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From Behavioral Psychology to Cognitive Psychology: An Ever Changing View of Life

Catrina Mueller's picture

Have you ever stood at the top of a very tall object and shuddered at the thought of looking down? Have you ever noticed that when you give a dog a treat, it tends to repeat the same action for which you praised it? Both of these situations use conditioning, a crux of the behavioral psychology. Two branches of Behaviorism, Classical and Radical Behavioral psychology, use conditioning to explain the actions of humans and animals without ever having to delve into the mind.

Classical conditioning holds that one starts with an “unconditioned stimulus” and an “unconditioned response”. (1) Then a person may connect a “neutral stimulus” with the original stimulus, thereby producing a link between the two. (1) In the end, the “neutral stimulus” can be used in place of the “unconditioned stimulus” to elicit the same response. (1) An example of an unconditioned stimulus could be a clap. For instance, if a person flinches when he hears the clap, it serves as the unconditioned stimulus while the flinch is the unconditioned response. If one were to whistle and then clap, the person would flinch. Eventually, just the sound of the whistle would cause the subject to flinch.

Operant conditioning (the Radical branch of Behavioral Psychology) maintains that if one can use “reinforcing stimuli” to condition behavior. (2) Take for example the dog training mentioned in the beginning paragraph. If the dog were to exert a “good behavior”, a person could reward the dog with a treat. Eventually, the dog would connect the good behavior with the treat and perform the good behavior more often to get more treats. The same holds true with the opposite view: use a “negative reinforcement”, such as a slap, to make the subject not want to repeat the action. (1)

Behavioral psychology deals mainly with actions that can be observed externally. (2) For a behavioral psychologist, “mental constructs” such as dignity and beliefs are completely unnecessary in one’s quest of observing and describing behavior. (1)(2) As time when on, however, people began to wonder, “What about inner processes?” Things such as “problem solving” and “memory” and the “complexity of language” could not be addressed by Behavioral Psychology. (3) This train of thought led to the demise of Behavioralism. (4) Ulrich Neisser, one of the first recognized Cognitive psychologists, described Cognitive Psychology as referring to “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used.” (3) Sounds like a computer, doesn’t it? The computer system, and in fact technology itself, is the very core of Cognitive Psychology. As technology improved, psychologists were able to see more and more into the mystery of the inner human. Technology became the bridge between Behavioralism and Cognitive Psychology.

Experimental cognitive psychology, which mostly analyzes how humans interpret “incoming information”, measures our “psychophysical responses, response time, and eye tracking”. (4)(5) It is the foundation of the other branches of Cognitive Psychology. (6) Experiments testing reaction time can be facilitated by the use of computer. A subject is placed in front of a screen and then asked to click when an image pops up. This experiment tests the absolute shortest time between when the subject perceives the image to when the message “click” is carried out. It measures the speed of body’s synapses, which are the internal messengers of the brain. (7) Without technology, it would be almost impossible to measure the short amount of time in which this reaction happens.

More modern types of Cognitive Psychology are even more steeped in technology. One such branch of Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, is dependent on technology such as “EEG, MEG, fMRI, PET, SPECT, [and] Optical Imaging”. (5) EEG (Electroencephalogram) has helped psychologists analyze. (8) Through the use of the EEG, it is possible tell how asleep someone is and what is likely to happen to occur to someone during this stage of sleep. (8) From this information, it is possible to tell how long a person spends in a specific stage of sleep and to find patterns of these stages. (8)

Psychology, and indeed science itself, is constantly evolving. Behavioralism, although concerned with the complete opposite line of thought as Cognitive Psychology, was a good jumping off point for exploring the mysteries of the human mind. Though we learned about the powerful effects of observation in class, I have never really applied them to psychology. Although I do not totally understand technology, I have come to understand how it changed the perceptions of scientists and led them to see a “more correct” view of life. It is hard for me to imagine the complexities of the mind boiled down to brain waves, chemicals, synapses, and other such things. It is even harder to believe that we currently have the technology to peer into a brain and figure out how one thinks. There are still many things about the brain we do not understand. One thing in particular that I’d like to know is why humans have such a big brain, but do not use it completely. Much of the brain is not used, so what is it doing? Maybe someday we will be able to utilize our brains more completely. The possibilities of technology and psychology in the future boggle my mind. Maybe Cognitive Psychology will unify all the branches of psychology in the future. Technology certainly has the power to help change our world.


1) explanation of Behavioral psych and some biographies of famous Behavioral psychologists

2) Behavioral psych and its branches

3) definition and history of cognitive and list of Cognitive psycologists

4) lecture on technology and cognitive psych

5) definition and history of cognitive and list of Cognitive psycologists



Online copy of Cognitive Psychology: a Student’s Handbook

7) synapse definition

8) Introductory Notes for consciousness and sleep



Paul Grobstein's picture

observations and the mind

Despite a long standing interest in the subject, I hadn't thought about the history of psychology from the technology/new observations perspective. Its an intriguing one, clearly worth thinking more about, and I will. At the same time, I'm not sure I know of a clear technological development that was involved in the transition from behavioral to cognitive psychology And suspect there were at least some other factors involved, including a "running out of steam" in the behavioral tradition that would be worth thinking more about as well.