The Cognitive Approach In Psychology

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We have already touched on some characteristics of the cognitive approach to emotion in our initial remarks on Aristotle and his current functionalist influence on philosophy and psychology. However, before launching into detailed accounts of cognitive models of emotion and the emotional disorders, it is first necessary to provide some groundwork about the cognitive approach and what we see as its most useful characteristics.

As with any approach, there are a number of distinct churches residing under the same ecumenical roof, which offer substantially different approaches to believers and non-believers alike. Even key cognitive psychologists can be followed as they shift churches themselves; for example, Ulric Neisser (1967) wrote one of the key books in cognitive psychology in which he espoused a philosophical idealism known as "constructivism" where the individual perceives the world based in part on existing mental representations of the world. By 1976, however, Neisser had abandoned this extreme constructivism for an approach closer to philosophical realism which he called "constructive realism". In this approach the individual is seen to be struggling towards mental representations that bear semblance to reality; the testing out of representations and predictions about reality should for most individuals lead to modification of those representations. This constructive realism does, we believe, make sense for approaches to emotion and emotional disorders. Most therapies that address emotional disorders have at some level the idea that individuals may hold rigid inflexible representations of reality which need to be tested out and, potentially, relinquished. In talking about reality, of course, we are not simply referring to physical reality, but also to social reality. In sum, if cognitive approaches can be placed on a continuum from constructivism to realism, approaches to emotions and their disorders might best be placed at the mid-point between the two (e.g., Dalgleish & Power, 1999).

The concept of the unconscious is, as every schoolchild knows, normally associated with Freud. Throughout his life Freud did in fact present several distinct models of the unconscious; surprisingly in some ways, it is now the first model presented by Breuer and Freud (1895) that has most potential for integration with the cognitive tradition (Power, 1997, 2002). This model was in fact a variant of Janet's (1889) dissociationist approach to the unconscious, in which an attempt was made to account for dissociations of consciousness seen in fugue states, somnambulism, multiple personality, and so on. The advantage of the concept of dissociationism is that it provides an historical starting point and a conceptual bridge to a number of related concepts that, at their core, may refer to the same mental phenomenon. These additional concepts include the idea of splitting that the post-Freudian Object Relations Theorists have emphasised (e.g., Fairbairn, 1952), and the recent cognitive focus on modularity (e.g., Fodor, 1983; Gazzaniga, 2000), about which we will have more to say in later chapters. The moral is that vastly different lines of evidence and different theoretical approaches seem to point to a phenomenon of the mind that has been referred to as the potential for modularity. We propose that in relation to emotional development, under the right circumstances basic emotions may develop in a modularised or dissociated way. The failure for these basic emotions to be integrated into the general development of the self can provide an important precursor for the development of emotional disorders, a sequence that we will explore in more detail in the second half of this book.

We have now briefly discussed several aspects of the cognitive approach. In the process of highlighting even these features of our cognitive model we will have presented at least one feature that almost all of our colleagues would disagree with all of the time, as well as many features that at least some of our colleagues would disagree with some of the time. If psychology ever achieves the Grand Unifying Theory that is currently the Holy Grail of physics, then we will happily abandon those aspects of the model that are untenable. However, we must warn that this promise is unlikely to be worth the paper it is written on, either because of the timescale for such an aim, or because of a philosophical paradox that the quarry is elusive: the modelling of the self by the self may alter the self, and so on, in an infinite regress. We will of course return to all of these features of cognitive models over the next few chapters and add many more features besides. However, we hope that this brief overview has given enough of a flavour of the main course for this to be awaited with gastronomic anticipation.

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Responses

  • hob
    Who made the cognitive approach to psychology?
    2 years ago

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