Precursors to Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is a sub-discipline of psychology which asserts that an understanding of internal states and episodes is essential to a complete understanding of behaviour. Furthermore, these internal states and episodes are physically embodied. In humans and other organisms, these processes of "mind" are embodied in the brain and nervous system. Whether or not non-organic devices, such as digital computers, could give rise to intelligent behaviour continues to be a matter of debate. Before learning how the discipline of cognitive psychology emerged, it is helpful to understand something of the earlier ideas in psychology. Some of these are sketched out below.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

Historical Context

Voluntarism and Structuralism

The discipline of psychology itself is relatively recent. Prior to the nineteenth century discussions about human behaviour were the province of philosophers. It was not until 1879 that the first psychological laboratory was established in Leipzig, by Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was interested in immediate conscious experience, which he believed was composed of sensations and feelings (or affect). Sensations were an immediate experience of some external stimulus and were associated with particular feelings. A less immediate component of consciousness was the idea, which arose from the recollection of previous sensations. Wundt measured basic mental processes through the use of reaction time (RT) measures, originally developed by Franciscus Donders. By this time it was known that mental processes were the result of nerve impulses, and RTs were used to estimate the time taken to produce simple responses, discriminations, and choices. Wundt called his school of psychology voluntarism.

Wundt's doctoral student, Edward Titchener, moved to Cornell University in the US where he used the introspective method to search for the same elements of consciousness as Wundt. Titchener referred to his form of psychology as structuralism. However, this method soon fell out of favour.

Question: Why do you think the introspective method fell out of favour? What might be a flaw(s) with the introspective method?

Gestalt Psychology

In Germany, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, there was a reaction against the ideas of Wundt and Titchener. The Gestalt psychologists objected to the idea that experience could be analysed in terms of elemental parts. Their view was the exact opposite: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts", and so they investigated people's phenomenological experiences, or experiences not broken down into their elemental parts. The formal development of Gestalt psychology is said to have occurred after Max Wertheimer was on a train and realised that the perception of movement could occur even when no movement was actually happening1. Gestalt psychology had a big influence in the areas of visual perception, where several principles were devised to account for perceptual organisation, and problem solving. We shall look at Gestalt ideas in more detail when encountering these topics.

Henry James (1842-1910)


An alternative approach to structuralism was functionalism, a school of psychology particularly associated with William James. James was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin's work on evolution and, whereas structuralists were concerned with the structure of consciousness, James was interested in the processes of thought - what people did and why. In 1890 James published a landmark book Principles of Psychology, which is still widely cited today, especially the sections concerned with perception, attention, and consciousness. James referred to the stream of consciousness, meaning that the content of consciousness was continually changing, as distinct from the notion of consciousness as having a structure that could be analysed by introspecting on sensations and feelings.

Functionalists were not tied to any particular methodology. Rather, they used whatever methods seemed best to address the questions they were interested in. This approach seems to be linked to James's own espousal of pragmatism, the idea that the value or truth of a belief is related to its usefulness; that is, the practical consequences that follow from that belief.


In the middle part of the 20th century psychology was dominated by the behaviourist school, which built upon Edward Lee Thorndike's (1905) Law of Effect, and Pavlov's (1955) discovery of classical conditioning. Behaviourists focused on the relationship between events in the environment and observable behaviour. In particular, John Watson argued against the discussion of internal mental contents or processes, believing that researchers should examine only observable behaviour. B.F. Skinner developed a version of behaviourism called radical behaviourism. This approach emphasised operant conditioning, whereby behaviour is strengthened by subsequent rewards or weakened by the absence of rewards (or presence of punishment). An advocate of social reform, Skinner also believed that operant conditioning could be used to shape people's behaviour for the social good. Like Watson, Skinner's research was mainly conducted using animals. An example of his approach is given in the following video:

Question: What are the differences between Skinner's behaviourism and Watson's behaviourism? (hint: read the Wikipedia entries for each and for radical behaviourism).
Question: Can you think of any specific situations where operant conditioning has been used or could be used to shape behaviour?
Question: On the basis of what you have read so far, what do you think might be the limits of the radical behaviourist approach?

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