Cognitive Intervention: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Sometimes people need someone to help pull them out of psychological difficulties. In this lesson, we explore the definition and some examples of cognitive intervention, a direct approach used to help people change the way they think and behave.

What is Cognitive Intervention?

Charles is convinced that he is doomed and that anything he tries will go badly. Over the years, this perception has had an increasingly destructive effect on his life. Since he is convinced that nothing good can come of his efforts, he does not apply focused effort toward anything. He works low-risk, low-reward jobs. He sees no reason to further his education. Why devote the effort and time? His relationships are almost nonexistent, as companions and family alike grow tired of his constant 'woe is me' attitude. Charles needs help.

Cognitive intervention is a general description for a variety of therapeutic approaches, all designed to address psychological problems at the cognitive (conscious mind) level, through the activation and analysis of thoughts, experiences, memories, and senses. By drawing attention to what is going on in their minds, therapists can enlist the patients' help in finding solutions that will be effective and permanent.

How It Works

Very often, we are unaware of the thought processes that dominate the ways we behave. Like Charles, we can't really see or understand the influences of certain conclusions we made a long time ago - conclusions that now act as 'absolute truths' (core beliefs) in our lives and produce 'automatic' thinking patterns, popping up whether we want them to or not.

For example, as a child, you stepped out on the back porch, felt a sharp pain in your leg, and looked down to see a poisonous snake coiled nearby. You were terrified and traumatized, and you now carry an unreasonable fear of snakes because of the connections your mind has made between snakes and danger. A garden hose brings you to the point of panic. A snake exhibit at the zoo or in a picture book causes your mind to automatically chime in with the thought 'I hate snakes!'

Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress often find that they are jumpy, nervous, unable to tell 'friend' from 'foe,' and generally unable to relax or rest. Their emotions and underlying beliefs keep them very close to 'fight or flight' mode, which was very useful in survival situations but much less so in day-to-day life back home. Their minds have made many invisible connections between their experiences to their survival instincts, and the soldiers' automatic thoughts are constantly perceiving everything as a threat and demanding that they protect and guard themselves.

Cognitive intervention is designed to help people with cognitive impairments (difficulties in the way that they think or perceive) to re-engineer themselves back toward a healthy and productive life. Through intervention, a therapist can draw the patient's attention to the unreasonable pictures that the mind has created and then begin to create tools for dealing with those pictures. Automatic thinking can be challenged. Memory can be trained. Visualizations can provide powerful footholds on the path back to a more reasonable reality.

The cognitive approach to psychology assumes that your emotions, behaviors, and physiology are controlled (or at least influenced) by the way you view the things that have happened (or are happening) around you, and cognitive interventions are launched from this point of view. In other words, if you can see the problems that your mind has created, you can begin to remove them by changing the way that you think about them and exercising your mind to work in different ways.

Cognitive Intervention Examples


Charles' therapist takes Charles through a process of self-evaluation, where she helps him begin to analyze the way he's thinking. By asking the right questions and listening carefully to his answers, she guides him to the point where he understands the way he sees life. As he verbalizes his point of view, she can help him decide on the logical strengths and weaknesses of the position. What evidence does he have that everything is set against him? What evidence does he have that it's not true? Is his position reasonable? Is it helpful? What one action could he take to challenge the position and determine the truth of it?

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