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Cognitive Psychology: Scientists Contributions Essay

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2020

Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner is the scientist credited with laying a foundation for the introduction of cognitive psychology. Before his groundbreaking work in psychophysics, it was presumed that the scientific investigation of the mind was an impossible undertaking. However, Fechner was able to engage in a number of scientific experiments that measured the relations between objective changes in physical stimuli and subjective changes in the internal sensations the stimuli generate (Keil & Wilson, 2001). Fechner’s systematic experiments provided proof that mental events could be measured and their relationship with physical events quantified. As such, scientific psychology, which until then had not been possible, could be carried out.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wundt’s published the groundbreaking book “Principles of Physiological Psychology” in 1879 and he was the first person to refer to psychology as a unique field of study. He established the first laboratory dedicated to the study of psychology. Through this lab, Wundt was able to come up with well-defined experimental procedures in psychological research (Sternberg, 2008).

In addition to this, Wundt introduced structuralism theory. This theory advanced that when studying mental events, the analysis should be broken down into the three mental functioning aspects of images, feelings, and thoughts. Wundt also promoted the method of introspection, in which psychologists were to analyze their own thought processes as they performed various cognitive tasks.

Edward Titchener

Titchener built on the ideas proposed by the German Pioneer Wilhelm Wundt. He is credited with introducing and popularizing psychology, as presented by Wilhelm Wundt, in the United Sates. Titchener built on the theory of structuralism since he also believed that all thought processes existed within the three states of sensations, images, and perceptions. He proposed that researchers could develop a better understanding of mental processes by systematically defining and categorizing the three mental elements. Titchener made use of Wundt’s introspection method although his approach was more stringent since it only dealt with conscious attributes.

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Ebbinghaus contributed to cognitive psychology by engaging in pioneering experiments on memory. In response to Fechner’s assertion that higher memory processes could not be studied, Ebbinghaus embarked on a quest to develop experimental methods for studying higher memory processes (Benjamin, 2007).

This pioneer developed experimental methods for studying human memory using himself as the subject. His contributions to cognitive psychology include discoveries about memory. He was able to demonstrate the decline in the proportion of items that a person can recall as time progresses. His work provided evidence that mental phenomena could be measured using objective experimental procedures.

William James

Often referred to as the “Father of American Psychology”, William James is the psychologist who introduced and taught the first psychology course in the US. In 1890, he published the “Principles of Psychology”, which became the most widely used psychology manual for decades to follow (Goodwin, 2005). James viewed the human mind as a “stream of consciousness” and proposed that it does not work in separate segments as proposed by the theory of structuralism. He declared that the various mental elements worked as a collective whole. James also introduced the theory of emotion, which stated that body sensations cause the emotions we experience.

Wolfgang Kohler

Kohler contributed to cognitive psychology by founding Gestalt psychology. This school of psychology regarded the human mind and behavior as a single entity instead of trying to disassemble them into smaller components. Wolfgang was able to come up with the Gestalt Laws, which explain how people perceive things. Benjafield (2008) notes that the Gestalt laws provide most of the basis upon which cognitive psychology is built. Kohler proposed that humans were able to see the relationship between objects and events and act accordingly to achieve their ends. The solution to the problem is not achieved through trial and error but rather through insight learning.

Edward Tolman

This psychologist engaged in studies to show that just like humans, animals had expectations and internal representations of the world around them. Tolman contributed to cognitive psychology through his work on cognitive maps. As a follower of the behaviorism school of thought, he believed that learning could occur though exploration. Tolman carried out experiments that showed that rats could learn mazes just by exploring them even without overt reinforcement for this exploratory behavior (Symons & Paco, 2009). From his experiments, Tolman was able to demonstrate that behavior is purposive or goal-oriented. The cognitive approach of S-S (stimulus-stimulus) learning was reinforced though Tolman’s work.

Jean Piaget

Piaget’s contribution was in the area of cognitive development in children. He engaged in a systematic study of the cognitive development and was able to demonstrate that children think in a markedly different way compared to adults. Through his study, Piaget was able to articulate the various distinctive stages of development that children go through and highlight the key features of these stages. Piaget was able to show that cognitive structures are constantly developing as a child grows (Bibace, 2013). There is a relationship between learning and the cognitive development of an individual. Piaget stated that some concepts could only be understood by a child once they reach the appropriate cognitive development stage.

Noam Chomsky

Chomsky emerged as a critic of the stimulus-response process presented by B.F. Skinner in explaining language. He declared that behaviorism could not explain the complexity of mental organization in humans. Noam Chomsky proposed that human beings are born with innate mechanisms for learning language, which suggests that there exists specialized internal mental processing. According to Chomsky, psychologists could get an idea about how the mind might process information by studying languages since the human brain structure is correlated with language (Cacioppo & Freberg, 2012). Chomsky influenced cognitive psychology by compelling psychologists to look beyond the simplistic notions of stimulus and response.

David Rumelhart

This modern psychologist was an expert in Artificial Intelligence in computing. He developed a model for supervised learning in networks with information processing occurring in parallel. Rumelhart’s computer simulations of perceptions provided psychologists with some of the first testable models of neural processing. Plaut (2011) notes that Rumelhart’s model showed how many simple processing units could send signals to other units therefore creating a complex learning system. As a respected experimental psychologist, Rumelhart was able to attract the attention of psychologists to connectionist modeling. He also created an interest in models that learn as opposed to models that perform straightforward functions.

James McClelland

McClelland contribution to cognitive psychology was through his role as one of the authors of the connectionist models of cognition. This theory was inspired by available knowledge on how the brain processes information (Criss, Wheeler & McClelland, 2013). By using symbolic and non-symbolic processing, the model provided a better understating of mental processes. The connectionist models of cognition can be used to perform computations that the human brain can perform. Psychologists can use this model, which can mimic human performances, to better understand the human performances that are mimicked. The model can also be used by psychologists for precise measurement of human mental performances.


Benjafield, J.G. (2008). Revisiting Wittgenstein on Köhler and Gestalt psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44(2), 99-118.

Benjamin, L.T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Bibace, R. (2013). Challenges in Piaget’s Legacy. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 47(1), 167-175.

Cacioppo, J., & Freberg, L. (2012). Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. NY: Cengage Learning.

Criss, A., Wheeler, M., & McClelland, J. (2013). A Differentiation Account of Recognition Memory: Evidence from fMRI. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(3), 421-435.

Goodwin, C.J. (2005). A history of Modern Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hawkins, S. (2011). William James, Gustav Fechner, and Early Psychophysics. Front Physiol, 4(2), 68-85.

Keil, F., & Wilson, R. (2001). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Plaut, D. (2011). Complementary neural representations for faces and words: A computational exploration. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 28(3), 251-275.

Sternberg, R. (2008). Cognitive Psychology. NY: Cengage Learning.

Symons, J., & Paco, C. (2009). The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Psychology. NY: Routledge.

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