Cognitive revolution

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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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (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.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Kintsch W, Cacioppo JT (1994). "Introduction to the 100th anniversary issue of the Psychological Review" (PDF). Psychological Review. 101: 195–199.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Garfield E. (1985). "Essays of an Information Scientist" (PDF). Current Contents. 8 (20, p. 3–12): 187–196.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Chomsky, N. (1959). "Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner". Language. 35: 26–57.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Thagard, P. (2002). "Cognitive Science". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Waldrop M.M. (2002). The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 139, 140.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Lachman, Roy, Lachman, Janet L. and Butterfield, Earl C. (1979). Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing: An Introduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Roediger, R. (2004). "What happened to behaviorism". American Psychological Society, 17, Presidential Column.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning.
  • Chomsky, N. (1959). A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Language 35(1), pp. 26–58.
  • Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-200334-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mandler, G. (2007) A history of modern experimental psychology: From James and Wundt to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1989). Review of Hull's Principles of Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51, 287–290

Further reading


  • Baars, Bernard J. (1986) The cognitive revolution in psychology Guilford Press, New York, ISBN 0-89862-656-0
  • Gardner, Howard (1986) The mind's new science : a history of the cognitive revolution Basic Books, New York, ISBN 0-465-04634-7; reissued in 1998 with an epilogue by the author: "Cognitive science after 1984" ISBN 0-465-04635-5
  • Johnson, David Martel and Emeling, Christina E. (1997) The future of the cognitive revolution Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-510334-3
  • LePan, Don (1989) The cognitive revolution in Western culture Macmillan, Basingstoke, England, ISBN 0-333-45796-X
  • Murray, David J. (1995) Gestalt psychology and the cognitive revolution Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, ISBN 0-7450-1186-1
  • Olson, David R. (2007) Jerome Bruner: the cognitive revolution in educational theory Continuum, London, ISBN 978-0-8264-8402-4
  • Richardson, Alan and Steen, Francis F. (editors) (2002) Literature and the cognitive revolution Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, being Poetics today 23(1), OCLC 51526573
  • Royer, James M. (2005) The cognitive revolution in educational psychology Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, Connecticut, ISBN 0-8264-8402-6
  • Simon, Herbert A. et al. (1992) Economics, bounded rationality and the cognitive revolution E. Elgar, Aldershot, England, ISBN 1-85278-425-3
  • Todd, James T. and Morris, Edward K. (editors) (1995) Modern perspectives on B. F. Skinner and contemporary behaviorism (Series: Contributions in psychology, no. 28) Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, ISBN 0-313-29601-4


  • Cohen-Cole, Jamie (2005) "The reflexivity of cognitive science: the scientist as model of human nature" History of the Human Sciences 18(4): pp. 107–139
  • Greenwood, John D. (1999) "Understanding the "cognitive revolution" in psychology" Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 35(1): pp. 1–22
  • Miller, George A (2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective". TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 7 (3).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Pinker, Steven (2011) "The Cognitive Revolution" Harvard Gazette