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Modern Trends

If humanistic psychology was a third force in the 1960s, then today there are fourth and fifth forces in psychology: cognition and neuroscience.

Cognition emphasizes information processing within humans, while neuroscience emphasizes the biology of the brain and nervous system. In this course, Chapter 2 is about neuroscience. Cognition is emphasized in Chapter 6 on Memory and Chapter 7 on Cognition.

Cognitive psychology has roots going back to the mid-1800s. The earliest psychologists, using introspection, were trying to build a science of mind or cognition. Their failure meant that cognitive studies went into eclipse in the U.S. for the first half of the 20th Century.

Across the Atlantic, Frederic Bartlett, the first professor in experimental psychology at Cambridge University, kept cognitive psychology alive from the 1920s through 1950s. His books Remembering (1932) and Thinking (1958) are still good reads.

Around 1956, American psychol­ogists became interested in the emerging disciplines of information processing and computer science. They saw a connection between the information processing of computers and information processing in humans.

Some scholars trace the beginning of modern cognitive psychology to a now-classic article about human memory by George Miller. Miller pointed out that the concepts of encoding and the organization of information were unavoidable in computer science. He supplied evidence that humans were carrying out encoding and organization of information in memory.

By the late 1960s, psychologists studying memory spoke of an "encoding revolution". Memory, it seemed, always involved what a person interpreted (encoded), not just the external stimulus as presented.

As a simple example, the word "bat" could be interpreted as a sports object. In that case, it would be retrieved better if a person was given the hint "ball." But if the word bat was interpreted as a flying mammal, the word "belfry" might be a better cue.

Further research showed that the operation of memory always depended on what people encoded. This had far-reaching implications, because encoding could be biased in many ways.

To study this, psychologists had to analyze information processing of their subjects. This was a departure from decades of behaviorism that insisted psychologists should confine their attention to visible behavior.

By the late 1970s, the whole field of psychology was enveloped by a cognitive revolution. After years of behaviorism, the mind was no longer regarded as an impenetrable black box.

The new emphasis on cognition was rigorous. It was disciplined, objective, and relied on experimentation.

While memory researchers focused on manipulating encodings and document­ing changes in memory retrieval, others outside psychology in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence studied problem solving, visual scene analysis, and other information processing skills.

As computers improved, theories about mental processes could be tested with computer simulations. Simulations proved to be a very demanding way to test a theory. The success or failure of a computer program is unambiguous. It either works or it does not.

Vague theories about human mental processes went out of style, as cognitive theorists demanded specific, testable proposals. No longer could anybody argue, as the behaviorists had for decades, that discussing mental processes was unscientific.

In their end-of-century analysis of trends in psychology, Robins, Gosling, and Craik (1999) found that "cognitive psychology has sustained a steady upward trajectory" from about 1970 to 2000. They used various measures to arrive at this conclusion. One was the quickly rising number of published research studies in cognitive psychology.

Also revealing was the number of citations of those studies (references to them in other publications) by scientists and news writers outside the discipline of cognitive psychology. That number was high, showing that people outside psychology were interested in cognitive psychology research.

Another measure was employment opportunities for new PhD psychol­ogists. Job listing from universities and corporations seeking to hire cognitive psychologists were more numerous than for many other areas of psychology. That continued to be true into the first two decades of the 21st Century.

What is evidence that cognitive psychology is gaining influence?

Chapter 7 (Cognition) discusses cognitive psychology as well as other branches of cognitive science, such as AI (artificial intelligence). The term cognitive science refers to AI, linguistics, cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and any other research about intelligent behavior.

What is "cognitive science"?

Talk of a cognitive revolution was justified by dramatic changes in experimental psychology after 1956. However, such talk irritated behaviorists.

The phrase "scientific revolution" came from Thomas Kuhn's influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The revolution metaphor implied behaviorism was overthrown and replaced, like a deposed monarch.

Kuhn's favorite example was the replacement of earth-centered models of the solar system by Galileo's sun-centered model. However, in psychology, no such overthrow occurred.

Behavioral techniques never went away. They are very useful to this day. We will discuss many practical applications of them in Chapter 5 (Conditioning).

Why did talk of a "cognitive revolution" irritate behaviorists?

Cognitive psychology did take over experimental psychology, a term that covers non-clinical laboratory research in psychology. However, in animal research, behavioral techniques remain essential.

In therapy, the walls between behavioral and cognitive perspectives came down. Behavioral psychologists decided inner speech was a behavior that could be modified.

This led to new techniques for modifying self-talk and interpretations of life situations. Cognitive re-structuring, the re-interpretation of life situations, became the focus of a new type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

A 2007 survey showed that over 90% of therapists in the U.S. used cognitive behavioral therapy at least some of the time. That would have astonished behaviorists of the 1960s and earlier, when behaviorism meant ignoring mental processes.


If the 1970s was the decade in which cognitive approaches started their big comeback in psychology, then the 1980s was the decade when neuroscientific approaches suddenly became more important. The U.S. Congress declared the 1990s the "decade of the brain" in order to "enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research."

The trend toward more neuroscience research only accelerated since then. Technologies such as brain scanning became used routinely in research about psychological processes.

In typical brain-scanning research, people are asked to perform some cognitive activity while inside a brain imaging machine or wearing headgear with sensors. The activity can be solving a problem, translating a language, recognizing a face, listening to music, telling or listening to a joke, doing arithmetic, praying, imagining a visual scene, anything.

What approach became more dominant in the 1980s? How is brain imaging research conducted?

Mental activity is always correlated with some pattern of activation in specialized areas of the brain. One consistent finding is that imagining something (such as music) produces much the same brain activity as actually perceiving it or acting it out.

When I was revising Chapter 15 (Social Psychology) for the 2017 edition of this textbook, I was struck by the fact that every classic finding in social psychology (from conformity to obedience to bystander apathy) had been studied using brain scans, in recent years.

For example, bystander effects are a classic topic of social psychology research since the 1960s, but nobody back then thought of investigating brain mechanisms for them. The standard explanation of why people do not intervene to help somebody in need (in a crowd) is "diffusion of responsibility."

A greater number of people nearby dilutes a person's feeling of responsibility. That is a cognitive explanation: it is based on information processing.

In 2014, however, a research team did a brain scanning experiment on bystander effects. A simulated emergency occurred while participants were in a brain scanner.

Activity in a brain area specialized for preparing action was diminished when more people were nearby. The readiness to act was greater when fewer people were nearby (Hortensius and Gelder, 2014).

Does that contradict the standard explanation? No. Does it provide a better explanation? Maybe not.

But it is a different perspective. It shows that the same phenomenon can be studied from different angles without contradiction. The brain scanning results agree with results obtained through other means.

The future

In the future, it is safe to say, there will be greater specialization in psychology, as an "inevitable consequence of increasing specialization of knowledge" (Bower, 1993). Specialties like psychoneuro­immunology, which combines psychology, neuroscience, and immunology, are now commonplace.

Specialization need not imply fragmentation. At the same time specialties are becoming narrower, there are clear integrative trends in psychology.

Fields such as cognitive neuroscience cut across old boundaries between different specialties. Evolutionary psychology combines insights from evolutionary biology and psychology. Chapter 14 (Frontiers of Psychology) discusses several cross-disciplinary approaches: Psychology and Medicine, Psychology and Law, and Sport Psychology.

What seems to be fading away in modern psychology is the conflict between different approaches. Biological, behavioral, humanistic and cognitive approaches are freely combined.

Unlike their predecessors, many young psychologists do not feel compelled to take sides or choose between different approaches to psychology. They apply different points of view to the same issue.

What are some "integrative trends" in today's psychology? What "seems to be fading away"?

Researchers of today tend to focus not on competing schools of thought but on particular problems. They feel free to use any per­spective that sheds light on the problem. Typically they value a variety of approaches to psychology and feel free to combine them.


Bower, G. H. (1993). The fragmentation of psychology? American Psychologist, 48, 905-907.

Hortensius, R. & Gelder, B. D. (2014). The neural basis of the bystander effect. Neuroimage, 93, 53-58.

Robins, R. W., Gosling, S. D., & Craik, K. H. (1999) An empirical analysis of trends in psychology. American Psychologist, 2, 117-128.

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