Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications

Subject: Psychology
Pages: 5
Words: 1122
Reading time:
4 min

Taking into account the course materials, I can say that if all behavior is explained by information-processing operations, and given that these operations are expressed by a program of rules, then, according to the information-processing paradigm, all behavior involves rules. The three units selected for analysis are memory models and processes; knowledge representation and manipulation and the introduction to cognitive and affective psychology.

Each of these units is important in my specialization as they allow me to understand the nature of human thinking and the causes of behavior patterns and actions. Aside from the problems associated with applying the concept of rule-following at the sub-personal level, behaviorists argue that the concept of rules as used by cognitivist blurs an important distinction. “Thinking” is a concept from everyday language, not a technical term within psychology. Therefore, these theories are under no obligation to define, interpret, or explain them. Behaviorists who do undertake this task are engaged in cognitive interpretation. However, behaviorist theories are obliged to explain the behavioral phenomena to which the term “thinking” refers.

As is the case with purposive behavior, behaviorists at this point can offer only theoretical sketches of such explanations with the hope that further research and theorizing will fill them in. Sketches that simply transform everyday accounts of thinking into the terms of S-R psychology (e.g., the equation of thinking with subvocal speech) do not advance the analysis of behavior. More promising are those which develop theoretical concepts when needed to account for complex behavior rather than when needed as behaviorist counterparts for everyday concepts. In the final analysis, it may be that the cognitive concepts of everyday speech, such as “thinking” and “belief,” will not prove useful in a science of behavior.

The key underlying themes in cognitive psychology are memory processes and memory models. Cognitivism appears to retain more everyday concepts along with the intensional idiom in which they are couched. However, as information-processing theories develop, their relationship to everyday concepts becomes increasingly attenuated although the names remain the same. Cognitivist claims that these concepts “must” be included in a psychological theory are far from conclusive. They do, however, follow from underlying cognitivist internalism.

The opposing behaviorist externalism will be explicated. Because the differences between behaviorism and cognitivism stem from these opposing underlying ideas about causation, explanation, and theoretical adequacy, very little of the disagreement is based on strictly empirical questions. The important differences are not over whether certain theories can explain certain interesting experimental results but rather how all behavior, from the simplest to the most complex, is to be conceptualized. Modeling theories appear to successfully link cognitive constructs to behavior. Nevertheless, even with a modeling theory as sophisticated as Bandura’s, implicit intuitions about the reasonableness of the behaving organism intrude into derivations from the theory. Bandura frequently speaks of his cognitive construct, coded information, as “guiding” rather than determining behavior, once again opening a schism between the construct and behavior.

The study of human thought is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is the fact that the term “think” is used in a number of ways. In one of its important senses, “think” refers to a disposition rather than an activity or behavior. First, thought cannot be identified with particular instances of verbal behavior. Verbal behavior, in the form of avowals of thought and beliefs, is usually taken as the most significant dependent variable in the thought-intervening variable. Nevertheless, if thought is interpreted as an intervening variable, an organism can be said to have a thought, or belief, even in the absence of episodes of verbal behavior.

Therefore, the occurrence of verbal behavior is not a necessary condition for thought. Nor is the occurrence of verbal behavior a sufficient condition for the existence of thought. Behavior therapists claim to modify directly undesired behavior by manipulating the environmental variables of which it is a function. In opposition to behavior therapy, cognitive behavior modification claims that therapy techniques produce behavior change by changing the client’s cognitions.

Some of the issues dividing cognitive behavior modification and behavior therapy are empirical in nature. One such disagreement involves the selection of a dependent variable for use ineffective treatment. Behavior therapists tend to use techniques in which the target behavior, e.g., Jones approaching a snake, occurs during treatment, often in imagination only. Some practitioners of cognitive therapy deny that this is a necessary condition for successful treatment.

The disagreement is thus analogous to the debate between theorists as to whether a response can be learned if it does not occur during a learning operation. Nevertheless, many cognitive behavior modification theorists admit that techniques in which the target behavior does occur may be the most effective. Still, they maintain that these procedures work by changing cognitions. If thoughts and beliefs are dispositional concepts or intervening variables, then there is no empirical sense to the debate over whether therapeutic techniques work directly on behavior or whether they affect behavior only via cognitive processes. For Jones to be cured, his behavior with respect to snakes must be modified in a variety of ways.

The class of behaviors modified in successful therapy is virtually coextensive with the class of dependent variables belonging to the thought-intervening variable associated with Jones’ beliefs about snakes. Therefore, to cure Jones by modifying his repertoire of behavior with respect to snakes, including his verbal behavior, is ipso facto to change his beliefs. Sternberg’s cognitivist thesis is that these efficacy expectations are a major determinant of behavior and that behavior therapy changes behavior through its intervening effects on efficacy expectations. His evidence consists of studies showing correlations between changes in efficacy expectations, defined by the subject’s estimates, and changes in the ability to approach feared objects. Now, in their everyday meanings, convictions and expectations are dispositional concepts.

What Sternberg has done is to single out one behavior, namely verbal estimates of personal efficacy, and to treat it as if it were a direct measure of a “central cognitive mechanism” causally responsible for all the other changes in behavior. Sternberg thus transforms an expectation, or belief, from a disposition into an internal mechanism by the use of the subject’s estimates. Cognitivism extends the bead theory of causality yet further. Not only is it necessary that cause and effect be temporally contiguous, but it is also required, as seen above, that they be related by the identity function. Cognitivism appears to retain more everyday concepts along with the intensional idiom in which they are couched. However, as information-processing theories develop, their relationship to everyday concepts becomes increasingly attenuated although the names remain the same.