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What is Cognitive Psychology? - Definition & Theories

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  • 0:00 Definition of…
  • 0:50 Overview of Cognitive…
  • 3:00 Cognitive Psychology Theories
  • 7:45 Phases of CBM
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Cognitive psychology focuses on the way people process information. In this lesson, you will gain an overview of the field of cognitive psychology and learn about prominent theories. You can test your knowledge with a quiz at the end.

Definition of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on the way people process information. It looks at how we process information we receive and how the treatment of this information leads to our responses. In other words, cognitive psychology is interested in what is happening within our minds that links stimulus (input) and response (output).

Cognitive psychologists study internal processes that include perception, attention, language, memory, and thinking. They ask questions like:

  • How do we receive information about the outside world?
  • How do we store and process information?
  • How do we solve problems?
  • How does a breakdown in our perceptions cause errors in our thinking?
  • How do errors in our thinking lead to emotional distress and negative behaviors?

Overview of Cognitive Psychology

The term 'cognitive psychology' was first used by Ulric Neisser in 1967. Since then, many interventions have emerged from cognitive study that have benefited the field of psychology. Cognitive psychology also touches on many other disciplines. Because of this, it is frequently studied by people in a number of different fields including medicine, education, and business.

Cognitive psychology is goal-oriented and problem-focused from the beginning. Imagine you are entering treatment with a cognitive psychologist. One of the first things you will be asked to do is identify your problems and formulate specific goals for yourself. Then you will be helped to organize your problems in a way that will increase the chances of meeting your goals.

Suppose that as you are preparing for your presentation at work tomorrow, you fear you will fail. Because of this, you are using distractions around you as a way to avoid working on the presentation. This prevents you from preparing properly, which actually causes you to fail. You believe that you failed because you are worthless. A cognitive psychologist would help you examine and then rationalize the situation in order to understand the most valid reason for your failure. Then they would teach you how to make changes that will help you succeed.

All forms of cognitive psychology have these four characteristics:

  1. A collaborative relationship between client and therapist.
  2. The belief that psychological distress is largely the result of a disturbance in cognitive processes.
  3. A focus on changing cognition to produce desired changes in emotions and/or behavior.
  4. A time-limited, educational treatment that focuses on specific problems.

Though often grouped together, cognitive psychology can be divided into two areas: cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CT and CBT are very similar in their theory and application. The difference is that cognitive therapy focuses on eliminating psychological distress, while cognitive behavioral therapy targets the elimination of negative behavior as well.

Cognitive Psychology Theories

There are three major contributing theories in cognitive psychology:

  1. Albert Ellis' rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
  2. Aaron Beck's cognitive therapy (CT)
  3. Donald Meichenbaum's cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

The framework for REBT was developed by Albert Ellis. Previously called rational therapy or rational emotive therapy, REBT is one of the first cognitive therapies. Today it continues to be a major approach in the field of cognitive psychology. It makes the basic assumption that you contribute to your own psychological problems and symptoms through your interpretations.

Rational emotive behavior therapy focuses on uncovering irrational beliefs that may lead to unhealthy negative emotions. It examines this relationship through what is called the A-B-C framework.

A-B-C Framework for REBT

Let's examine the A-B-C framework with an example:

  • (A) Activating event: You are walking down the street. Your friend walks right past and ignores you.
  • (B) Beliefs: You think, 'Bob must be angry with me or he would have said hello.'
  • (C) Consequences: You ignore your friend the next time you see him because you assume he does not want to speak to you.

In this example you have the irrational belief that Bob is angry with you. An irrational belief is a belief that has no factual basis and is rationally unsupported. REBT would help you replace this irrational belief with a more rational alternative. Let's examine how the scenario might unfold with this change:

  • (A) Activating event: You are walking down the street. Your friend walks right past and ignores you.
  • (B) Beliefs: You think, 'It is unlike Bob not to say hello, I wonder what is going on?'
  • (C) Consequences: You turn and call out to Bob. He apologizes for not seeing you, but explains he is really distracted by something. You make plans to get together later and catch up.

Aaron T. Beck developed the cognitive therapy approach as a result of his research on depression. He observed that most depressed people have a negative interpretation of life events. This eventually led him to assume that how you feel is related to the way you perceive your experiences.

Cognitive therapy suggests that psychological distress is caused by distorted thoughts about stimuli that trigger emotional suffering.

Cognitive Therapy

In CT, systematic errors in reasoning that lead to faulty assumptions and misconceptions are called cognitive distortions. Let's examine this with an example.

Imagine you do not receive a promotion you put in for at work. You may believe that you were passed over for the promotion because you are seen as incompetent. This may make you less likely to seek future promotion opportunities and could even lead to depression. The cognitive distortion is your belief that you are incompetent.

Let's examine the difference if you replace this belief with a more functional one. If you believe that you did not receive the promotion because you were up against very strong competition, you may have a more manageable reaction. You feel disappointed but not depressed and are likely to continue seeking a promotion in the future.

Donald Meichenbaum is a psychologist noted for his contributions to cognitive behavior therapy. He developed a therapeutic technique called cognitive behavior modification (CBM), which focuses on identifying negative self-talk in order to change unwanted behaviors.

Cognitive behavior modification was developed by merging behavior therapy with cognitive therapy. It emphasizes the interrelated connections between thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

For example, let's say you have to attend a meeting at work tomorrow. You're anxious about it and fearful that you will have a panic attack at the meeting. You tell yourself, 'What if I have a panic attack and have to leave the meeting? I would be so embarrassed.' You call in sick to work the next day to avoid the meeting.

If you are able to change these thoughts, you will be able to attend the work meeting instead of avoiding it. Changing these thoughts and resulting behaviors using CBM is a 3-phase process.

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