AP Psychology Study Resource: Cognitive Learning

Cognitive learning theory can be broken down into two specific branches: social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioral theory.

Both concepts consider the brain to be an information processor and concentrate on how we learn and the specific processes that are going on in the brain when we learn.

What Is Cognitive Learning Theory?

cognitive theory

In psychology, cognitive learning involves studying perception, memory, attention and focus, language, problem-solving and learning. Its focus is thinking.

In 1948, an American Psychologist, Edward Tolman challenged the behaviorist theories that were dominant at the time that stated our thought processes were governed by our environment.

Tolman believed that the brains of people, and animals, worked as information processors much like our present-day computers. He gave us the term cognitive map to describe the process of taking external stimuli and internalizing it to form a mental image in our minds.

He also further developed the theory of latent learning, which is learning that is not displayed at the time of teaching but is visible at a later point.

Tolman’s Work with C.H. Honzik

Tolman and Honzik conducted experiments with rats placed in mazes to prove Tolman’s theory of latent learning. They created three groups with the rats and gave one group a reward (food) when the rats reached the end of the maze.

The rats in the second group were given delayed rewards: for the first 10 days when they reached the end of the maze, they were taken out. From day 11 through to day 17, when they reached the end of the maze, they were given a reward.

The rats in the third group were never given rewards but were taken out of the maze when they reached the end.

Their results found that the second group of rats – those that received delayed rewards – formed a cognitive map of the maze from day 11 through to 17, because they had a goal (reward) to aim for. During days one to ten, they took longer to reach the end of the maze.

This proved that during the second part of the experiment, the rats were actively processing the information they had gathered during the first part of the experiment to get to the end of the maze, and receive the reward, quicker.

The Brain as a Computer

Brain as a Computer

The computer analogy is the term the cognitive psychologists use to compare the human brain to a computer’s processing system. This information processing approach works with the following assumptions.

  • Environmental information is processed in the brain by a series of processing systems. We know these systems as attention and focus, perception, and short-term memory.
  • The brain’s processing systems alter the environmental information.
  • Cognitive learning research is conducted to better understand the processes that drive our cognitive performance.
  • Our brain’s information processing systems work in the same way as a computer’s processing systems. Studying how a computer works will help us to understand how our brains work.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is comprised of three variables: behavioral, environmental or extrinsic, and personal or intrinsic factors. Learning occurs when these three factors interact with each other in certain ways.

  • Personal-environmental – our beliefs, ideas and thought processes can be modified by our parents’ influence, stressful environments, and even the climate we live in.
  • Personal-behavioral – our thought processes affect our behavior and our behavior can affect the way we think.
  • Environmental-behavioral – the way we display our behavior can be affected by our environment and our behavior can alter our environment.

The above model emphasizes that if we are to learn we need positive personal traits, a supportive environment and we need to display appropriate behavior. It also suggests that our learning occurs when we compare past experiences with our current situation.

The Basic Concepts of Social Cognitive Theory

These basic concepts apply to adults, infants, children, and adolescents.

    • Observational learning – we learn by watching others and mimicking their behavior.
    • Reproduction – putting people in a comfortable environment, with all the tools and materials they need, will help them to retain, recall, and reproduce behavior.
    • Self-efficacy – the learner takes what he has learned and then improves it by practicing and using the learned the information.
    • Emotional coping mechanisms – people who can manage negative emotions well and deal effectively with stress are in the best position to learn new information.
  • Behavior regulation – learning is affected by a person’s ability to control their own behavior, particularly in a stressful environment.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Cognitive Behavioral Theory, developed by Aaron Beck, states that a person’s behavior is determined by their thoughts and that their thoughts can be affected by their environment. Beck used the cognitive triad to explain his theory.

Beck termed the Cognitive Triad, also known as the negative triad, to describe the interaction between negative thoughts about the self, the world, and the future. These elements are commonly found in people experiencing depression and are often considered to be automatic responses for sufferers.

Beck believed that the interaction of these three components, alter a person’s cognitive processing to the point that memory, problem-solving, and perception become obsessively negative.

Negative Self-schemas and Cognitive Distortions

According to Beck, negative self-schemas develop when a child is exposed to traumatic experiences such as the death of a parent or sibling, parental neglect, abuse, criticism, and/or overprotection, and bullying or exclusion from peer groups. These experiences lead the brain to form a schema that is negative and pessimistic which is carried into adulthood.

Cognitive distortions develop because of negative self-schemas and Beck believed that people suffering from depression had adopted the following illogical thinking processes.

  • Arbitrary interference – this is the process of drawing conclusions without evidence. For example, a person may think they are worthless if an outdoor event they were going to was cancelled due to bad weather.
  • Selective abstraction – this can be described as a person focusing on one aspect of a situation and not seeing the bigger picture. An example of this would be a person blaming themselves for the failure of a team effort.
  • Magnification or catastrophizing – making a mountain out of a molehill. If a person makes a small mistake in performing a task, they assume they are completely useless at all related tasks.
  • Minimization – a person may be praised for something but shrugs it off as nothing. It’s an inability to see your own skills and talents.
  • Personalization – this is when a person assumes that the negative feelings of others are their fault, despite having no evidence that points to this.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cognitive Behavior and Learning

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cognitive Behavior and Learning

Cognitive learning theories are easy for us to understand. We know that our cognitive abilities make things happen such as advances in science and technology, therefore it makes sense that negative cognitive learning will increase negative situations.

Cognitive theories can be tested with appropriately designed experiments with real human participants although the ethics of these experiments need to be closely monitored. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for depression as it involves challenging negative self-schemas. It has also been effective for helping people with mild to moderate anxiety.

Further study needs to be conducted to determine whether cognitive distortions cause psychopathology or if they are a result of it. Cognitive theories are also limited in what they cover as there is much more to a person than just their thoughts.

Cognitive psychologists are often focused on research to find cures for such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Depression. Other psychologists treat patients directly with cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on changing the self-schemas that people have developed, often from childhood.

As technology continues to develop and computers become more advanced than we ever imagined, it’s reasonable to assume that our understanding of our brain’s informational processes will advance in tandem.

When you consider how much we have learned since 1948, when Edward Tolman challenged the behaviorists belief that we are the passive receivers of outside information, the future of cognitive learning research looks brighter.

We now know that we use far more than 10% of our brain, but there are still more secrets of cognitive learning and our brains informational processes that we haven’t uncovered yet.