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Editor: Jacqueline L. Longe
Date: 2016
The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology
From: The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology(Vol. 1. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Cognitivism is a theory about how the mind works. It is a framework for understanding the mind, focusing on how the mind works and people gain knowledge.

Cognitivism is an approach or way of studying how humans think and gain knowledge. People who use this approach are called cognitivists. They examine thinking processes behind learning, memory, problem solving skills, and intelligence. As a movement, cognitivism began as a response to behaviorism, one of the dominant schools of thought in the middle of the twentieth century, which stressed behavior and failed to explain why people organize and attempt to make sense of information.

Cognitivists try to be objective in their study of how people learn and what the human process of learning involves. They tend to believe that in addition to behavioral learning there is an internal mental process that is involved in cognition, and this process includes coding, transforming, rehearsing, storing, and retrieving information.

B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), a behavioral psychologist, believed that people learn by experience and if what they do has negative consequences they learn from that and change their behavior. If what they do has positive consequences, they learn from that and continue to do the behavior that leads to positive outcomes. Psychologists later came to believe that mental processes also are involved in learning. For example, Page 218  |  Top of Articlelearning languages requires mental processes quite unlike those acquired by outward actions. A cognitive psychologist, Noam Chomsky (1928–), among others, challenged Skinner's approach, arguing there was more to cognitive functions than behaviorism explained. Chomsky's philosophy of language triggered a significant change in the way psychologists think about how the human brain works.

Cognitive psychologists are chiefly interested in the internal mechanism of knowing and human thought, including language acquisition, perception, attention, and memory. Cognitive psychologists have attempted to find out the answers to mental processes, such as what is stored and how it is stored, and to mental processes concerning how the integration and retrieval of information happens.

Jean Piaget (1896–1980), a Swiss psychologist, formed a theory of cognitive development in which children progress through four stages, which Piaget called sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Piaget thought that each stage of development marked the brain's development of abilities. Piaget also suggested that in the learning process new information is shaped to fit with the learner's existing knowledge; so existing knowledge is modified to accommodate new information.

There are three major concepts in the learning process. Assimilation occurs when a person perceives a new object in terms of existing knowledge. Accommodation occurs when an individual modifies existing cognitive structures based on new information. Equilibration includes both assimilation and accommodation and is considered the most complex developmental process.

Schema theory is another cognitive psychological theory that attempts to explain why people remember in terms of their own knowledge and experience. A schema is a pattern of thoughts or behavior that organizes information and catalogues its relationships. It acts a mental framework that affects attention and manner of absorption of new information.



Goldstein, E. Bruce. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience, 4th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Whitman, R. Douglas. Cognition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011.


Ertmer, Peggy A., and Timothy J. Newby. “Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective.” Performance Improvement Quarterly 26, no. 2 (2013): 43–71.


Penn State Personal. “Cognitive Theories of Learning.” (accessed July 15, 2015).


American Psychiatric Association, 1000 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 1825, Arlington, VA, 22209, (703) 907-7300, (888) 357-7924,, .

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3631000152