The Cognitive Approach

The Cognitive Approach

The assumption of the cognitive approach is that the mind operates in a similar way to how a computer processes information. This processing takes place in the form of thoughts, and uses cognitive ‘models’. These cognitions include things like memory, perception and problem-solving, and can be studied indirectly through experiments.

Theoretical and computer models: Theoretical models suggest that the mind processes information in a systematic way, for example the multi-store model of memory. Computer models suggest that the mind works like a computer, turning information into a format in which it can be stored (coding).

Schema: Schemas are packages of information relating to various concepts to do with the way the world works. People have schemas relating to all sorts of things, for example gender behaviours, eating, catching the bus, and so on. These develop through experience, starting as very basic in infanthood and getting more complex as the brain develops and more knowledge is gained. Schemas are like mental ‘short cuts’ to help humans make sense of the world more easily. They are useful for this, but can lead to distortions if a person’s expectations do not match up with the reality of what they have seen/experienced.

Cognitive Neuroscience

The Cognitive Approach, figure 1

This refers to the study of how brain structures and biology affect mental processes. Specific brain areas have been found to be associated with particular actions, moods and emotions, which has been tested through brain-scanning techniques. For example, an area of the frontal lobe (Broca’s Area) has been linked with speech production. Specific areas of the brain are active when dealing with different types of memory, and areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus are linked with OCD. This suggests that aspects of people’s though processes have a physical basis.


  • The cognitive approach uses controlled, rigorous scientific procedures, enhancing the credibility of the theories.
  • Cognitive approaches have been criticised for reducing human personality and behaviour to the level of a computer, neglecting the role of emotion on actions. This is known as machine reductionism, and is a problem was it does not recognise how much more complex humans are than machines.
  • Many concepts in this approach are hard to test, as it considers internal mental processes, which cannot be directly measured. This means it is hard to know how accurate the explanations actually are.

The Biological Approach

This approach assumes that all psychological aspects of a person (their behaviour, personality) has a physical cause located somewhere in the body. This may be determined by genes, biochemistry (levels of hormones and neurotransmitters) and neuroanatomy (brain structure).

Genetics: Twin studies are used to investigate whether personality characteristics are inherited in the same way as physical features. If monozygotic (MZ- identical) twins are found to be more similar in regards to a particular trait than dizygotic (DZ- non-identical) twins, this suggests a genetic influence, as both sets of twins would share an environment but MZs would share 100% of genes, compared to 50% on average for DZs. This rate of similarity is known as a concordance rate.

Genotype and phenotype: Genotype is the particular set of genes a person inherits. Phenotype is the characteristics of an individual, which will be affected by genes and the environment. For example, MZ twins have the same genotype, but will lead different lifestyles, leading to changes in physical appearance and perhaps personality.

The Cognitive Approach, figure 1

Evolution: The process of natural selection explains how changes in an organism happen over time. If a characteristic is helpful to survival (for example, results in better access to food or a greater mate choice/opportunity to mate) then this characteristic becomes ‘naturally selected’, and is passed down to the animal’s offspring. Over time, these characteristics are shared by all of a species, as those animals not suited to their environments die out. This is true for behaviour as well as physical characteristics, for example the preference in males for youthfulness and physical attractiveness in a female partner means that they are more likely to have healthy offspring, to that preference becomes naturally selected.


  • The biological approach uses highly scientific methods, such as brain scans and twin studies, which are much less prone to bias than methods such as interviews. Therefore, the assumptions of the biological approach are supported by strong evidence.
  • The approach has resulted in the development of effective drug therapies for many psychological disorders, helping sufferers live a more normal life. Therefore, the approach has very useful practical benefits.
  • This approach is highly determinist, suggesting that there is little or no free will over behaviour. This could have serious consequences, for example for criminal responsibility, as it could be claimed that a person is not responsible for their actions in committing a serious crime. The criminal justice system does assume that people are able to exercise free will over their behaviour.

The Psychodynamic Approach

The assumption of the psychodynamic approach (the work of Sigmund Freud) is that behaviour can be explained by unconscious thoughts and motivations, and the effect of childhood experiences in shaping personality.

The unconscious: Freud proposed that conscious awareness only makes up a small proportion of the mind. The rest is made up of the unconscious- desires and drives that we are not aware of. Behaviour is motivated by unconscious drives and conflicts between different elements of the personality. The ‘preconscious’ is the part of the mind just below conscious awareness. This is revealed through dreams, which can be interpreted as representing an unconscious conflict which hasn’t been resolved, or a desire that hasn’t been satisfied. This is also shown through ‘Freudian slips’, which seem like mistakes, but are actually insights into desires we are not aware of. Accidentally calling a teacher ‘mum’ instead of ‘miss’ could be interpreted as the student seeing the teacher as a substitute parent figure in their unconscious.

The Cognitive Approach, figure 1

Structure of personality: Freud suggested that there are three ‘parts’ to everyone’s personality, so it is ‘tripartite’. These are:

  • Id: Present from birth, this is the ‘pleasure principle’, as it is selfish, motivated by primitive drives (sex and aggression) and demands instant gratification. It is the ‘devil on your shoulder’.
  • Ego: This develops at around two years of age, and is the ‘reality principle’. It works to reduce the conflicting demands of the id and superego, and recognises that instant satisfaction of needs is not possible. The ego uses tactics to balance the demands of the other two parts of the personality- these are defence mechanisms. These include repression (pushing unpleasant thoughts down into the unconscious mind), denial (refusing to accept the reality of the situation) and displacement (transferring unpleasant or undesirable thoughts from one source to another).
  • Superego: This develops at around five years of age, and is the ‘morality principle’. It is the internalised standards of right and wrong, and represents perfect moral behaviour. It is the ‘angel on your shoulder’.

Psychosexual stages: Freud claimed that children go through stages of development, where the id’s psychic energy is focused on a particular part of the body, so children gain pleasure from using that part of the body. Children progress through the stages, but may become fixated on a particular stage if they are over or under-indulged at that stage. This leads to possible problems in later life. The stages are:

  1. Oral (0-18 months): id energy focused on mouth, pleasure gained from sucking, chewing, biting and so on. Fixation could lead to smoking, chewing gum, a sarcastic and critical personality…
  2. Anal (18 months-3 years): id energy focused on anus, pleasure gained from withholding and expelling faeces. Fixation could lead to anal retentive (overly neat, organised and uptight) or anal expulsive (thoughtless and disorganised)
  3. Phallic (3-5 years): id energy focused on genitals. The child experiences Oedipus (boys) or Electra (girls) complex, where a sexual desire develops for the opposite-sex parent and the child identifies with the same-sex parents to reduce the resulting anxiety and resolve the complex. Fixation could lead to the phallic personality which is reckless and self-obsessed.
  4. Latency (5 years-puberty): id energy is dormant.
  5. Genital (puberty onwards): id energy focused on genitals, pleasure gained from sexual practices. Fixation could lead to difficulty forming heterosexual relationships.


  • Freud’s ideas have had a huge influence on psychology, and concepts such as the unconscious are accepted as true today. This shows the value of his ideas in explaining personality.
  • Freud’s theories were based on case studies of individuals, which were very subjective- Freud himself used his patients as evidence, and other cases were reported to him by his supporters. This evidence may be unreliable and invalid, so weakening the theory.
  • Much of Freud’s theory cannot be directly tested, for example unconscious conflicts, the psychosexual stages, the role or repression and so on. This makes the theory unscientific, as the concepts cannot be falsified.