What is the Difference Between Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology?

Last Updated: May 27, 2024

For sixty years, the contrasting philosophies of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology have vied for the soul of psychology.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, behavioral psychology dominated much of psychological thought, but the cognitive revolution of the 1950s revealed cracks in the theories of the radical behaviorists, and cognitive psychology eventually managed to gain the upper hand.

But psychologists from both sides of the spectrum began to realize that both methods have value in treating patients, giving birth to a combined cognitive-behavioral therapy. Most psychologists now use a combination of behavioral and cognitive therapy.

Cognitive Psychology Vs. Behavioral Psychology

Cognitive psychology investigates mental processes like memory, perception, and problem-solving, with emphasizes on internal mental states. On the other hand, behavioral psychology focuses on observable behaviors and the impact of environmental stimuli. It primarily studies external factors shaping behavior through conditioning and reinforcement.

Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology, otherwise known as behaviorism, is based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning, via interaction with the environment.

The original behaviorists claimed that internal states like cognition, emotions and moods were too subjective to give any credence to and that genetics should have no place in psychology; they believed that observable behaviors were the only factors in psychology worth considering.

Conditioning is one of the main themes of behaviorists, and they name two major types of conditioning, classical and operant.

Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov during his famous experiment with dogs. Every time Pavlov fed a dog, he rang a bell. Pavlov then rang the bell without feeding the dog, and the dog salivated at the sound of the bell. Pavlov had conditioned the dog to respond to the bell by salivating. Pavlov’s experiment served as the one of the cornerstones of behaviorism.

The food acted as an unconditioned stimulus to the dog, because food is something that a dog is naturally drawn to. Likewise, the salivation of the dog was an unconditioned response to that stimulus because food naturally causes a dog to salivate. But the sound of a bell doesn’t naturally cause a dog to salivate, so the bell acted as a conditioned stimulus and the salivation at the sound of the bell was a conditioned response.

Behavioral psychology uses this basic principle of conditioning to re-train people who suffer from psychological disorders, by re-training the conditioned responses people have toward specific conditioned stimuli.

Operant conditioning (sometimes called instrumental conditioning) operates through reward (for good behavior) and punishment (for bad behavior).

Therapeutic Techniques in Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral therapy is effective in treating people with phobias or obsessive behaviors. It is also useful in organizational psychology when employees need to be retrained to enhance their performance. Perhaps its most useful purpose is in correcting behavioral problems in children and young adults, particularly in those who are in trouble with the law.

Here are some common techniques used:

Chaining breaks a task down into its component parts and then teaches the simplest component first. Once a component is mastered, the client moves on to the next simplest component until it’s mastered.

Prompting uses visual or verbal prompts to trigger desired responses.

Shaping is the gradual alteration of bad behavior by rewarding any slight betterment of that behavior, gradually pulling that bad behavior toward the desired behavior.

Modeling is learning a new behavior by watching someone do it properly.

Systematic Desensitization is gradually exposing phobic patients to their phobias until they overcome them.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the study of mental functions like learning, attention, memory, reasoning, conceptual development, language acquisition, perception and decision-making. The main focus of cognitive psychology is in researching the acquisition, processing and storing of information in the mind.

Cognitive psychology is primarily concerned with performing laboratory experiments and conducting scientific research, but this research has led to far-reaching applications within the field of psychology. The research on cognition led to the above-mentioned shift in the methodology used in psychotherapy from a strictly behaviorist-based orientation to a more balanced approach that includes cognitive therapy.

Related Reading: How to Become a Cognitive Psychologist

Cognitive psychologists also have had a profound influence on forensic psychology and the court system. Before the 1950s, courts in the US refused to include psychological research as evidence in trials, and psychologists weren’t allowed to testify as expert witnesses. But due to the persistence of cognitive psychologists in presented their research findings to politicians and judges, forensic psychology now plays a major role in the US court systems.

Cognitive psychologists have had a similar influence on the US military. The military formerly didn’t employ psychologists, but in the mid-twentieth century psychologists provided the military with useful research about the military’s hiring practices and the performance of military personnel under adverse environmental conditions (for example, the effects of fatigue and oxygen deprivation upon aviators), and the military now employs psychologists extensively.

Cognitive psychologists have played a major role in modern education. For example, metacognition — a concept created by cognitive psychologists and employed by modern educators — aids students in evaluating their personal knowledge and in applying strategies for improving their knowledge in their weakest school subjects.

Cognitive psychologists have also provided schools with the hierarchical method of organizing information, which has proven to be beneficial in the classroom.

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