Cognitive psychology studies and researches the mental functions, including speech, reasoning, memory, learning, conceptual development, thinking, attention, perception, decision-making, problem-solving and the acquisition of language. The core focus of this discipline is in gaining a better understanding of how people acquire, process and store information, and also how this information affects behavior.
Cognitive psychology is an experimental, researched-based field; the research it provides can aid in many industries, such as engineering, law, medicine and government. The research from cognitive psychology is widely used by other fields within psychology, particularly in social psychology, educational psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology and developmental psychology.
Some of the specific benefits that can be or have already been derived from cognitive psychological research include:
- Developing better techniques for improving memory
- Enhancing decision-making abilities
- Designing better educational curricula
- Developing better treatments for amnesia, reading disorders, learning disorders and many other similar conditions
- Developing better pharmaceuticals
- Designing better systems for learning languages
- Designing human factors
Cognitive psychology is similar to cognitive science. One of the main differences between them is that cognitive psychologists are primarily interested in learning about humans, so they use humans for test subjects more often than cognitive scientists do. Cognitive scientists mostly use mice and rats in their experiments, which allows them to perform a lot of experiments that would be unethical in humans. Many cognitive scientists are deeply involved in creating artificial intelligence.
Related: How to Become a Cognitive Psychologist
The research of cognitive psychologists can be complicated. As an example, here are some of the topics just on the subject of memory alone:
- Long-term and short-term memory
- Working memory
- Spaced repetition
- False memories
- Eye-witness memory
- Episodic memory
- Childhood memory
- Emotion and memory
- List of memory biases
- Autobiographical memory
- Constructive memory
Types of Degrees
Most cognitive psychology students start with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology or, where available, in cognitive psychology. Students need to take a variety of lab classes, preferably in pertinent areas like biology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anatomy and physiology.
Here are some samples of suggested classes for students of cognitive psychology:
- Experimental psychology
- Human psychophysiology
- Physiological psychology
- Cognition and learning
- Language and conceptual development
- Logic of perception
- Computational perception
- Cognitive processes
- Sensation and perception
- Psychological research
- Research methods
- Learning and motivation
- Language processing lab
- Psycholinguistics lab
- Psychology of judgment and decision
- Cognitive neuroscience of vision
- Concepts of intelligence
- Cognitive development in infancy
- Psychology of sleep
- Engineering psychology
Nearly all jobs in cognitive psychology call for at least a master’s degree, and most require a doctoral degree. A master’s degree is required for most research assistants, but most full-fledged researchers need a doctorate.
The preferred doctorate is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree, which offers more research experience than a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. The Doctor of Education (EdD) degree is mostly intended for teachers.
Master’s programs in cognitive psychology are relatively easy to find, and some schools offer combined programs that include both a master’s and a doctoral degree, which decreases the amount of time students spend in school.
Here is a small sampling of the types of research that a university might include in a master’s degree cognitive psychology program:
- Language acquisition and sentence processing
- Speech perception
- Forgetting in short and long-term memory
- The nature of retrieval from memory
- The mechanisms of visual and auditory imagery
- Information processing in decision-making
- Categorization and conceptual representation
- Analysis of choice behavior
- Visual perception
- Stages of sensory information processing
- The focus of attention
- The control of the memorial system
- Shared cognitive processing
Cognitive psychologists typically work in universities, private research institutions or governmental agencies. Cognitive psychologists generally work on research projects most of the time, though those who work for universities often also teach part-time. Some cognitive psychologists go into consulting work for private companies or governmental agencies.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics site has reported that the median annual wage for cognitive psychologists (listed under “psychologists, other”) was $88,400 for the year 2012, while the mean hourly wage was $42.50.