The Cognitive Perspective

Cognitive science is a broad, multidisciplinary term that encompasses both the human science of cognitive psychology, and the computer science of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Though in casual reference I have heard mention that the cognitive perspective is a mechanistic view of the mind—one in which the head is envisioned to be full of cogs and springs—this is not consistent with the historical use and linguistic root of the word.[1][2] Such misconception is possibly based on articles such as Turing’s Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950) and Waldrop’s Machinations of Thought (1985\1991). A careful reading of these articles, however, reveals that they are not about putting cogs in the mind, but rather, putting thought into the machine. In contrast, cognitive psychology is concerned with how information is represented and transformed in the brain. It is a study of perception, and of how knowledge is acquired, how it is stored, and how it is purposively used. Cognitive learning theory is the application of this psychology to learning.

The modern popularization[3] of the cognitive approach to learning began in the mid 1900s as an almost revolutionary reaction to the behavioral approach.[4] It was driven by research in both linguistics and computer science—research that was motivated, in part, by global war (H. D. Brown, 2001; Slobodin, 1977). Of particular influence was Chomsky’s work on linguistic theory (1953; 1955; 1956; 1957) and—even more especially—his harsh criticism of B. F. Skinner and the misappropriation of radical behaviorist principles to language learning (1967; 1971). When the U.S. found itself thrust into the middle of a worldwide conflict there was a sudden need for Americans to have oral proficiency in the languages of “both their allies and their enemies” (H. D. Brown, 2001, p. 22). This spawned a language teaching revolution, and the U.S. military provided funding for special intensive language courses that focused on developing oral skills. As a result, national interest in foreign languages was revived, and educational institutions quickly adopted what came to be known as the Army or Audio Lingual Method. The method was grounded in structural linguistics and behavioral psychology, and was experienced by the learner as a practice of patterned mimicry drills. Though the method enjoyed many years of popularity it ultimately declined due to its failure to teach long-term communicative proficiency (Rivers, 1964). In Brown’s words:

We discovered that language was not really acquired through a process of habit formation and overlearning, that errors were not necessarily to be avoided at all costs, and that structural linguistics did not tell us everything about language that we needed to know. (p. 23)

In the aftermath of World War II language learning remained a strong focus of both U.S. government and university education. Chomsky (1967), however, was very direct in pointing out that behavioral learning theory was not the answer to effective language learning. His review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) was intended “not specifically as a criticism of Skinner’s speculations regarding language, but rather as a more general critique of [behaviorist speculation] as to the nature of higher mental processes” (Preface, para. 2).

Skinner’s thesis is that external factors consisting of present stimulation and the history of reinforcement (in particular, the frequency, arrangement, and withholding of reinforcing stimuli) are of overwhelming importance, and that the general principles revealed in laboratory studies of these phenomena provide the basis for understanding the complexities of verbal behavior. He confidently and repeatedly voices his claim to have demonstrated that the contribution of the speaker is quite trivial and elementary, and that precise prediction of verbal behavior involves only specification of the few external factors that he has isolated experimentally with lower organisms.

Careful study of this book (and of the research on which it draws) reveals, however, that these astonishing claims are far from justified. It indicates, furthermore, that the insights that have been achieved in the laboratories of the reinforcement theorist, though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behavior only in the most gross and superficial way, and that speculative attempts to discuss linguistic behavior in these terms alone omit from consideration factors of fundamental importance that are, no doubt, amenable to scientific study, although their specific character cannot at present be precisely formulated. Since Skinner’s work is the most extensive attempt to accommodate human behavior involving higher mental faculties within a strict behaviorist schema of the type that has attracted many linguists and philosophers, as well as psychologists, a detailed documentation is of independent interest. The magnitude of the failure of this attempt to account for verbal behavior serves as a kind of measure of the importance of the factors omitted from consideration, and an indication of how little is really known about this remarkably complex phenomenon. (para. 6-7)

Chomsky’s criticism, combined with the advent of the first experimental computer in the 1940s and the first commercially available computers in 1950, provided the necessary impetus to displace the behavioral stronghold on psychology and learning research.[5] Experimental studies of behavior-based learning, of course, did not cease[6] but there was a definitive shift in the emphasis of psychology and learning research. The computer model of input, output, storage, and processing was quickly latched onto as a metaphor for talking about and studying human learning.

Three major characteristics that distinguish the cognitive perspective from the behavioral perspective, and define its essence were stated by Howard (1983) as follows:

  1. It emphasizes knowing, rather than responding. The major emphasis is not on stimulus-response bonds, but on mental events (p. 5).
  2. It emphasizes mental structure or organization. An individual’s knowledge is organized and new stimuli are interpreted in light of this knowledge (p. 6).
  3. It defines a view of the individual as being active, constructive, and planful, rather than as being the passive recipient of environmental stimulation. (p. 6)

While these differential characteristics are generally accepted, the line between behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology is not so clear, as has been expressed by Leahey and Harris (1997):

Although it is common to sharply contrast cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology, we believe things are not quite so simple. Clearly, cognitive psychology and radical behaviorism are quite different, since Skinner does not tolerate the postulation of any inner psychological entities, whether it be Freud’s ego or the cognitive psychologists long-term memory. However, both Tolman and Hull postulated inferred entities that controlled behavior—for example, cognitive maps[7] and mediating responses…. Influenced by the computer metaphor, cognitive psychology has created an entirely new vocabulary for discussing learning. Stimulus becomes input, behavior becomes output, and response mediators are now levels of information processing. (p. 103)

And if the roots of behavioral learning theory seemed somewhat disjoint, it is even more the case with cognitive learning theory. In June, 1977, the NATO International Conference on Cognitive Psychology and Instruction was organized to “explore the extent to which theoretical and methodological developments in cognitive psychology might provide useful knowledge with regard to the design and management of instruction” (Lesgold, Pellegrino, Fokkema, & Glaser, 1978, p. v). The submission of papers for the conference gave evidence to a huge diversity of research efforts being made in several countries, all under the umbrella of cognitive research. Many of the selected papers were included in Lesgold’s report of conference proceedings. In order to provide some semblance of structure to the report they were organized under six general topic areas that the authors felt best represented a high-level survey of the landscape of contemporary cognitive psychology research: (a) learning, (b) comprehension, (c) perceptual and memory processes in reading, (d) problem solving and components of intelligence, (e) cognitive development, and (f) approaches to instruction.

A more recent view was provided by Honeck, Case and Firment (1991), who took the position that there is no paradigm—i.e., “a particular set of assumptions, methods, and theories” (p. xiv)—by which the field might be characterized. They described cognitive psychology as “an undulating mass rather than a fixed target” (p. xiv) and felt it was best defined by examples of general questions that cognitive psychologists might typically ask:

What happens to an environmental stimulus when it is first received by the senses?

Does knowledge affect perception of a stimulus?

What is memory? Are there different memory systems?

What form does memory/knowledge take?

What facilitates or hinders remembering?

How is language understood?

How do people reason?

How do people recognize patterns and categorize things?

What factors influence problem solving?

Are cognition and emotion separable systems?

What happens when people read?

Are people aware of what their minds do?
(p. xiv)

These questions represent areas of cognitive research such as sensory perception, echoic memory, feature extraction and interpretation, top-down processing, memory models, knowledge structure, transfer, interference, and metacognition. Honeck, et al. also noted the proliferation of cognitive “mini-theories”:

Even though there are no overarching, all-encompassing theories in cognitive psychology, there are many specific theories about a restricted range of phenomena—for example, short-term memory, categorization, syllogistic reasoning, and the like….There are also mini-theories to explain [for example] why recall is generally different than recognition, how people discover analogies between things, why people tend to overlook misspelling of the word the, why pictures tend to be remembered better than words, how mental images are constructed, what makes for an expert in physics, what young infants tend to notice, and so on. If anything, this set of mini-theories, the phenomena they address, the methods used to study the phenomena, and the assumptions brought to bear, is what characterizes the field. (Honeck et al., 1991, pp. xiv-xv)

To provide a more coherent, organized picture of the field they cited three general points of view, under which these mini-theories may be grouped: (a) the information processing view, (b) the ecological view, and (c) the parallel distributed processing view (i.e., connectionism). Of these three, they noted that the ecological view is “a radical view, one that most cognitivists either reject or feel uncomfortable with” (p. xv).[8] The remaining two views—the information processing view and the connectionist view—are the predominantly accepted views, with the connectionist view gaining increasing popularity since the mid 1990s.

Based on a review of several books dealing exclusively with cognitive psychology,[9]the categorization by Lesgold (1978), and the sample questions, mini-theories, and general points of view given by Honeck, Case and Firment (1991); appear to be a fair representation of the field at large. The remainder of this section will summarize contributions to cognitive learning theory, based on my own review of the literature, to provide additional perspective.

[1] The first written record of the term “cognitive” is attributed to Thomas Bowes in 1586 in De La Primaudaye’s French academie, who, quoting Plato, said, “there are three vertues in the soule belonging to knowledge and understanding, called cognitive and knowing vertues: namely, reason, understanding, and phantasie [sic]” (as cited in Cognitive, n.d.). Consistent with this use, it is generally accepted that “cognitive” comes from the Latin word “cognoscere,” meaning “to become acquainted with.”

[2] While it is true that computer analogies have been used to illustrate cognitive theories, for example, to “help illustrate the distinction between memory structure and control processes” (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 14), they should not be over interpreted as an attempt to mechanize the mind, but simply accepted as illustrative analogies. The advent of computers provided “both a credible metaphor for human information processing and a significant tool for modeling and exploring human cognitive processes,” (Bruning, Schraw, Norby, & Ronning, 2004, p. 5), but it was the process of knowledge acquisition that was modeled.

[3] Chomsky (2005, para. 3) noted that the so-called cognitive revolution was more of “a second cognitive revolution, reviving and extending important insights and contributions of the cognitive revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, which had regrettably been forgotten.”

[4] Many theorists previously conducting research in the behaviorist paradigm shifted to a cognitive view, but the transition was not necessarily an easy one. Consider, for example, the experience of William K. Estes (1982a):

The shift from a stimulus-response to an informational frame of reference may sound simple and straightforward in hindsight, but it was very difficult to achieve in the climate of the learning theories of the 1940s. Behavior was the proper study of psychology; the mind was simply a subjective and fictitious entity….During my own training as an investigator, I absorbed the prevailing frame of reference thoroughly, and, in my first theoretical paper (Estes, 1950), I subscribed wholeheartedly to the idea that laws or principles of learning could be expected to take their simples form when expressed in terms of stimulus-response relationships (even while I myself was deviating from the paradigm by introducing abstract theoretical concepts not strictly definable in terms of observable stimulus or response variables). It was only many years later that I began to see the possibility that expressing laws of learning in terms of relations between behavior and observable determining conditions might not, in any significant sense, be the simplest or most parsimonious approach. Rather, the laws might take on simpler forms when expressed in terms of concepts of information or memory (Estes, 1975, 1978)….As will be apparent in subsequent chapters of this book, memory, rather than learning, was the central concept in my research and theoretical efforts from about 1960 down to the present.” (pp. 17-19)

[5] Perhaps even more influential than any of the events already described, or at least certainly a possible contributing factor, is the mass media scare of behavioral control championed by the broadcasting industry—attacking behavioral psychology in general, and Bandura’s research on transmission of aggression through modeling in specific (Bandura, 2006a, pp. 57-61, 64-65):

The popular media were deluging the public with repugnant imagery of brainwashing and the frightful scenarios of 1984 and Brave New World dominated by social engineers wielding powerful methods of behavioral control. The hit movie, A Clockwork Orange, graphically portrayed the fiendish nature of behavior modifiers physically shocking people into submission. In his movie Sleeper, Woody Allen amusingly outwits the ironclad control by despotic social engineers who reduce humans to mindless zombies. Skinner’s publication, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), alarmed the public that the application of these new psychological methods would strip people of their dignity and deprive them of their freedom….At the height of this media frenzy, I began my term as president of the APA. (p. 64)

[6] See, for example, the reference list in O’Donohue and Kitchener (1999), and journals such as Adaptive BehaviorAdvances in Child Development and Behavior, Advanced in Cognitive-Behavioral Research and Therapy, Advances in the Behavioral Measurement of Children, Advances in the Study of Behavior, and The Behavior Analyst Today.

[7] It is for this reason that I have chosen to include Tolman’s work in this section on cognitive learning theory rather than in the previous section which reviewed behavioral learning theory. Tolman’s unique contribution was primarily cognitive, not behavioral.

[8] Aside from this reference in Honeck, Case, and Firment (1991) I have not seen any other mention of the ecological view in the piles of literature on cognitive psychology that have been reviewed for the present study. It seems to be more on the philosophical, rather than the practical, side of cognitive theory.

[9] For example, including but not limited to: Bruning (2004), Honeck, Case, and Firment (1991), Howard (1983), Martindale (1991), Neisser (1967), Reed (1988), and Reynolds (1983).


Stimulus Sampling Theory (William K. Estes – 1950)Associationism (Aristotle – 350 B.C.E) >


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