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How Cognitive Science Supersedes Behaviorism Essay

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2021


Behaviorism and cognitive science are essentially used in teaching and learning. However, much of what happens in the traditional classroom in the past was based on the behavioral theories, which dominated American psychology from about 1920 to 1970. Among the key figures of the behaviorist movement was Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1938, 1953, as cited by Hofstetter, 1997), who perceived that “human behavior is powerfully shaped by its consequences”. Skinner bolstered the thought that “psychology was essentially about behavior and that behavior was largely determined by its outcomes”. Despite Skinner’s presumptions that have been proven effective in learning to train animals and helping humans how to modify their behavior, behaviorism was not enough in the actualization of education itself because in order to educate, an educator must do more than modify behavior. The students must be assisted in learning how to develop strategies for their own learning. This is basically the main reason why cognitive science appears to complement the shortcomings of behaviorism.

Main body

According to Drever’s (1964) Dictionary of Psychology, “cognition” is “a general term covering all the various modes of knowing – perceiving, imagining, conceiving, judging, reasoning”. It picks out those forms of abstract thinking and problem solving that are based upon the manipulation of either linguistic symbols (propositions) or iconic symbols (images). Cognitive psychology refers to the attempt to understand these various human faculties by means of systematic empirical observation and theory construction. Its origins lie in research conducted during the 1950s by Donald Broadbent, Jerome Bruner and George Miller (Gardner, 1985), although it was probably first generally acknowledged as a distinctive intellectual development with the publication of Ulric Neisser’s (1967) book, Cognitive Psychology.

The first reason why cognitive science superseded behaviorism is that of its view that fell short in fully explaining mental processes, feelings and learning without conditioning. It is vital when teaching and learning that the focus should center on learning how to learn, in which the orientation is predominantly considered as cognitivist point-of-view (Neisser, 1967).

Another shortcoming of behaviorism was its rejection of theory, embodied in the rejection of mentalism. Mentalism involves the “assignment of theoretical, hypothetical functions to the human — functions that determine and guide observable behavior” (Johnson-Laird 2004, p. 185). The rejection of theoretical mental functions can be related to a characteristic of the American psychological tradition, as expressed in both functionalism and pragmatism–the objection to the abstract, the fancy, and the fictional. Behaviorism was a peculiarly American invention, although with parallels, but not identities, found in Russian psychology.

Thirdly, behaviorism was criticized because of the narrow view of the “outward criteria” needed for “inner processes” in learning (Wittgenstein, 1953 as cited by Koethe, 1996). Behaviorist’s view does not say that familiarity with “what counts as the criterion for anyone’s being in such a state” lacks in the privileged means of determining when a particular person is actually in that state (Koethe, 1996, p. 100). Compared to cognitive psychology, behaviorism prioritizes the inner processes. As cognitive science was stemmed from the field of human factors research that was developed during the Second World War, it can tackle problems concerning human–machine interaction, unlike behaviorism. This work in cognitive psychology led to an interest in the control mechanisms governing intelligent behavior, to the idea of human thought and action as consisting of discrete stages of information processing, and inevitably to the use of the structure and function of the digital computer as a metaphor in theorizing about human cognition (Miller et al., 1960).

Fourth, behaviorist theories derive on producing change in desired direction, rather than develop capacity and skills to learn better. With regards to the locus of learning as to answer “where does learning happen, or what is learning centered around”, the behaviorist point of view perceives that learning happens in response to stimuli. Behaviorists focus on stimuli and the effectiveness of the reinforcements needed to achieve measurable behavioral change. Learning environments based on rewards for increments of desired change, currently used most often with learners who have limited cognitive skills, draw on behavioral theory. However, since behaviorists define learning solely in terms of changed behavior, they intentionally ignore what goes on inside the learner. A typical example would be programmed instruction, or a training session on how to use software. Cognitivists, by comparison, focus almost exclusively on what is happening inside the learner and on preexisting mental models as they affect the possibility of new learning (Ausubel, 1968). By changing these models, or cognitive structures, the cognitivist seeks to enable increasingly effective symbolic processing and problem-solving abilities—cognitivist goals for meaningful learning. For example, an instructor following good cognitivist practice would begin with a carefully structured overview, intending in this way to provide learners with adequate “anchors” for the new knowledge to follow.

Lastly, behaviorism arranges environment to elicit desired response compared to cognitive science, which focus on the structure content of learning activity. In this sense, cognitive psychology explored terrains previously off limits to behaviorism. It stimulated general revisions of behaviorist theories and models and developed different assumptions about the role of cognition in behavior. As Tyler (1981) claims in her assessment, “the period in which we are now living is characterized by major attempts to extend boundaries, assimilate, reorganize, synthesize. Of the many directions this effort is taking, probably the broadest and most significant is the construction of a cognitive psychology”. Thus, the introduction of new cognitive models and approaches do not signal the rise of a new, competing view of human behavior, but it complemented what behaviorism had left off. For example, cognitive psychology reduced behavior to components seen to operate causally in a sequence of discrete processing stages and it also studied behavior objectively from the standpoint of an outsider and isolated it from its social and historical contexts (Gillespie, 1992, p. 9).


Ultimately, cognitive science appears to have complemented behaviorism and played a central role in the growing reassessment of theory and research in learning, education and psychology. Although the behaviorist approach is now largely out of fashion, both in philosophy and psychology, the some of its approaches is not because it is still vital in developing explanations to mental processes. However, the development of cognitive science succeeds more effectively in promoting the relationships between the learner and the environment. This is because central to this relationship is the role of the individual and their experiences, where they can freely invent knowledge through inquiry and experimentation instead of acquiring facts, which are just spoon-fed to them.


  1. Ausubel, D. P. (1968). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  2. Drever, J. (1964). A Dictionary of Psychology, rev. H. Wallerstein, Baltimore: Penguin Books.
  3. Gardner, H. (1985). The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution, New York: Basic Books.
  4. Gillespie, D. (1992). The Mind’s We: Contextualism in Cognitive Psychology. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press
  5. Hofstetter, F.T. (1997). Cognitive Versus Behavioral Psychology. In University of Delaware.
  6. Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2004). 8 The History of Mental Models. In Psychology of Reasoning: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives, Manktelow, K. & Chung, M. C. (Eds.) (pp. 179-212). Hove, England: Psychology Press.
  7. Koethe, J. (1996). The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  8. Miller, G.A., Galanter, E. and Pribram, K. H. (1960). Plans and the Structure of Human Behavior, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  9. Neisser, U. (1967) Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.
  10. Tyler L. E. ( 1981). “More stately mansions – Psychology extends its boundaries”. Annual Review of Psychology, 32, 1-20.
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