What is Cognition?

In addition to problems faced by professors who must battle inaccurate and often outrageous portrayals of the behaviorist perspectives, is the definition of cognition. The definition of cognition in textbooks is an important issue for those of use who are behaviorists. Cognition definitions are so broad that they seemly cover every aspect of psychology even those areas that were traditional first developed and stimulated by behaviorists. We rely on textbooks as one of the most important sources of information and the glossary, in particular, helps identify and highlight important terms that the author considers important.

I urge the reader to visit your bookshelves and look at the glossary of your introductory psychology or cognitive textbooks plus the preliminary comments related to the definition of cognition and the behaviorist approach. What you will find are definitions of cognition that cover the entire spectrum of psychology and therefore are essentially meaningless while the definitions of the behavioral perspective are consistent although sometimes wrong when they exclude inner events. As another exercise, use the thesaurus function on your word professor. If it is like mine, there are various entries for the word behavior such as performance, deeds, and actions. If you type in “cognition” there are no entries.

There is a real need to offer a universally accepted definition of cognition that can be compared to other perspective approaches to psychology. Without a precise definition of cognition or at least the cognitive perspective, we are left with the impression that there are no serious alternatives to the cognitive model. Those who teach psychology courses from the behaviorist perspective, find it difficult to provide materials that adequately and fairly present alternative perspectives. This is a serious issue because it affects the training of the next generation of students.

To document the inconsistencies in definitions of cognition, I took the opportunity to examine eight recent introductory psychology texts. What I found confirms the lack of consistency in the definition of cognition. In contrast to definitions of behaviorism, there is no consensus on what cognitive psychology is and the definitions are designed to cover almost every area of psychology. This is in contrast to definitions of behaviorism that all stress the focus on observables. None of the definitions of cognition mention that a cognitive psychologist does not see a “cognition” or “cognit” they, like the behaviorists only see observables.

The lack of consistency in cognitive definitions is not a surprise given the history of the field. In what is erroneously considered the first textbook in cognitive psychology defines cognitive psychology as all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. Moreover, as Amsel noted, the founding editor of the journal Cognitive Psychology when asked to define this field replied that it is “What I like.” At best such a reply precludes any meaningful discussion on what is and what is not cognition and worse disrespects alternative approaches and leads to an influx of such terms as cultural cognition, analytical cognition, holistic cognitive, neonatal cognition, and cognition in the mini-brain.

Ciccarelli and White do not define cognition in the glossary but they do define cognitive dissonance, cognitive arousal theory, cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive meditational theory, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychologists, cognitive therapy and cognitive universalism. Behaviorism is defined as the science of behavior that focuses on observable behavior only. There is no mention of the existence of various behaviorist perspectives such as neobehaviorism, nor are the problems we investigate such as learning and problem solving mentioned. Yet in the preliminary comments, the cognitive perspective is defined as modern perspective that focuses on memory, intelligence, perception, problem solving and learning. The reader can only assume that by using the word “modern” the authors of the text believe that the behaviorist approach is antiquated. Gray also does not define cognition in the glossary but defines cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive dissonance, and cognitive therapy.

Behaviorism is defined, but the definition includes the statement that behavior should be understood in terms of its relationship to observable events in the environment rather than in terms of hypothetical events within the individual. Given my earlier comments on the various types of behaviourisms, I hope the reader is aware how uniformed this statement is. When you examine introductory texts for their treatment of behaviorism, you will see that they are wrong to characterize behaviorism this way without mentioning that there are several behaviorist approaches. This statement may or may not be true of the radical behaviorism advocated by B. F. Skinner, but it is certainly not true of the neobehaviorists such as Hull and Tolman. In the preliminary comments, cognition is defined as the term cognition refers to information in the mind—that is, to information that is somehow stored and activated by the workings of the brain. The definition of cognition offered by Gray is different than that offered by Ciccarelli and White. Yet a third definition of cognition is presented by Huffman. In the glossary, she defines cognition as mental activities involved in acquiring, storing, retrieving, and using knowledge.

Definitions are offered for cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive dissonance, cognitive map, cognitive perspective, cognitive restructuring, cognitive-social theory, cognitive therapy. Behaviorism is not defined. Astonishingly, Clark Hull is listed in a table entry as representing the cognitive perspective! This is simply ridiculous. One would have thought that Tolman would have been a better choice. For those readers who have never heard of Hull or Tolman—both were neobehaviorists.

A fourth definition is proposed by Myers. He defines cognition in the glossary as all the mental activities associated with thinking, knowing, remembering, and communication. Although behavior is not defined, there is a definition of cognitive learning as the acquisition of mental information, whether by observing events, by watching others, or through language. No examples are provided of non-cognitive learning. No definition is offered for the word behavior or the behaviorist perspective. Behaviorism is defined as the view that psychology should be an objective science that studies behavior without reference to mental processes. Most research psychologists today agree with but not with clearly, the second part of this definition is incorrect. There is some information on the behavioral perspective in the introductory chapter but presents only generalizations such as the focus on how we learn observable responses.

Schacter, Gilbert, and Wegner offer a fifth definition. Although cognition is not specifically defined, the glossary contains an entry for cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes, including perception, thought, memory, and reasoning. Other related entries are: cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive development, cognitive dissonance, cognitive maps, cognitive restructuring, cognitive therapy, and cognitive unconscious. Behaviorism is defined as an approach that advocates that psychologists restrict themselves to the scientific study of objectively observable behavior. In the introductory section of the text, Watson and Skinner are discussed. For both individuals only their extreme views are presented. Hull and Spence are mentioned not for their contributions as neobehaviorists but for their views on homeostasis. Edward Tolman is also mentioned in a section on cognitive elements of operant conditioning.

A sixth definition is proposed by Wade and Tavris. Although once again there is no definition in the glossary for cognition, they define the cognitive perspective as a psychological approach that emphasizes mental processes in perception, memory, language, problem solving, and other areas of behavior. Other related entries are cognitive dissonance, cognitive schema, and cognitive therapy. It is interesting to note that there is an entry for cognitive ethology, which is defined as the study of cognitive processes in non-human animals. Historically, the study of cognitive processes is the comparative psychological perspective. Behaviorism is defined as an approach to psychology that emphasizes the study of observable behavior and the role of the environment as a determinant of behavior.

The textbook offered by Wood, Wood and Boyd provides yet another definition—our seventh. Here, cognition is defined in the glossary as the mental processes that are involved in acquiring, storing, retrieving, and using information and that includes sensation, perception, imagery, concept formation, reasoning, decision making, problem solving, and language. Other terms defined are cognitive dissonance, cognitive map, cognitive processes, cognitive therapies, and cognitive therapy.

Cognitive psychology is defined as the school of psychology that sees humans as active participants in their environment; studies mental processes such as memory, problem solving, reasoning, decision making, perception, language, and other forms of cognition. Behaviorism is defined as the school of psychology that views observable, measurable behavior as the appropriate subject matter for psychology and emphasizes the key role of environment as a determinant of behavior. In comparing the definitions of cognitive psychology and behaviorism one gets the impression those behaviorism only study inactive participants.

Eighth definition of cognition can be found in the Zimbardo, Johnson and McCann, although not defined in the glossary. The cognitive perspective is defined as another of the main psychological viewpoints distinguished by an emphasis on mental processes, such as learning, memory, perception, and thinking, as forms of information processing. Other cognitive terms in the glossary are cognitive appraisal, cognitive development, cognitive dissonance, cognitive map, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive restructuring, cognitive therapy, and cognitive-behavior therapy. The behavioral perspective is defined as a psychological viewpoint that finds the source of our actions in environmental stimuli rather than in inner mental processes. Once again, the referent that behaviorists do not look at inner mental processes is wrong.

I also searched the glossaries and preliminary comments of cognitive texts; the results where the same. I would have expected that in an advanced text the quality and rigor of the definitions would have improved—they did not. Consider the text by Ashcraft and Radvansky who define cognition as the collection of mental processes and activities used in perceiving, remembering, thinking, and understanding, as well as the act of using those processes. Reed does not have cognition defined in the glossary but does define cognitive psychology as the scientific study of cognition. In the introductory comments cognitive psychology is defined as the science of how the mind is organized to produce intelligent thought and how it is realized in the brain.

One way to estimate the effect that such a variety of definitions have on students is to simply ask them. I asked approximately 70 upper division psychology students to define cognition. The answers were wide ranging and there was no consensus. Representative samples include the ability to associate and synthesize multiple learned behaviors; mental processes that occur in an organism the ability for an individual to think clearly and have the ability to decipher right from wrong, or myth from reality; mental processes that help solve problems, perform tasks, remember things, and help you function in everyday life; the process of thought, attention, memory; the process of thinking; internal schemas which include thoughts, feelings, and desires; the ability to understand and perform mental abilities and produce constructs; mental processes of the mind through thoughts, feelings, emotions; to functionally process thoughts within the mind, mental thought process; and the ability to grasp and understand conceptual events.


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