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Research Paper: Cognitive Models and Psychological Functioning

Introduction Mainstream psychology is investigates personality primarily through individual differences in psychological functioning. Comparatively recently cognitive and social models started to be used in order to describe human’s psychological functioning.

Cognitive psychology is relatively a young science: while some of the experimental sciences have existed for hundreds of years, modern cognitive psychology is slightly above 30. While still there is no comprehensive theory of cognitive psychology yet, its theorists have explored wide variety of phenomena of psychological functioning, such as categorization, control, memory, knowledge, language, and thought, and developed approach modeling cognitive mechanisms. Accumulating empirical knowledge o? cognition and developing more and more sophisticated theoretical tools ambitious theories of cognition become more increasingly successful.

Cognitive psychology development does not progress in isolation – it incorporates developments in adjusting field of psychological science and forges their own development building more deep understanding of processes underlying human psychological functioning. Moreover, cognitive psychology is considered to evolve from work in information theory, computer science and linguistics and accordingly initial discoveries and early conceptions came from these fields of science. Early theorists of cognitive psychology applied insights from their immediate fields of competence.

While still there is no comprehensive theory of cognitive psychology, it cannot be considered completely splintered, as cognitive psychologists share a number of fundamental assumptions. First of all, in cognitive psychology humans are viewed as processors of the information. Of course, they process information in the way different from algorithms of modern computers, however processing of the information is considered to be a function fundamental for human nature. Second, in cognitive psychology internal constraints are perceived to govern an individual’s processing of the information. Therefore, internal mechanisms underlying information processing should be examined in order to understand human information processing; moreover such examination should go beyond behaviorists’ simplistic observation of stimulus-response pairs. Third, in cognitive psychology cognitive constructs are perceived to have scientific utility. Employing these constructs is expected to contribute largely to the development of science, through explanation of data from a wide variety of researches, producing hypotheses to guide future research, and developing applications of social and technological value. Moreover, providing an explanatory account of the mechanisms behind intelligence, cognitive constructs contribute to the understanding of this important phenomena.

Though cognitive psychologists have common fundamental assumptions, a number of different methodologically and theoretically approaches exist. They can be divided into the following approaches: ecological, laboratory, formal and computational. Ecological approach implies that, as humans evolved on the Earth and human brains are the biological mechanisms developed to process information in this environment, the physical environment should be considered when cognition is examined. The laboratory approach is a dominating approach in cognitive psychology, implies that in order to study phenomenon, a carefully controlled laboratory paradigm should be developed. In contrast to laboratory approach, the formal approach typically focuses on the theoretical side of the laboratory paradigms, aiming to establish accounts of the relations between variables. In modern cognitive psychology, the formal approach plays a central role in modeling psychological functioning. The computational approach, being tightly related to the initial finding of laboratory approach and theories developed within formal approach, concentrates on simulating cognitive phenomena on computers. As one can see these approaches are being complementary, rather than competing.

Cognitive Models and the Concept of Self

An important construct in several schools of psychology, tightly connected to the study of individual’s psychological functioning, is the concept of Self. Self can be broadly determined as the cognitive representation of one’s identity. Current definition of the self in psychology diverged greatly from early formulation of the self as distinction between the self as the subjective knower, I, and as the object that is known, Me, positioning the self as an integral part of human cognition, affect, motivation, and social identity (Sedikides, & Spencer, 2007).

The cognitive revolution has rehabilitated the concept of self as one of the central constructs of psychology (Gardner, 1985), after interest to the self was completely lost due to the behavioral paradigm. The contemporary cognitive models comprise one of the most important areas of research in psychological functioning. As cognitive models has pervasive nature throughout the psychology’s theoretical system, and models of self, as its domain, has gained a new boost in psychological functioning studies.

As Valsiner (1991) states, cognitive psychology techniques introduction has created the significant research programs on the Self, while making the previous models on stimulus-response more complex, though keeping methodology and refusal of impacts of history, culture, context and affection. Valsiner argued that mental representations are the static concepts and thus are unable to explain development and lack intentionality. He concluded, that the „cognitive revolution” is in fact only a „restoration” of the mentalistic argumentation developed as early as 1890s, refreshed by computer metaphors (Valsiner, 1991, p. 490).

Focusing on the individuals, as a entity moderating between the external stimuli and the corresponding responses, psychological science has developed a variety of constructs that point to an essential reality. These constructs have particularly multiplied in cognitive psychology from the concepts structure. Harré and Gillet (1994) referred to the problem of reification as the cognitive psychology’s central ambiguity; they claimed that it is not clear whether the introduced concept of cognitive structure confirm its actual existence, as biological structures of nervous system or it is just a metaphorical conception.

The cognitive models imply that the cognitive structures determine observable behavioral effects, which assumes an existence of a deterministic process, with internal structures cause status. The main issue of reification is attributing physical qualities to psychological constructs. Correspondingly, it assumes that structural operations determine observable effects of cognitive processes, such as behavior or thought, rather then to the intentionality of the agents, dehumanizing psychological functioning and treating it as poorly physical phenomenon.

However refuse from purely structural explanations, does not imply return to the behaviorist rationality, where the variables of the „black box“ of psychological functioning are ignored. In fact this argumentation supports point of view that physiological phenomena of psychological functioning originates in the interpersonal discursive process and in the use of symbolic resources (Harré & Gillet, 1994).

Cognitive Models and the Trait Psychology

An important approach studying human psychological functioning is a so called Trait theory. This approach primarily is aimed at measurement of traits, which are the habitual patterns of human behaviors, thoughts, and emotions (Kassin, 1999, p.214). According to this approach, traits are considered to be relatively stable over time, while being different among different individuals, and influence their behavior, leading to differences in psychological functioning.

Gordon Allport, an early researcher of this field, referred to traits as dispositions. In Allports approach, there are central traits, which are basic to one’s personality, and secondary, peripheral, traits (Allport, 1937). Also he referred to common traits, as traits that are recognized within a given culture and may vary between different cultures. Also Allport determined cardinal traits as traits strongly distinguishing a given individual from others. Since Allport’s time, trait theory followers have focused predominantly on group statistics rather than on individual.

Potentially the number of human traits, describing personality, is unlimited, however statistical factor analysis proved that particular clusters of traits strongly correlate together and therefore a focus may be reduced to several major traits. Most of the psychologists today believe that five factor model is sufficient to describe personality (McCrae, & Costa, 1987, p.81-90)

The „cognitive revolution” which has significantly influence most fields of psychology has not yet transforming trait psychology at its full potential. It is not surprising that cognitive psychological study, involving manipulations on specialized laboratory tasks and being prototypical by nature, has had only limited appeal to psychologists studying personality and individual psychological functioning. However, the model of the person as information-processor has high relevance to the psychological functioning studies. The metaphor of information-process gains increasingly popular among researches in the fields of social, clinical and educational psychology. As well as it has high compatibility with current trends in the studies of personality’s cognitive neuroscience (Matthews, Derryberry and Siegle, 2000, pp. 199–237). It is likely that further theoretical developments matching personal traits to individual specifics in information processing, particularly in the field of behavior and social cognition, will be of a significant scientific interest. Researches regarding cognitive abilities provide an excellent example of the merging together of two disciplines of psychology and contemporary mental abilities research (Deary, 2000).

Cognitive Modeling and Individual Differences in Psychological functioning

The cognitive models provide researches formal accounts in order to evaluate proposed theoretical explanations and are usually developed to address various specific cognitive phenomena, including stimulus representation, memory retention, category learning and many other aspects of psychological functioning. However design, of such models may elaborate intentional or unintended methodological shortcomings, when humans are usually modeled not as individuals, but as invariants. Most often these shortcomings occur, when models make use of data aggregated or averaged across subjects, i.e. when model design assumes no individual differences between subjects of the modeling.

Such aggregation or averaging of data gives benefits if the subjects’ performance is really identical except for „noises“ (variations in the performance, which are not attempted to be explained by this model). In this case the aggregation allows removing the effects of the noises and receiving resulting data, which more accurately reflect psychological phenomenon to be researched. However, in cases when there are genuine differences in subjects’ performance, such aggregation results in input data that distorts the subjects’ behavior, providing a inappropriate basis for modeling and void outputs.

Basically aggregating data restricts the area of cognitive modeling application to exploring of how humans are the same. While modeling of psychological functioning considering individuals as invariants gives important information for psychological science, it is also important to understand how humans are different. Therefore the need to create experimental data revealing individual differences in psychological functioning and determination of psychological variables influencing these process is an important challenge for cognitive modeling.

Cognitive modeling aimed to consider individual variations in psychological functioning, usually is based on the premises that each subject reacts to the stimuli according to the same basic model, but with different parameterization. Therefore such model should be evaluated separately against the data for each individual. While such approach helps to avoid corrupting the data’s underlying pattern, it forgoes the potential benefits of aggregation and make such models exposed all of the noises in the data. This gives rise to another problem in modeling – in order to fit additional subject into model, extra set of parameters is required, leading to progressive complication of the model. Therefore is important to maximize goodness of fit, while minimizing complexity of the model in order to achieve the goals of modeling.

One of the solutions for these issues is partitioning subjects according to individual differences in order to receive aggregated data for each group. According to this approach data aggregation is performed within groups of subjects only where it is applicable, allowing to address both – similarities and individual differences of individuals.


As Franz remarked in his essay published in 1912 „the individual parts of the brain do not work independently; they work interdependently, and it is because of the possible functional and anatomical connections that certain types or kinds of mental states are more in evidence than others“(p. 327). In their study Love and Gureckis argued that successful cognitive models, which have been quantitatively validated on wide data sets, offer multiple of advantages over popular, ad hoc and some traditional psychological theories. While such behavioral models are predictive, they also have dynamics and mechanisms that can be linked to brain measures (Love, Gureckis, 2007).

Human cognition in particular, and psychological functioning in general, are among of the most complicated fields of science. While cognitive psychology is a young science, being far from having comprehensive theory, its methods allowed gaining understanding of many complex phenomena of psychological functioning, such as categorization, control, memory, knowledge, language, and thought. Cognitive psychology and its methods, such as cognitive modeling, develops in close interaction with other concepts and approaches of psychology, sociology, cybernetics and other sciences, giving significant contribution to our understanding of processes behind psychological functioning.


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June 12, 2012Tags: