Cognitive psychology is concerned with a variety of internal processes such as attention, perception, memory, learning, problem solving, language, thinking and reasoning. Obviously, these processes are not directly observable. Cognitive psychologists aim to understand them by observing the performance of people in various tasks – by observing their behaviour.
The most common analogy to describe early cognitive psychologists’ views was the comparison of the human mind with a computer. Both have a hardware – a series of permanent structures where information is processed or transformed – and a software, or the instructions that guide the functioning of the hardware. Basically, when a stimulus is presented to the system, it causes certain internal cognitive processes to occur, until the system produces the desired response or output. This view, known as the information processing approach, was very popular in the 1970s.
It was argued that the process was fundamentally affected by the stimulus input in what is often described as bottom-up processing, and that only one process could occur at any given moment in time – this is known as serial processing. But soon it was evident that task processing often involves top-down processing: the way our mind operates in the presence of a stimulus is strongly influenced by our knowledge and expectations. Read what it says on the screen: you will have no difficulty to identify the word, even when some ‘E’s have been replaced by 3s. Also, it soon became evident that, at least in some circumstances like when we perform a highly practiced task, our internal processes do not operate serially or one at a time, but in parallel. If you have a driving license, you may remember how at the beginning you had to think carefully one step after the other, whereas after a time you find yourself pressing the clutch, changing the gear and observing the mirror at the same time.
The accumulation of theories and research findings, but also the enormous technological and medical advances in past decades, have had an impact on cognitive psychology. Nowadays, we can differentiate at least four main approaches to human cognition:
- Cognitive psychology can now be defined in a more restrictive manner as the scientific approach to the understanding of human cognition by the use of behavioural science.
- Cognitive neuroscience involves using evidence from behaviour, but also of the human brain, to understand our cognition.
- Cognitive neuropsychology involves studying brain-damaged patients to gain an understanding of normal human cognition.
- Computational cognitive science focuses on the development of computational models of our behaviour and mental functioning to improve our understanding of human cognition.
But just like psychoanalytic therapy derived from psychoanalysis, and behaviourist principles were applied to behavioural therapy, cognitive therapies are the therapeutic correlates of cognitive psychology – although rather loosely.
Cognitive therapy is an active approach where the therapist adopts a very directive role through a small number of strongly structured sessions.
Cognitive therapies focus on cognition – beliefs, attributions, expectancies – and on the mediating role that cognitions play between the events in our life and our reactions to them. Their therapeutic approach is based on the principle that, as erroneous or inadequate cognitions are at the base of psychological distress, behavioural change can be achieved by modifying the underlying cognitions.
There are several different cognitive therapies, however two of the most popular approaches are: Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy, and Beck’s cognitive behavioural therapy.
Albert Ellis developed rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) in 1955.
REBT is based on the premise that our reactions to the events taking place in our lives are mediated by the beliefs that we hold. To illustrate this, Ellis replaced the behaviourist SR (stimulus-response) format by an ABC format in which:
A. Something happens.
B. You have a belief about the situation.
C. You have an emotional reaction to the belief.
A. Your discussion question does not receive any follow-on post from your classmates
B. You believe they don’t reply because ‘I am not good at expressing things, and that is not going to change’.
C. You feel depressed.
The goal of REBT is to help people change their irrational beliefs into rational beliefs. This is achieved by the therapist challenging the client’s irrational beliefs with questions such as:
Do you think you are the only one who is not good at expressing things?
Is not having follow-on posts such a terrible thing?
Just because you want something, why must you have it?
Where with different beliefs, your emotional response might be different:
A. Your discussion question does not receive any follow-on post from your classmates.
B. You believe they don’t reply because the topic of your post was ‘not interesting’.
C. You feel motivated to do better next time.
Also, on the premise that emotionally healthy human beings develop an acceptance of reality, even when reality is highly unpleasant, REBT therapists help their clients develop unconditional self-acceptance, other- acceptance and life-acceptance.
The third big name in cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck presented his approach to the treatment of depression in 1967, and in the following decades he and his followers extended their approach to other emotional disorders.
Beck’s cognitive therapy also argues that sustained erroneous thoughts are at the root of many psychological disorders, but he proposes a different methodological approach to these erroneous thought and to their change.
According to Beck, we all possess a variety of beliefs about the world, others and ourselves, often learned through interactions with the world and with others during our childhood. Those beliefs may be central (such as ‘I am less intelligent than the others‘) or intermediate, in the form of attitudes and assumptions (such as ‘being less intelligent than the others is terrible‘).
People tend to selectively focus on the information that confirms their beliefs, rejecting or not considering information that contradicts them. Beliefs are therefore maintained even when they are inexact and dysfunctional. They can be activated by different life events in the form of automatic irrational thoughts, which affect the person’s emotions and behaviour.
Beck summarises irrational thoughts in a number of categories or inferences, including amongst others:
- Dichotomous or ‘all or nothing’ thought: ‘Either I am perfect or I am horrendous’.
- Magnification of the negative and minimisation of the positive:
‘I didn’t get the mark that I expected, therefore I will never be able to succeed in this subject’ or ‘I got a distinction, but only because the assignment was very easy’.
- Overgeneralisations: I didn’t feel comfortable in the meeting, which means that I am not good at making friends’.
- Personalisation, or tendency to think that everything others say or think is related to you: The teacher didn’t smile to me this morning, I must have done something wrong’.
- Mind reading, or believing that you know what the others are thinking: ‘He is thinking that I cannot complete the task’.
The first step in Beck’s cognitive therapy is to identify the client’s automatic beliefs and to dispute them with questions such as:
What is the evidence for and against this idea?
What is the worst scenario here?
Could you resist it?
What is the most probable and realistic outcome?
Once the client is conscious that their thoughts are irrational, they are invited to replace them with alternative rational thoughts, through guided exercises complemented with behavioural experiments and other cognitive and behavioural techniques. These may include training in social skills, problem-solving, relaxation, systematic desensitisation, psychodrama or role playing, amongst others.
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Image: ‘Noam Chomsky’ by John Soares, uploaded to Commons by Stevertigo, then modified by Verdy p. (This version was initially uploaded by Stevertigo.) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: ‘Albert Ellis’ Permission granted by the Albert Ellis Institute