Part A - Introduction

Cognitive Psychology

Introduce linguistics and cognitive science
Set the stage for the cognitive revolution in psychology and the rise of cognitive psychology

"What is a typewriter?" my six-year old daughter asked. I hesitated. Well it's like a computer." I began. (Grudin, 2008)

Linguistics | Psychology | Cognitive Psychology | Exercises

With the rise of science and its stress on experimental verification or falsification, the discipline of psychology took much of the work on understanding cognition under its own auspices.  Then later with the advent of computer science, the discipline of cognitive psychology gained its own footing as an independent field. 

As psychologists developed the experimental science of the mind, philosophers of the mind re-focused their attention to the study of language used in describing the concepts themselves.  Many adopted the position that the problems of philosophy can only be solved by studying the languages that we use rather than by studying consciousness directly.  This turn towards language in the history of philosophy is known as the linguistic turn

In this chapter, we describe a related development in the field of linguistics, review the prehistory of cognitive psychology in terms of the major positions adopted by different psychologists, and conclude with a description of some of the views currently held.  This background information provides the context for evaluating and situating the diverse topics introduced in later chapters. 

Linguistics and Cognitive Science

Linguistics studies the structure of language.  Here is a 3-minute video describing the importance of language in understanding humans. 

One of the important areas of research in linguistics is what, if anything, is universal in language.  In the generative theory of linguistics, the collection of fundamental properties that all human languages share is referred to as the universal grammar.  This idea originates in the work of Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky (1928-present) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political activist who worked in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT.  He is a major figure in the Analytical tradition of philosophy.  He has published over 100 books and is considered the most cited living author. 

Why does a child learn the language that it does? How can a child from non-English speaking parents set down in an English speaking town learn perfect English?  Despite limited input, the child learns the language perfectly.  The theory is that the child must possess some innate grammatical rules.  Some evidence does suggest that human linguistic ability is narrowly constrained by biological factors, which immediately leads us to the conclusion that all human languages share some common fundamental features. 

The general claim here is that everyone possesses a wealth of knowledge before gaining any experience.  For instance, our biologically produced visual system makes many of our visual experiences possible.  The workings of our auditory system enable our refined perception of sound.  The neurological structures in our brains that house our long-term memory appear to be biologically pre-wired. 

Of course, this does not mean that experience is not relevant.  Our neurological structures do require environmental inputs to flourish and to develop. 

The theory that a universal grammar exists has developed into the Principles and Parameters View of Linguistics.  The existence of a universal grammar is attributed to an evolutionary mutation in the human species over 100,000 years ago.  In this view, there is a set of principles that remain fixed and a small set of parameters that are open to selection. 

Here is Noam Chomsky's informal talk on the Universal Grammar (the first part of this talk is about grammar, the second part is about American politics).


Critics of universal grammar argue that it is too vague to be falsifiable and hence is not a proper scientific theory. 

Innateness and Nativism

Universal grammar is an example of nativism as it applies to linguistics.  Nativism is the view that there does indeed exist something innate.  It is a type of rationalism that opposes the blank slate view of empiricism.  If nativism exists, how does it influence our design of interfaces?  These are open and unanswered questions!

Cognitive scientists who support nativism to some degree include:

Jerry Fodor

Jerry Fodor (1935-present) is an American philosopher and cognitive scientist of the Analytic school of philosophy.  He holds that beliefs and desires are relations between individuals and mental representations.  He views thinking as computations operating on the syntax of the representations that make up the language of thought.  He developed a modular model of the mind. 

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker (1954-present) is a Canadian-American experiment psychologist, cognitive scientist, and linguist who works at Harvard University. 

Pinker advocates evolutionary psychology and a computational theory of mind.  He has studied the neural basis of words and grammar.

Here is Pinker's 20 minute video on his book: The Blank Slate.

Pinker disagrees with Chomsky in viewing language as a by-product of other adaptations.  Pinker believes that language is an instinct of biological adaptation shaped by natural selection.

Here is a 7 minute video describing his admiration and disagreements with Noam Chomsky's views.  Here is the 9 minute follow-up video.


Psychology branched from philosophy into an independent discipline in the nineteenth century.  Psychology studies the mind and behavior scientifically, that is, through experimental methods.  Important contributors have included:


Wilhelm Wundt (1831-1920) was a German physician and psychologist who performed experiments to identify mental disorders and find damaged parts of the brain.  He is considered the father of experimental psychology.

Wundt held that components of consciousness combine to form experiences that are more complex.  He hypothesized that the mental sentence, or inner psychological construction, determines the unfolding sentence, and should therefore be regarded as a unit of speech.


William James (1842-1910) was an American psychologist and philosopher who trained as a physician. 

James held that no value is added to explanations of natural phenomena by supernatural beliefs.  He held that associationism is too simple, since there is nothing from within that is creating our ideas.  Instead, we should use whatever parts of theories make the most sense and can be proven.  The mind adapts to the current environment and truth is a good that we can ride into the future.


Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian physiologist who abandonned religious studies in favor of natural science.  He investigated the gastric function of dogs to find that the dogs tended to salivate before the food was delivered to them and set out to investigate this psychic secretion.  He developed the idea of the conditioned reflex.  The phrase "Pavlov's dog" is often used to refer to someone who simply reacts without any thought.


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist who worked at the University of Vienna.  Freud developed the field of psychoanalysis, a theory of the unconscious mind, and the concept of transference.  Freud divided the mind into the conscious ego and the unconscious id and the superego.  The id is instinctive, while the superego aims for perfection, punishing misbehavior with feelings of guilt. 


John B. Watson (1878-1958) was an American psychologist who worked in advertising until the age of 65 after being fired from Johns Hopkins University in 1920.  He established the school of behaviorism which is considered a direct historical descendant of British empiricism.  He held that parents could condition a child's behavior simply by controlling sets of stimulus-response associations.

Watson rejected introspective methods outright and advocated no recourse to hypothetical constructs such as the mind.  For Watson, psychology should stick to observable behavior.


Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) was a Czech born psychologist who taught at the University of Frankfurt from 1929 to 1933 and the New School in New York thereafter.  He developed the Gestalt theory of psychology with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler as an alternative to behaviorism.  Gestalt theory views the brain as holistic with self-organizing tendencies.  Our perceptions and understandings of things come about by an active organization of stimuli into a coherent whole.  Gestaltists says that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

Gestalt laws have direct application in HCI, particularly in user interface design.  Gestalt psychology is also being used in developing computer vision that simulates what humans see. 


Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher who worked in Geneva.  He studied the development of knowledge in children and was the father of genetic epistemology.  He was the Director of the International Bureau of Education for 39 years.  Piaget is responsible for the constructivist theory of knowing. 

Constructivism is a learning theory that holds that humans construct knowledge from an interaction of their experiences and their ideas.  They use both assimilation and accommodation.  They assimilate new experiences into an existing framework without changing it.  They reframe or accommodate their mental representations to fit the new experiences. 


Burrhus F. Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist who worked at the University of Minnesota, Indiana University, and Harvard University.  He developed the school of radical behaviorism, which proposes that all organismic action is determined and not free and rejects deductive methods and theory construction about unobservable and unmeasureable entities (such as the mind).  He developed schedules of reinforcement for operant conditioning and held that behavior is primarily a function of an environmental history of reinforcement.

Cognitive Science

Until the mid-20th century, behaviorism and psychoanalysis dominated psychology.  Around the 1950s scholars from various areas of study - linguistics, computer science, and developmental psychology focused common interests of the structure and process of cognitive abilities.  This focus represented a direct challenge to the dominance of behaviorism in psychology.  Noam Chomsky held that the brain has a language acquisition device that the stimulus-response theory of behaviorism cannot explain.  Piaget identified different stages of cognitive development in children that behaviorism could not explain.  Computer scientists proposed the modelling of brain processing based on the way that information is processed by computers.  Taken together these advances represented a new field that came to be known as cognitive science. 

The field of cognitive science fostered in the cognitive revolution.  This revolution displaced the dominance of behaviorism by making way for the introduction of a new tradition in psychology called cognitive psychology and the introduction of a new field called cognitive neuroscience that provides physiological evidence of brain states to support models of cognition. 

Here is Dr. Harman's video about the The decline of Behaviorism

Today, cognitive science is a multi-disciplinary field that borrows from philosophy, linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and neuroscience. 

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology expanded the scope of psychology beyond behaviorism and psychoanalysis between the 1950s and 1970s to incorporate the study of internal mental processes.  Cognitive psychology investigates internal mental processes through results founded on scientific methods and based on measurement. 

Cognitive psychology, like behaviorism accepts the use of the scientific method and rejects introspection.  Unlike behaviorism, it models internal mental states (belief, desire, motivation).  The topics that cognitive psychology investigates include:

  • thinking, memory, and emotions
    • thinking
      • concept formation
      • logic and formal reasoning
      • problem solving
      • decision making
    • memory
      • long-term memory
      • working memory
    • emotions
  • perception
    • psychophysics
      • vision
      • hearing
      • touch
      • the nervous system
    • attention
    • pattern recognition
    • time sensation
  • language
    • grammar and linguistics
    • phonetics and phonology
    • language acquisition
  • numerical cognition
  • knowledge representation

Here is Dr. Harman's video about the The cognitive revolution

Computer Science

The field of computer science provided a novel platform for modeling the human mind and has always been an important contributor to cognitive psychology.

In their classic book, The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction, Card, Moran and Newell (1983) proposed describing a human in terms of a human model information processor.  Their simplified representation of actual mental processing identifies three subsystems:

  • the perceptual system
  • the motor system
  • the cognitive system

Each system has its own processor and its own memory.  The system follow specific principles of operation. 

Artificial Intelligence

The sub-field of artificial intelligence works towards simulation of human thinking in robots. 

Here is a video about the STAR robot at Stanford University. 

Human Factors Psychology

Human factors psychology is applied cognitive psychology.  It combines cognitive psychology with usability.  Human factors psychology focuses on ergonomics, human capabilities, and human limitations.  It applies the principles of cognitive psychology to the design of workplace environments and and the creation of tools. 


  • Steven Pinker's talk on the Decline of Violence provides an interesting perspective on the importance of understanding ourselves through others here
  • Jeff Hawkins' talk on Brain theory