Cognitive Theory: History, Strength and Weaknesses


Behavioral, traits, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and humanistic theories are important in psychology. Psychologists use them to explain people’s behavior and even their personalities. Thus, through them, one can understand why people behave in a unique manner when compared to others. Cognitive psychology involves studying people’s thinking process. Plato and René Descartes are accredited for having set forth the earliest attempts to theorize the human mind, which constitutes a major concern in cognitive psychology. However, discoveries on language comprehension and its production, followed by AI (Artificial Intelligence) and information theory give rise to the formal acknowledgment of cognitive psychology as an area of research. Nevertheless, the term cognitive psychology never appeared in psychological literature until 1967 after the publication of the book Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser. Despite its weakness, the cognitive theory finds applications in resolving problems that are encountered in developmental, social, and abnormal psychology.


Psychology deploys various theories to advance its premises or explain certain phenomena. The discipline encompasses the scientific study of behavior and the mind. It is a multifaceted field that involves the study of health, study of cognitive processes, social behavior, and human development among other disciplines. Psychology is a science that endeavors to find out the causes of certain behaviors. The process of evaluating the cause of the behaviors is done using observations, analysis, and measurement techniques. Predictions and explanations are then deployed to interpret the observations. Hence, psychology can be deployed to provide an explanation to almost all phenomena in the society through the application of different theories such as behavioral, psychoanalytic, trait, and cognitive presumptions. This paper discusses the history of cognitive theory, psychological problems that it is well adapted to solve, and its strengths and weaknesses.

History of the Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory investigates the issue of human behavior by studying people’s thought processes. It holds a major premise that people’s contemplation processes primarily determine their conduct and emotions (Smith, 2001). The ideas of human mind and thinking processes have existed since the times of ancient Greek renowned philosophers, namely René Descartes and Plato. For example, in 387BC, Plato argued that the brain accommodated various psychological processes (Mansell, 2004).

In 1637, René Descartes observed how people possess instinctive ideas right from birth. He proposed the concept of dualism between the body and mind, which he later termed as material dualism (Mansell, 2004). The concept considered the body and mind two dissimilar substances. This revelation gave rise to philosophical debates of empiricism and nativism. Earliest contributors of the discussion on empiricism included John Lock and Gorge Berkeley while Immanuel Kant contributed to the Nativism school of thought (Conti-Ramsden & Durkin, 2012).

The mid-18th century marked a time of initial stages of the emergence of the scientific discipline of psychology. Carl Wernicke and Paul Broca’s discoveries played an essential role in the emergence of cognitive psychology. Carl Wernicke discovered the section of the brain that is largely attributed to language comprehension. Paul Broca discovered the part in the brain that is charged language production in people. In the course of the 18th century, computer Science developments, World War II, and cognitive revolution shaped the cognitive theory to comprise an important formal psychological discipline.

Following the development of technologies that were witnessed after the Second World War, there emerged a need for understanding the best mechanisms for training people to enhance their performance through the developments. Another major concern was on how to induce people’s attention during military confrontations (Chica, Bartolomeo, & Lupiáñez, 2013). One way of addressing this challenge involved utilizing insights provided by the then widely recognized school of behavioral psychology.

However, the school of had little to offer in the face of new challenges that faced the military personnel during the war. Nevertheless, Donald Broadbent had attempted to amalgamate various concepts of people’s performance with newly the introduced theory of information (Conti-Ramsden & Durkin, 2012). Donald’s work set forth a way forward for addressing the challenges that could not be ardently resolved through the behavioral theory.

New developments in computer science had impacts of relating the performance of computers with the mind of people. Parallels made between the ability of computers to perform calculations and the functionality of the human brain formed an insight for the emergence of new insights on psychological thoughts and thinking processes (Smith, 2001). The development of AI (Artificial Intelligence) then followed, courtesy of Herbert Simon and his colleague Allen Newell. The scholars then collaborated with psychologists in the discipline of cognitive psychology in developing arguments on the implication of the newly developed concepts of AI.

According to Chica et al. (2013), AI had the implication of conceptualizing various mental functionalities as compared to the parallels of computer, including information recovery, statistics storage, and memory. The hallmark of these events was a 1959 Noam Chomsky’s critique of the behavioral psychological theory. The critique, particularly relating to empiricism, is referred as the cognitive revolution.

The first usage of the term cognitive psychology appeared in the work of Ulric Neisser in 1967. His definition of psychology in the book Cognitive Psychology reflects the advancement of people’s cognitive processes. Mandler (2002) quotes Ulric Neisser who defined the term cognition as “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used” (p.339). This definition relates to the parallelism drawn from functionalities of computers. From the definition, it is clear that mental conditions entail all things, which people may do or imagine. However, it is important to note that despite the concerns of cognitive theory on all things that people do, the hypothesis has specific viewpoints, including motive, as opposed to sensory inputs.

Problems solved by Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory finds application in solving various problems in social, developmental, and abnormal psychology. The fundamental idea advanced by the cognitive theory entails the manner in which people think and/or how such thinking influences their self-perception and the discernment of other people. It also suggests that people’s ways of thinking influences their behavior and emotions (Chica et al., 2013). This influence provides an opportunity for its application in abnormal psychology. Indeed, after the cognitive revolution and the breakthrough of various concepts that guided studies in cognitive psychology, cognitive therapy emerged.

Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are the key cognitivists who applied cognitive speculation as a means of healing. For example, Beck is accredited for developing Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) methodologies to evaluate the functionalities of people. To this extent, cognitive theory acts as a therapeutic technique for solving problems of anxiety and depression either when administered wholly or in conjunction with antidepressants.

Ellis and Beck consider the cognitive premise a tool that yields positive results in addressing problems that are associated with negative components of one’s personality. This view arises from the assertion that cognitions predetermine behaviors and emotions. Consequently, by changing people’s cognition, it also becomes possible to alter their feelings and behaviors. Researches such as Conti-Ramsden and Durkin (2012) and Chica et al. (2013) agree with this line of thinking that cognitive theory is applied in treating anxiety disorders, anger management, depressive disorders, and interpersonal problems. Indeed, Spirito, Wolf, and Uhl (2011) suggest that the utilization of cognitive theory in conjunction with behavioral aspects (cognitive-behavioral therapy) yields long-lasting effects in the treatment of depression in comparison with medication interventions.

Cognitive theory is best suited in addressing problems that are encountered in social and developmental psychology. Social psychology involves studying people’s intellectual processes, especially recognition, ways of thinking to attach sense to different people within a society, and recollection (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1999). In the development of various models for social information processing, cognitive theory constitutes an important presumption for addressing problems of antagonism and anti-social conducts (Bandura et al., 1999). In the developmental psychology, the theory of mind considers the capacity of people to understand and attribute certain cognitions to other people who surround them. Therefore, cognitive theory finds application in developmental psychology in addressing challenges of relationship formation among children, especially those between 4 and 6 years, due to their unclear understanding of how other people feel and think about them.

Cognitive theory is applicable in many social problems like despair and suicidal intents while combined with other behavioral aspects that comprise the cognitive-behavioral theory (CBT). CBT intervention for the suicidal behaviors among adolescents emphasizes two approaches. With regard to Spirito et al. (2011), “the behavioral component of treatment for depression emphasizes various skill deficits in the domains of coping skills, interpersonal relationships, social problem-solving, and participation in pleasant activities” (p.194). The cognitive facet embraces the process of identifying and challenging the adolescents’ schema-cognitive distortion and processes of automatic thoughts.

Consistent with the concerns of behavioral and cognitive facets of CBT, Spirito et al. (2011) assert that CBT that is meant for adolescents incorporates aspects of lagging behavioral abilities and cognitive skills. The dual skills and abilities help in the creation and maintenance of supporting relationships and emotion regulation. Therefore, adolescents who seek psychological interventions to suicidal behavior problems will be admitted with slowed and lagging capacity to make appropriate choices to enhance the cognitions of the repercussions of engaging in suicidal ideations and attempts. Therefore, before administering the CBT, it is critical for the state of mind of the patient to be maintained such that he or she does not have lagging behavioral and cognitive skills.

Strengths of the Cognitive Theory

The application of cognitive psychology, especially in treatment, provides the evidence of its strength. For example, cognitive therapy successfully alters patients’ thought processes by providing relief to mental illnesses. Mansell (2004) reveals how patients who are treated using cognitive therapy achieve better results compared to when they are treated with alternative psychological therapeutic models. The positive results are also apparent in the case for anxiety disorders and problems of impulse controls (Conti-Ramsden & Durkin, 2012).

Cognitive theory receives support from studies on mental illnesses. For example, consistent with the theory, Chica et al. (2013) assert that people who have mental illnesses experience defective thinking processes. In fact, people who have eating disorders exhibit cyclic thoughts about foods. Unlike medicinal interventions, the cognitive theory calls upon patients to take control of the treatment process through the appropriate changes in their thinking processes. Consequently, patients are likely to have long-term solutions to psychological problems. Cognitive theory helps in addressing the root of the problems. This approach opposes the issue of focusing only on illness treatment without preventing any possible reoccurrence.

Weaknesses of the Cognitive Theory

Despite the cognitive theory having the above strengths, it has some weaknesses. It presumes that cognitive thoughts do not indicate symptoms of illness. Can the symptoms cause the poor health? Therefore, irrespective of the existence of evidence that people who have a psychological disorder exhibit faulty thinking processes, the theory does not provide mechanisms for knowing whether the thinking patterns are the root of the identified disorder or whether the disorder is the cause of the defective thoughts. The theory does not succinctly define its major premises and concepts. Its underlying facets of personality are also weakly developed, despite the positive implication for treating anxiety and depressive disorders.


The arguments advanced by cognitive theory may be traced from the work of Plato and René Descartes. However, developments such as the Second World War, the AI and cognitive revolution led to its formal theorizing. The theory finds applications in abnormal, developmental, and social psychology. The theory’s most significant application has been in solving problems in anomalous psychology, including nervousness disorders and depressive disarray. It has also been applied in the correction of negative behaviors through CBT. Although studies offer evidence that strongly supports the theory in yielding better outcomes of people who undergo cognitive therapy, the theory has weaknesses such as the inability to differentiate whether faulty thoughts are the causes of illnesses.

Reference List

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, A. (1999). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575–582.

Chica, A., Bartolomeo, P., & Lupiáñez, J. (2013). Two cognitive and neural systems for endogenous and exogenous spatial attention. Behavioral Brain Research, 23(7), 107-123.

Conti-Ramsden, G., & Durkin, K. (2012). Language development and assessment in the preschool period. Neuropsychology Review, 22(4), 384–401.

Mandler, G. (2002). Origins of the cognitive revolution. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 38(1), 339-353.

Mansell, W. (2004). Cognitive Psychology and Anxiety. Psychiatry, 3(4), 6–10.

Smith, E. (2001). Cognitive Psychology: History. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavior Sciences, 1(1), 2140-2147.

Spirito, A., Wolf J., & Uhl, C. (2011). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adolescent Depression and Suicidality. Journal of American Academic Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(2), 191-204.

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