Cognitive processing

ATL: Essential understandings

1.  Mental representations guide our behaviour.

2.  Models can be used to help us understand complex processes such as memory and decision making.

3.  Humans are information processors.

4.  The mind, although it cannot be directly observed, can be studied scientifically.

When people are thinking about how best to solve a mathematical problem, trying to remember the title of a book, planning their next holiday, retelling a joke they have heard or deciding which car to buy, they are involved in cognitive processing. Cognitive psychology concerns itself with the structure and functions of the mind. Cognitive psychologists are involved in finding out how the human mind comes to know things about the world and how it uses this knowledge.

The cognitive approach to understanding behaviour developed around the 1950’s as a result of an increasing dissatisfaction with behaviourism, which was the dominant school of scientific psychology.  Behaviourists argued that only behaviour that could be observed should be studied. B. F. Skinner, the founder of Behaviourism, argued that the mind was a "black box" - that is, input enters and output exits the mind, but the processes that take place within the mind with regard to that input cannot be examined.

Cognitive psychologists argued that scientific psychology should include research on mental processes and how humans process information and create meaning. According to cognitive psychologists, the mind can be conceptualized as a set of mental processes that are carried out by the brain. These mental processes include perception, thinking, decision making, problem solving, memory, language and attention. The concept of cognition refers to such processes. Cognition is also related to one's personal experience. As we interact with the world around us, we create mental representations - that is, conceptual understandings of how the world works. Since people have different experiences, they have different mental representations - for example, of what is right or wrong, or about what boys and girls can and cannot do. This will influence the way they think about the world and behave. Cognitive psychologists believe that mental processes can, to some extent, be studied scientifically.

Assumptions of the cognitive approach

One assumption of the cognitive approach is that we are information processors. It was John von Neumann's book The Computer and the Brain that gave psychologists a metaphor and a set of terminology for explaining cognitive processes. Psychologists argue that we are not passive responders to the environment, but we actively organize and manipulate information that we receive. Cognitive psychologists see the mind as an information-processing machine using hardware (the brain) and software (mental representations).  The "input" is sensory information that comes to us through our interaction with the environment. This is referred to as bottom-up processing.  This information is then processed in the mind by top-down processing via pre-stored information in memory. Finally, there is some output in the form of behaviour.

A second assumption of the cognitive approach is that cognitive processes can be studied scientifically by scientific research methods. This is demonstrated in theories and models of cognitive processes that are continuously tested both in laboratories and in naturalistic settings. As our understanding of cognition has increased, models have been changed. Early models of cognition were overly simplistic, but they helped researchers to propose hypotheses and test different aspects of cognitive processes. 

Cognitive psychologists have to a large extent used the experimental method because it was assumed to be the most scientific method. However, the experimental tasks did not always resemble what people did in their daily lives. The cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser was one of the first to argue that cognitive psychology had become too artificial and that researchers should not forget that cognition cannot be isolated from our everyday experience. This is why cognitive psychologists now study cognition in the laboratory as well as in a daily context.

A final assumption is that mental representations guide behaviour. The way that we process and organize our information determines how we behave.  We process new information through the filter of past experience and understanding. This then determines how we attend to, perceive and remember new information. This assumption plays a key role in understanding all types of behaviour.  For example, a student might keep procrastinating when he should be writing his extended essay.  This could be explained by his past experience.  Maybe his past experience has been a lot of feedback that he is a poor writer.  Because of this, he wants to avoid the task in order to avoid further failure.  Maybe his past experience has been that when he has done things last minute, he seems to get better grades.  Then his procrastination is seen as a "success strategy".

Cognitive psychologists also recognize that we are bombarded with information in our environment every day.  If we paid attention to all of the stimulation in our surroundings, we would be overwhelmed.  As a result, Fiske and Taylor (1991) argue that we are cognitive misers - that is, we often make the choice not to actively process information because we want to save time and effort. In other words, we use mental short-cuts to make decisions because of three factors:  knowledge, motivation and economy. To make this clearer you could use the following mantra:

  • I don't know.
  • I don't care.
  • I don't have time.

For example, we all know that a healthy diet is important.  However, when it comes to grocery shopping, too many shoppers do not read the labels of the food that they buy.  Why not?  First, there is the problem of knowledge. Even if you read the labels on many foods, would you be able to really understand the ingredients?  Second, many people don't have the motivation to do so.  If they are young and healthy, then the fact that they like the taste of something is enough to justify buying it.  They don't care about the levels of fat or salt in the product.  However, once the motivation changes, let's say because of a new health problem, then they take the time to read the labels.  Finally, there is the question of economy.  Shoppers may make the decision to buy what they have also bought because they don't have time to spend hours on the Internet doing research or even reading labels in the grocery store.  It could also be that they don't have the financial resources to afford better quality food, so they rationalize the decision to keep buying the unhealthy options.

ATL:  Conceptual understanding

The above example of shopping is just one application of the concept of cognitive misers.  Try to apply the same explanation to the following examples of human behaviour:

  1.  Failing to invest money in a retirement plan.
  2.  The way that people vote in presidential elections.
  3.  Why it is difficult to get people to exercise.

ATL: Thinking critically

Will it ever be possible to develop robots that can think like humans?

In what ways are the human mind and computers the same?  Start off by making a list of what the human mind can do and what the computer can do.  What do you think are the most significant differences between the human mind and computers?

Now please watch the following video.

Based on what you have seen in the video, do you think it will ever be possible to construct a robot that could process information like we do?  Do you think that this would be a good thing - or a bad thing?  Be able to justify your response.

Checking for understanding

Which of the following is not a cognitive process?



When a big, barking dog comes running at me, I notice that it is actually my neighbor's dog, so I am able to relax. The process of recognizing that the dog is my neighbor's dog and determining that there is nothing to worry about is an example of



Ulric Neisser argued that cognitive psychology was too artificial.  What research problem was he referring to?



According to Fiske and Taylor (1991), what factor influences our decision making behaviour?




Total Score:

Schema theory

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Comments 6

KIS International School 16 January 2018 - 04:20

Dear John,
Just a quick question about this essential understandings section.
Could the essential understandings be compared to the General Learning Outcomes in the 'old syllabus'? If so could questions be asked in the exam about them specifically?

Many thanks for your help again.


John Crane 16 January 2018 - 05:16

Dear Ana

No, they would not be asked. The essential understandings are there to help teachers fill in their ATL lesson planners which are now part of the IB approval process. It is just a way to help teachers and students conceptualize the unit better, but it is not a form of IB assessment.

KIS International School 17 January 2018 - 06:15

Dear John,

Many thanks for clarification. Ana

Neha Kakkad 18 February 2018 - 12:40

Hi John,

Following the Petition filed and the response received from the IB, am I right in understanding that it is no longer "required" to teach the working memory model and go with Levels of Processing instead?
Kindly confirm.

Thanks in advnace
Neha Kakkad

John Crane 19 February 2018 - 06:32

Dear Neha, yes - at least for the first set of exams this is acceptable. We will see what further clarifications come to us in the future.

Neha Kakkad 22 February 2018 - 03:57

Thank you, John.