Developing Theories in Cognitive Psychology

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Criteria for Differentiating between Different Scientific Theories

Traditional Criteria

- Goodness of fit to empirical data

- Economy with assumptions (Occam's razor)

- Precision of formulation

- Generality

- Testability


- Falsifiability

Cognitive Science

- Sufficiency sufficient to account for the whole range of data regarding a phenomenon

- Completness - able to account for a complete range of behaviours

- Fruitfulness, whether right or wrong generates further developments

NB. The cognitive science criteria are apparently at odds with the traditional criteria

The Traditional Approach to Scientific Theory Construction

Bottom-up approach

- Collect lots of data then think of low level theory to account for the data, the intermediate level theory to account for a set of low level theories, then eventually build the high level theory.

- e.g. Newton's Laws

- Theorists hoped that the information processing framework would provide necessary high level theory - but it seemed too limited - Said nothing about learning, semantic memory, the real world, affect etc. (Newell, 1973; Allport 1975; Neisser 1978)


- Conerns grew over the adequacy of the information processing framework and that Psychology theory was not building toward a high level theory, with too much prominence given to isolated low level phenomena that didn't build towards high level.

- Perhaps a combination of high and low level theories is needed

Criticisms of the H.I.P paradigm (see also Attention )

Newell A. (1973)

You can't play 20 questions with Nature and win. In W.G. Chase (Ed) Visual Information Processing.

(i) At the low level theories - Phenomenon-driven


- The recency effect

- The stroop pheneomenon

- The Muller-Lyer illusion

- The unattended speech effect

(Over 60!)

(ii) At the intermediate level theories - Dichotomy driven


- 1 vs 2 memory stores

- Nature vs Nurture "Dichotomies ofte have a habit of becoming points on a continuum, and so the theoretical issues, initaially clearcut, become muddier and muddier"

(iii) No progress towards high level theory

- [cf. Bakan (1967) research can be described as either 'bandwagon', 'leave no stone unturned', and 'fancy that']

- Allport (1975-BJP) also bemoaned the absence of cumulative progress.

General Critique of the Box Models of the 60s

(i)Not precise

- No clear understanding of form of input, output or process

(ii) Not sufficient

- Can't account for the range of known findings

- Don't generalise to other apects of cognition

(iii) Incomplete

- e.g. no model of semantic memory

(iv) Not falsifiable

- Very difficutl to devise direct tests

- Even if test failed, can always add more boxes


The Box Models of the 60's are an inadequate framework for understanding cognotion, however they may be a useful descriptive tool. Unfortunately, a much more detailed and comeplete model is needed before we can progress any further.

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