Cognitive revolution

This article is about late 20th-century developments in the cognitive sciences. For the sudden increase in cognitive ability in human ancestry, see Human evolution (origins of society and culture).

The cognitive revolution is the name for an intellectual movement in the 1950s that began what are known collectively as the cognitive sciences. It began in the modern context of greater interdisciplinary communication and research. The relevant areas of interchange were the combination of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics with approaches developed within the then-nascent fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience.

A key idea in cognitive psychology was that by studying and developing successful functions in artificial intelligence and computer science, it becomes possible to make testable inferences about human mental processes. This has been called the reverse-engineering approach.

Important publications in setting off the cognitive revolution include George A. Miller's 1956 Psychological Review article "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two"[1] (one of the most frequently cited papers in psychology),[2][3][4] Donald Broadbent's 1958 book Perception and Communication,[5] Noam Chomsky's 1959 "Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner",[6] and "Elements of a Theory of Human Problem Solving" by Newell, Shaw, and Simon.[7] Ulric Neisser's 1967 book Cognitive Psychology[8] was a landmark contribution. Starting in the 1960s the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies and the Center for Human Information Processing at the University of California San Diego became influential in the development of cognitive studies.

By the early 1970s according to some accounts, the cognitive movement had all but "routed" behaviorism as a psychological paradigm,[9][10][11] and by the early 1980s the cognitive approach had become the dominant research line of inquiry in most psychology research fields.

Five major ideas from the cognitive revolution

In his book The Blank Slate (2002), psychologist Steven Pinker identified five key ideas that made up the cognitive revolution:[12]

  1. "The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback."[12]
  2. "The mind cannot be a blank slate because blank slates don't do anything."[13]
  3. "An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind."[14]
  4. "Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures."[15]
  5. "The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts."[16]

Historical background

Response to behaviorism

The cognitive revolution in psychology took form as cognitive psychology, an approach in large part a response to behaviorism, the predominant school in scientific psychology at the time. Behaviorism was heavily influenced by Ivan Pavlov and E. L. Thorndike, and its most notable early practitioner was John B. Watson, who proposed that psychology could only become an objective science were it based on observable behavior in test subjects. Methodological behaviorists argued that because mental events are not publicly observable, psychologists should avoid description of mental processes or the mind in their theories. However, B. F. Skinner and other radical behaviorists objected to this approach, arguing that a science of psychology must include the study of internal events.[17] As such, behaviorists at this time did not reject cognition (private behaviors), but simply argued against the concept of the mind being used as an explanatory fiction (rather than rejecting the concept of mind itself).[18] Cognitive psychologists extended on this philosophy through the experimental investigation of mental states that allow scientists to produce theories that more reliably predict outcomes.

The traditional account of the "cognitive revolution", which posits a conflict between behaviorism and the study of mental events, was challenged by Jerome Bruner who characterized it as: all-out effort to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology […]. It was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. […] Its aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated. (Bruner, 1990, Acts of Meaning, p. 2)

It should be noted however that behaviorism was to a large extent restricted to North America and the cognitive reactions were in large part a reimportation of European psychologies. George Mandler has described that evolutionary history.[19]


Lachman, Lachman and Butterfield were among the first to imply that cognitive psychology has a revolutionary origin.[20] After this, proponents of information processing theory and later cognitivists believed that the rise of cognitivism constitutes a paradigm shift. Despite the belief, many have stated both unwittingly and wittingly that cognitive psychology links to behaviorism.

Leahey said that cognitive scientists believe in a revolution because it provides them with an origin myth which constitutes a beginning that will help in legitimizing their science.[21] Others have said that cognitivism is behaviorism with a new language, slightly bent model and new concerns which aim at description, prediction and control of behavior. The change from behaviorism to cognitivism was gradual. Rather a slowly evolving science which took the origins of behaviorism and built on it.[22] The evolution and building has not stopped, see Postcognitivism.

See also


  1. Miller, G. A. (1956). "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information". Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97. doi:10.1037/h0043158. PMID 13310704. (pdf)
  2. Gorenflo, Daniel W., McConnell, James V. (1991). "The Most Frequently Cited Journal Articles and Authors in Introductory Psychology Textbooks". Teaching of Psychology. 18: 8–12. doi:10.1207/s15328023top1801_2.
  3. Kintsch W, Cacioppo JT (1994). "Introduction to the 100th anniversary issue of the Psychological Review" (PDF). Psychological Review. 101: 195–199. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.101.2.195.
  4. Garfield E. (1985). "Essays of an Information Scientist" (PDF). Current Contents. 8 (20, p. 3–12): 187–196.
  5. Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.
  6. Chomsky, N. (1959). "Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner". Language. 35: 26–57. doi:10.2307/411334.
  7. Newell, A.; Shaw, J. C.; Simon, H. A. (1958). "Elements of a Theory of Human Problem Solving". Psychological Review. American Psychological Association. 65 (3): 151–166. doi:10.1037/h0048495.
  8. Neisser, U (1967) Cognitive Psychology Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.
  9. Friesen, Norm (2010). "Mind and Machine: Ethical and Epistemological Implications for Research" (PDF). AI & Society. 25 (1): 83–92. doi:10.1007/s00146-009-0264-8.
  10. Thagard, P. (2002). "Cognitive Science". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  11. Waldrop M.M. (2002). The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 139, 140.
  12. 1 2 Pinker 2003, p.31
  13. Pinker 2003, p.34
  14. Pinker 2003, p.36
  15. Pinker 2003, p.37
  16. Pinker 2003, p.39
  17. Mecca Chiesa: Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy & The Science
  18. Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. page 24 Hardback edition
  19. Mandler, George (2002). "Origins of the cognitive (r)evolution". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 38 (4): 339–353. doi:10.1002/jhbs.10066. PMID 12404267.
  20. Lachman, Roy, Lachman, Janet L. and Butterfield, Earl C. (1979). Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing: An Introduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  21. Leahey, T. H. (1992). "The mythical revolutions of American psychology" (PDF). American Psychologist. 47 (2): 308–318. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.308.
  22. Roediger, R. (2004). "What happened to behaviorism". American Psychological Society, 17, Presidential Column.


Further reading



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