The cognitive approach is an area of psychology that focuses on mental processes, perception, and language as a way of explaining and understanding human behavior. It started to develop in the 1960s, and by the end of the 20th century, it had become the dominant school of thought in psychology. Psychotherapy based on this approach attempts to alter behavior by attempting to change the behavior’s underlying cognition, or thought processes.
There are a few assumptions that are central to the cognitive approach. One is that human behavior can be understood by scientific processes. Unlike Freudian psychology, cognitive psychology developed through empirical testing. Another assumption is that human behavior is a series of responses to external stimuli mitigated by people's thoughts, perceptions, moods, and desires.
Cognitive psychology differs from the older, behaviorist approach to human behavior. Behaviorists believe that all people are essentially the same at birth, but their personality is affected and formed by environmental factors and outside stimuli. They also believe that behavior can be permanently altered by changing the environment. Behaviorism views people as blank slates passively reacting to their surroundings.
The cognitive approach, on the other hand, considers thought processes as the primary determinant of behavior. These thought processes include reasoning, intelligence, memory, attention, and sensory perception. Language and how it is used in mental processing is also considered. This approach builds on behaviorism by assuming that people’s behavior is a result of external stimuli, but argues that the way a person's mind actively processes his or her environment is what determines behavior and personality.
Behaviorism is not entirely rejected in psychological treatment that is based on this school of thought. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, attempts to combine the two approaches to treat patients. For example, a psychologist might treat a phobia by examining the mental processes that are causing the irrational fear. Rather than attempt to directly change a person’s behavior or environment, the psychologist might work on getting the patient to identify and alter the thought processes that are causing the fear.
There are some criticisms of the cognitive approach. Human thinking is an invisible process, and therefore cognitive processes are hypothetical constructs. Another important criticism is that biology, genetics, culture, and past experience have not been sufficiently tested as factors in mental processing. In cognitive psychology, human information processing is likened to computers, which perhaps oversimplifies the human mind.