Cognitive Inhibition: Definition & Example

Instructor: Briana Marquardt-Hutto

Briana has experience teaching and tutoring students of a variety of educational levels ranging from kindergarten to college and has an MA in Applied sociology.

This lesson will help you understand the concept of cognitive inhibition and its relevance. After this lesson you should have gained increased familiarity and a deeper understanding of this term.

What Is Cognitive Inhibition?

Whether or not you know it, cognitive inhibition is something you use on a regular basis in order to complete tasks, meet goals, understand others, and communicate. In order to understand cognitive inhibition, let's start with an example.

Sarah and Paula are roommates who have a big psychology exam tomorrow. Sarah spends her day going over the material and goes to bed early in order to be well-rested the next morning. Paula tries to study, but instead keeps getting distracted and spends a lot of time checking her emails and social media. Once it's time for her to go to bed she has trouble falling asleep because she can't tune out the sounds outside of her window or stop thinking about the test. Which of these women is better at using cognitive inhibition? If you guessed Sarah, you are right.

Cognitive inhibition can help you focus when studying

Cognitive inhibition is the blocking out or tuning out of information that is irrelevant to the task or focus at hand. This mental process can be intentional or unintentional and can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Sarah was able to block out stimuli that were not relevant to her task at hand (studying) or her goal (doing well on the test). While Paula resorted to checking Facebook during times she was struggling with the material, Sarah was able to suppress this response. After a long day of studying, Sarah felt prepared for the test and was also able to block out any sounds in order to fall asleep.

Developmental Psychology

We are not born with cognitive inhibition, but develop it in time. So just when do we gain the ability to ignore other stimuli in our minds or environment? Developmental psychologists, who study of the ways in which human beings change over the period of their lives, have done some research on this subject.

A common way to measure cognitive inhibition in children is through something called a false-belief task. False-belief tasks are setups meant to measure false belief, or the idea that others may have beliefs and views about the world that are different from one's own. There are different versions of the false-belief task, which can include different characters and components. In some cases the children are shown the example, and in others, they are told about it.

False belief in children can be examined with the chocolate bar test

One example involves a boy with chocolate. The children being tested are told that the boy places his chocolate on a shelf in the kitchen. After he leaves the room, his mother moves the chocolate to the fridge. The children are then asked where they think the boy will look for his chocolate when he returns. If they understand that the boy will look on the shelf, they pass, but if they think he will look in the fridge, they have not yet developed false belief.

Children typically develop this belief between the ages of three and five, though various types and implementations of the false-belief task and other tests of cognitive inhibition have discovered children who have developed this ability both earlier and later.


Now that you know when people develop cognitive inhibition, let's delve into why the development of cognitive inhibition is such a crucial milestone and why it is important in our daily lives. As you might have gathered, cognitive inhibition can be important to emotional regulation and social interactions. Cognitive inhibition allows you to have a conversation with someone in a loud area, such as a party, by helping you ignore the other sounds in order to focus on the conversation. It's also what allows you to relate to the other person.

Empathy is sometimes viewed as a form of cognitive inhibition because it allows a person to ignore his or her own feelings in order to understand the way someone else is feeling. This ability is important to creating and maintaining relationships and therefore can affect a person's social life, work life, and more. As you read in our earlier example, it can also be crucial to completing tasks without getting distracted.

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