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Cognitive Theory

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Updated July 10, 2014

Baby taking part in experiment at a center for brain and cognitive development
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Definition:

Cognitive theory is an approach to psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by understanding the thought processes. The assumption is that in humans, thoughts are the primary determinants of emotions and behavior. Information processing is a commonly used description of the mental process, comparing the human mind to a computer.

Pure cognitive theory largely rejects behaviorism on the basis that behaviorism reduces complex human behavior to simple cause and effect. However, the trend in past decades has been towards merging the two into a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral theory. This allows therapists to use techniques from both schools of thought to help clients achieve their goals.

Social cognitive theory is a subset of cognitive theory. Primarily focused on the ways in which we learn to model the behavior of others, social cognitive theory can be seen in advertising campaigns and peer pressure situations. It can also be useful in informing the treatment of psychological disorders, including phobias.

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