Short History

Psychology was cognitive at its origins in the mid- to late 19th century. Structuralists such as Wilhelm Wundt and E. B. Titchener attempted to decompose conscious experience into its constituent sensations, images, and feelings. On the very first page of the Principles of Psychology (1890), the discipline's founding text, William James asserted that ''the first fact for us, then, as psychologists, is that thinking of some sort goes on,'' and the functionalist tradition that he and John Dewey established sought to understand the role of thinking and other aspects of mental life in our adaptation to the environment. In the early 20th century, however, John B. Watson attempted to remake psychology as a science of behavior rather than, as James had defined it, a science of mental life.

For Watson, public observation was the key to making psychology a viable, progressive science. Because consciousness (not to mention "the unconscious") was essentially private, Watson argued that psychology should abandon any interest in mental life and instead confine its interest to what could be publicly observed: behavior and the circumstances in which it occurred. In Watson's view, thoughts and other mental states did not cause behavior; rather, behavior was elicited by environmental stimuli. Thus began the behaviorist program, pursued most famously by B. F. Skinner, of tracing the relations between environmental events and the organism's response to them. Psychology, in the words of one wag, lost its mind.

The behaviorist program dominated psychology between the two world wars and well into the 1950s, as manifested especially by the field's focus on learning in nonhuman animals, such as rats and pigeons. Gradually, however, psychologists came to realize that they could not understand behavior solely in terms of the correlation between stimulus inputs and response outputs. E. C. Tolman discovered that rats learned in the absence of reinforcement, whereas Harry Harlow discovered that monkeys acquired general "sets" through learning as well as specific responses. Noam Chomsky famously showed that Skinner's version of behaviorism could not account for language learning or performance, completely reinventing the discipline of linguistics in the process, and George Miller applied Chomsky's insights in psychology. Leo Kamin, Robert Rescorla, and others demonstrated that conditioned responses, even in rats, rabbits, and dogs, were mediated by expectations of predictability and controllability rather than associations based on spatiotemporal contiguity. These and other findings convinced psychologists that they could not understand the behavior of organisms without understanding the internal cognitive structures that mediated between stimulus and response.

The "cognitive revolution" in psychology, which was really more of a counterrevolution against the revolution of behaviorism, was stimulated by the introduction of the high-speed computer. With input devices analogous to sensory and perceptual mechanisms, memory structures for storing information, control processes for passing information among them, transforming it along the way, and output devices analogous to behavior, the computer provided a tangible model for human thought. Perceiving, learning, remembering, and thinking were reconstrued in terms of "human information processing,'' performed by the software of the mind on the hardware of the brain. Artificial intelligence, simulated by the computer, became both a model and a challenge for human intelligence.

Jerome Bruner and George Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard University in 1960, intending to bring the insights of information theory and the Chomskian approach to language to bear on psychology. Miller's book, Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960; written with Karl Pribram and Eugene Galanter) replaced the reflex arc of behaviorism with the feedback loops of cybernetics. The cognitive (counter)revolution was consolidated by the publication of Neisser's Cognitive Psychology in 1967 and the founding of a scientific journal by the same name in 1970. With the availability of a comprehensive textbook on which undergraduate courses could be based, psychology regained its mind.

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