more than meets the eye. Every day, people take in vast quantities of information, code it into short-term and long-term memory, and make decisions based on this information.

In cognitive psychology, the information process is considered similar to a computer system, and even borrows many terms from computer-based processing. For example, consider the act of playing music from a CD on a computer. First, the disk (sensory information) is placed in the computer. Here, it is interpreted and played through a music program (short-term memory). Anyone listening gets to enjoy the music the computer plays, but the minute the disk is removed, the music stops.

Now, what if someone was to copy the information from the CD directly to the hard drive (long-term memory)? Then that person would be able to enjoy the music whenever he or she felt like it. People often base their thoughts and decisions on previous memories and associations they make about information. In order to gain a more complete view of how people think, cognitive psychologists examine how individuals perceive and attend to information, and later code it into memory.

Perception and Attention

Walking into a room, there are dozens of objects, sounds, and smells to take in. It's a literal sensory overload as the brain struggles to separate important senses from unimportant senses. It's also the first step of information processing, leading to the formation of thoughts and decisions. Before any decision-making, problem-solving, or memory-scanning abilities are accessed, the mind takes in information through perceiving information and attending to it.

According to the book "Cognitive Psychology", by Robert Sternberg and others, attention involves how people process a limited amount of information from the large amount of information available to their senses. This ability to process information and attend to it is important in today's multi-tasking environment, where people must pay attention to multiple forms of sensory information at once.

People are only able to process a certain amount of information at a time, and cognitive psychologists examine why and how people will place more attention to certain pieces of information. In the context of real life, this could mean ignoring certain stimuli in order to pay more attention to others.

For example, in an article published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, author Ira E. Hyman examined how talking on cell phones while walking affects attentiveness.

In “Did You See the Unicycling Clown? Inattentional Blindness While Walking and Talking on a Cell Phone”, Hyman examines the effects of divided attention, something most people do every day without much thought.

In the study, researchers monitored an area in a city square where they recorded all people walking through the area, marking the time they took to cross, if they changed direction, if they acknowledged others, if they weaved, or if they collided with others.

They also noted whether or not the individuals were talking on a cell phone.

The researchers noted that people with cell phones generally walked through the square much slower than those without cell phones, and they additionally changed direction and weaved through the square more often.

Hyman Study Findings:

Those with cell phones:

  • Changed direction: 29.8%
  • Weaved: 21.3%
  • Acknowledged others: 2.1%
  • Collided or almost collided with others: 4.3%

Those without cell phones:

  • Changed direction: 4.7%
  • Weaved: 14%
  • Acknowledged others: 11.6%
  • Collided or almost collided with others: 0%

In the second part of the study, researchers interviewed individuals who had walked down the square to see if they had noticed a particularly unusual individual in the middle of the square. In the square, a clown dressed in colorful attire was riding a unicycle. Researchers asked if individuals who had crossed the square had observed the clown and his antics.

Overwhelmingly, many of those talking on cell phones had no recollection of seeing the clown. Overall, 75% of cell phone users missed the clowns, while over half of non-cell phone users saw the clown. This humorous example of attention and distraction in a highly stimulating location showcases how processing stimuli is often a difficult task.

While they were communicating and walking at the same time, the individuals were encoding the information from their cell conversations into memory. For example, maybe one of the individuals talking on a phone was trying to remember a grocery list, all while navigating the crowded square. This sensory information affects how individuals code short-term memory and long-term memory. Often, when distracted by multiple stimuli, the brain must make choices on what to code and what to ignore. When the brain chooses to focus on a particular stimulus, it becomes encoded in working, or short-term, memory.

Transferring Information to Memory

When sensory information is encoded into the brain, it is placed into memory. Memory is generally stored in two areas: short-term memory and long-term memory.

According to “Evolving Conceptions of Memory Storage, Selective Attention, and their Mutual Constraints within the Human Information Processing System.” published in The Psychological Bulletin, short-term memory processing and long-term memory processing occur together, but have several differences.

Author Nelson Cowen states that short-term memory is often maintained by mentally scanning a list, so to speak. Short-term memory is often only maintained for as long as it's necessary to keep the information. For example, when reading a sentence, someone must remember the beginning on the sentence for it to make sense in context.

Typically, short-term memory lasts between 15 and 20 seconds without repeated rehearsal of the information. For example, when a student takes a quiz on the 50 states and capitals, it's useful to make a list and repeat it again and again. When the information is repeated and rehearsed, it will typically last up to 20 minutes in short-term memory.

Short-term memory is also limited in the amount of information that is stored at one time. Cowan states that the most short-term information can contain at one time is about seven items, or chunks.

Through organizing information into these chunks, people can more easily remember information. This is why, for example, telephone numbers are separated by hyphens. Remembering a set of three numbers, followed by a set of four numbers is easier than remembering all numbers at once.

While short-term memory is limited to these seven chunks, long-term memory is limitless. Long-term memory is often established through semantics and creating associations between items, but it may fade over time.

For example, try to remember the name of an old classmate. It might be hard, depending on how far back someone tries to think. But when viewing an image of the classmate, the name might suddenly spring into mind as it associates a face with that name.

Putting it all Together

Attention and memory are the underlying processes that cause people to think, make decisions, and solve problems. People base thoughts on previous experiences, and place more importance on certain stimuli based on previous experiences with those stimuli.

The act of driving a car, for example, rests on previous memories of learning to drive a car. Someone may have gotten in a car accident years ago, but still drives with the accident in mind, adjusting his or her driving style based on the memory.

Through cognitive psychology, researchers and psychologists seek to understand why people make certain decisions, and how learning and memory might be improved.

If you're interested in a career examining the intricacies of human thought, request information from psychology schools.

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