Tea Break Psychology 5- Cognitive Psychology Vs Behaviourism: You decide.

On the go or short of time…but want a little Psychology in your day…..? Welcome to the latest feature on the blog tea break Psychology, quick, easy little snippets of thought provoking information to mull over with a cuppa and a biscuit.

Is this a chimp exhibiting superior cognitive skills or operantly conditioned pattern recognition (Clever Hans effect)?

Have a try at Dot Counting yourself…take a similar test here


The Rise of Cognitive Psychology -From Chunking to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

The reason I’m not a neurobiologist but a cognitive psychologist is that I think looking at brain tissue is often the wrong level of analysis. You have to look at a higher level of organisation.

                                                                                                                     Steven Pinker-Harvard University

The Cognitive approach was initially contrasted with Behaviourism, especially in the US where the highly experimental, yet limited perspective was seemingly running out of steam, where Behaviourism was only interested in the external, observable and measurable phenomena Cognitive Psychology wanted the same experimental approach but took the view that the internal thought processes often compared with a ‘computer‘, was an area of study worth pursuing.

What are the processes within the mind shaping thought?  What were their limitations and are they fixed?  Were they applicable to all, was there a ‘human’ base model that all shared that culture and experience then could mould?  One such example, many will be familiar with terminology like short-term and long-term memory as an example of our early Cognitive Psychology devised simplistic models to represent how complex processes of memory interact. George Miller’s 7(+-2) to represent the ‘capacity’ of Short Term Memory that then produced ‘chunking‘ to seemingly generate a hack to get around the limitations of our own systems.

 For such hard wired or ‘hard-coded‘ (to maintain the often cited computer analogy), these ‘rules of thought’ were systematically studied to provide support for cognitive psychology which became the new face of experimental psychology generating memory tasks to provide evidence of our how these cognitive systems worked.  However, many studies produced basic lists of words and objects to produce effects whilst interesting were deemed to have little ecological validity.

Ecological Validity of early Cognitive based tests

The classic 1935 Stroop Test illustrates both the seeming limitations of our cognitive processes through a task that has very little generalisability to real word tasks. Take an interactive test here.

However, no ‘process’ was left unturned perception, problem-solving, attention, language and memory historically the key areas of Cognitive Psychology.  Whilst conducting highly controlled experimental work to build a body of evidence using a Nomothetic approach, some took an interest in the variations in people’s thinking whilst others took a more idiographic approach interested in the case studies of individuals whose thought processes were seemingly ‘faulty’ or ‘erroneous’. Consider how visual illusions work.  They take advantage on how our perceptual sets are fixed which means anything we are presented with that sits outside of that our mind has to either attempt to adjust or it produces an image that we cannot understand.

The faces of A and B are the same shade.  Place your finger horizontally where they meet to prove it!
The faces of A and B are the same shade. Place your finger horizontally where they meet to prove it!

The Case of HM

 One such case was that of Henry Molaiso (referred to as HM).  Aged 27 needing brain surgery HM had both parts to his  ‘hippocampus‘ removed when receiving surgery to assist his epilepsy.  What wasn’t known then is the Hippocampus structure is now thought to be crucial in the development of new memories.

However, for reasons still not completely understood (often thought to be the result of the heavy medication for the epilepsy) HM had no memory of events for the 11 years prior to the operation and unable to make new ones.  This is referred to a global amnesia constituting a completed lack of memory both prior (retrograde amnesia) and after (anterograde amnesia).  HM therefore, became a man whose memory finished when he was 16 years old without any way to process new memories.  A similar case is that of Clive Wearing watch the video below for an insight into a life where memory doesn’t exist.

Critical Evaluation

B.F. Skinner criticises the cognitive approach as he believes that only external stimulus – response behavior should be studied as this can be scientifically measured.  Therefore, mediation processes (between stimulus and response) do not exist as they cannot be seen and measured. Skinner continues to find problems with cognitive research methods, namely introspection (as used by Wilhelm Wundt) due to its subjective and unscientific nature.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers believes that the use of laboratory experiments by cognitive psychology have low ecological validity and create an artificial environment due to the control over variables. Rogers emphasises a more holistic approach to understanding behaviour.

The information processing paradigm of cognitive psychology views that minds in terms of a computer when processing information. However, there are important difference between humans and computers. The mind does not process information like a computer as computers don’t have emotions or get tired like humans.

Behaviourism assumes that people are born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and are not born with cognitive functions like schemas, memory or perception.

The cognitive approach does not always recognize physical (re: biological psychology) and environmental (re: behaviourism) factors in determining behaviour. (http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive.html)

Take part in some Cognitive Research

Be a participant – If you want to take part in some online-based research, here is a link to some data being collected currently. (Univeristy of St Andrews in Scotland)

Applied Cognitive Psychology -Forensic Psychology

Work by Elizabeth Loftus investigating how easily a ‘normal’ memory can be distorted by simple language is one of the most well-known works in Psychology.  However, not exempt for ecological validity issues it is still one of the most stark examples of how memory is malleable and easily altered.  Particularly useful in the realm of Forensic Psychology and the ease in which eye-witness testimony can be falsely relied upon.   Test your knowledge of that research –here.

Watch the video on as Loftus explains how memory is reconstructive

 ‘like a Wikipedia page you can go and change it….but so can other people‘.

Loftus also discusses her research and its real world setting –  a response to all those low ecological validity claims:

Do criminals have a distinct and measurable set of thinking patterns?  Yochelson and Samenow attempted to find out.

Applied Cognitive Psychology – Clinical Psychology

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)  is a generic term for a therapeutic approach to psychological disorders developed out of a need for an alternative from the more traditional therapeutic Psychoanalytical approach.  Cognitive Behaviour Therapy aims to restructure thoughts of individuals who are suffering from a range of disorders from anxiety and depression.  Do those suffering from depression have a distinct set of thought patterns – Beck tempted to find out? Have a look at Beck’s research into CBT when compared with Drug therapy. Influential Psychologist Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) in the 1950’s with Psychologist Aaron Beck leading the way for psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia from the 1970’s.  CBT is also being used to treat ‘insomnia’. 

Have a look at Beck’s research into CBT when compared with Drug therapy.

Below shows the progression from Cognition (thought) to the Behaviour (Actions) that have been reframed by using CBT, comparing the initial ‘faulty’ thinking.  Mindfulness is fast approaching CBT as a preferred method of dealing with anxiety without drug therapy.  And here is an article critiquing CBT as a useful therapy.

                                          Unhelpful                                                                                helpful                      

Thoughts: He/she ignored me – they don’t like me He/she looks a bit wrapped up in themselves – I wonder if there’s something wrong?
Low, sad and rejected Concerned for the other person, positive
Physical: Stomach cramps, low energy, feel sick None – feel comfortable
Action: Go home and avoid them Get in touch to make sure they’re OK

An interesting infographic outlining CBT;


Behaviourism or Placebo? Biofeedback as applied stress management.

Biofeedback is a process in which an individual can learn to change their own physiological responses from their heart rate, muscle activity and even the secretion of gastric fluids.  How does it work? An individual is connected to a physiological measure such as a heart rate monitor, which gives a reading of 75bpm.  Using techniques such as deep breathing the individual can alter their physiological state in this case the deep breathing will cause a physiological response of a relaxation in the body, which in turn allows the body to slow down, which in turn reduces the heart rate down to 68 in our example. The individual has been now using feedback on their own biological physiology, and changed it – hence Biofeedback.


This process has many positives such as quick stress reduction, anyone can do it  may even remove the need for medication or certainly reduce the frequency. Psychologically the biofeedback process is considered to be from a Behaviourist principle as we relearn a response from a stimulus.

A triumph for behaviourism….however what if there is a cognitive element to the process or the fact that you think you are having some form of intervention relaxes you which in turn reduces your heart rate and produces the same result in essence a Placebo?

Budynski compared groups receiving  real feedback data against those who were given a false reading (pseudo-feedback) to measure if there was a placebo effect occurring,  Budynski concluded not and that biofeedback specifically for tension/stress headaches is an effective method of management.

+ Usefulness – the study is highly useful as it suggests that using both relaxation training and biofeedback together is an effective way of managing stress.

+ Validity – the use of the pseudo-biofeedback condition increases the validity of the study because we can see that effect observed in the real condition was not due to the placebo effect and was due to the manipulation.

Small sample – the sample is both small and ethnocentric meaning generalising the results is difficult. Furthermore, the researchers only studied tension headaches and did not consider other medical ailments.

Validity – the study was only a snapshot and therefore, we cannot see if the results of the study stick or if the participants would require consistent treatment.  There was a follow -up study however, only 4 respondents took part – it did yield seemingly long term implications to the treatment.

Little Albert………The darkest day of Psychology

At the turn of the 20th Century Sigmund Freud had the monopoly on phobia formation, the unconscious projection of neurosis onto external stimuli.  The case study of Little Hans put forward by Freud was the only ‘evidence’ to support how difficulties in early development could manifest  themselves unconsciously in his 1905 study ‘ Analysis of a phobia in a 5 year old boy’. However a sea change occurred in the rise of Behaviourism which theorised that all behaviour can be explained as a direct interaction of the environment and rejected the notion of the significance of internal processes unconscious or otherwise.  The notion of Pavlovian Classical Conditioning was consistent with the Behaviorists view of  a ‘tabula rasa‘ and Watson and Raynor set about showing how a phobia, could not only be a learnt response it could also be unlearned too.  They set about doing this in the now infamous study of ‘Little Albert’ – where they ‘conditioned‘ Albert to fear a white rat when presented with the said rat and one of the only innate rear responses that of a loud noise as per the picture below.  However Watson and Rayner never completed their research due to interventions by his mother.  However the conditioning process was very successful with Albert not only showing a phobic response to the rat -he also generalised his anxiety to other similar stimuli such as rabbits.

Read the original research that Watson and Raynor published in 1920.

PsychHW - Little Albert

Little Albert -Who was he? What happened to him?  Read an overview and evaluation of the study here.

in 2010 the American Psychological Association published the following….

One of psychology’s greatest mysteries appears to have been solved. “Little Albert,” the baby behind John Watson’s famous 1920 emotional conditioning experiment at Johns Hopkins University, has been identified as Douglas Merritte, the son of a wetnurse named Arvilla Merritte who lived and worked at a campus hospital at the time of the experiment — receiving $1 for her baby’s participation.

In the study, Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner exposed the 9-month-old tot, whom they dubbed “Albert B,” to a white rat and other furry objects, which the baby enjoyed playing with. Later, as Albert played with the white rat, Watson would make a loud sound behind the baby’s head. After a number of conditioning trials, Watson and Rayner reintroduced the animals and furry items without the scary noise. Through the conditioning, the animals and objects that were once a source of joy and curiosity had become a trigger of fear.

Watson had no reason to reveal Albert’s true identity, and he never de-conditioned the child. (Watson was also dismissed from the university around the same time because of an affair with Rayner.) Since then, Little Albert’s fate and identity have been a recurring question among psychology scholars, including Appalachian State University psychologist Hall P. Beck, PhD, who with a team of colleagues and students, sought answers. For seven years, Beck and his associates scoured historical materials, conferred with facial recognition experts, met with relatives of the boy they theorized was Albert.

Eventually, the pieces of the puzzle came together. The attributes of Douglas and his mother matched virtually everything that was known about Albert and his mother. Like Albert’s mother, Douglas’s mother worked at a pediatric hospital on campus called the Harriet Lane Home. Like Albert, Douglas was a white male who left the home in the early 1920s and was born at the same time of year as Albert. What’s more, a comparison of a picture of Albert with Douglas’ portrait revealed facial similarities.

Sadly, the team also discovered that Douglas died at age 6 of acquired hydrocephalus, and was unable to determine if Douglas’ fear of furry objects persisted after he left Hopkins.

The team, which also included Sharman Levinson, PhD, of The American University in Paris, and Gary Irons, the grandson of Arvilla Merritte, published their findings in the October American Psychologist (Vol. 64, No. 7). The article not only satisfies a long-held curiosity, but also reflects a growing interest in the fate of research participants, says Cathy Faye, of the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. Participants in such famous, controversial studies “have become unwitting protagonists whose stories are told over and over again in psychology textbooks,” she says. “So people become very curious: Who were they, and how did they feel about the experiment?”

Beck is pleased his students have answered some of those questions, but the real bonus, he believes, is what they gained in the research process.

“The search took them beyond the memorization of their lectures and textbooks, and for the first time, into the creative world of psychological research,” he says. “In the end, that was even more important to them than finding Albert.”

Cited from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/01/little-albert.aspx

However this has recently been challenged by Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon who proposed a second candidate Albert Barger read about their campaign here.