Interested in a cognitive psychologist career? This page will answer all of your questions!
Why do we remember moments from childhood but can’t remember crucial information for a college test? Why do our friends remember an incident one way, but we remember it a different way? These questions don’t always have quick answers, but certain concepts in cognitive psychology can explain them. Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that looks specifically at the processes within the mind: memory storage and retrieval, how our senses perceive the world around us, and how our memories shape what we “know” and how we behave.
This is a fascinating psychology area that advertisers, healthcare companies, and other organizations want to learn more about. But it is also one that sparks as many questions as it does answers. Cognitive psychologists have the fascinating job of learning, understanding, and sharing information about cognitive psychology.
What does a Cognitive Psychologist Do?
Cognitive psychologists study and share information on different cognitive processes and how they influence personality and behavior. They focus on memory, learning, language, and other cognitive tasks. Through various job positions and partnerships, cognitive psychologists increase awareness of this field of psychology.
Not all cognitive psychologists hold the job title “Cognitive Psychologist.” They might work as a research assistant studying theories within cognitive psychology. They might use their knowledge of cognitive psychology to work directly with patients with learning difficulties or memory loss issues. Cognitive psychologists may also work directly with businesses to educate them on how the minds of their employees or customers work and how each group makes different decisions.
The common thread amongst all these jobs is that the cognitive psychologist has expertise in this area of psychology.
What is Cognitive Psychology?
The American Psychological Association defines cognitive psychology as "the branch of psychology that explores the operation of mental processes related to perceiving, attending, thinking, language, and memory, mainly through inferences from behavior. The cognitive approach, which developed in the 1940s and 1950s, diverged sharply from contemporary behaviorism in (a) emphasizing unseen knowledge processes instead of directly observable behaviors and (b) arguing that the relationship between stimulus and response was complex and mediated rather than simple and direct. Its concentration on the higher mental processes also contrasted with the focus on instincts and other unconscious forces typical of psychoanalysis. More recently, cognitive psychology has been influenced by approaches to information processing and information theory developed in computer science and artificial intelligence."
You must earn a doctorate from an accredited university to be recognized as a cognitive psychologist. Plenty of colleges and universities offer graduate programs in cognitive psychology. This field is more popular and “modern” than other fields like psychoanalysis or behaviorism, so finding the right program for you requires sifting through programs instead of searching for professors or institutions that recognize it.
To practice as a Cognitive Therapist, you will likely have to earn a certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology. This certification requires that you complete an exam, an internship, and a doctoral degree in the area in which you want to be certified.
Research assistant jobs may only require an undergraduate degree. Still, these positions are typically short-term and considered stepping stones to a more sustainable career in healthcare, consulting, or government agencies.
Salary for Cognitive Psychologist Career
How much do cognitive psychologists make? Salaries vary because cognitive psychologists take on many roles in society. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics limited its data collection to “substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.” These counselors often use Cognitive Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in their treatments. Other salary statistics consider the wages of psychologists who work as a consultant or with businesses - these salaries tend to be a little higher.
Cognitive Psychologist Reported Salary
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Schools for Cognitive Psychology Degrees
Want to go to the best of the best schools for cognitive psychology? Make sure you have these schools on your radar. You can study cognitive psychology all around the country.
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
- University of California - Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)
- Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
- Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA)
- Yale University (New Haven, CT)
- University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign (Champaign, IL)
- The University of Indiana - Bloomington (Bloomington, IN)
- University of California - San Diego (La Jolla, CA)
- The University of Michigan - Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)
Companies That Hire Cognitive Psychologists
As you study cognitive psychology, work on different research projects, and network within your field, you may better understand who you want to work with daily. Where can a cognitive psychologist work? A lot of places! Maybe you do not want to treat patients directly - you would prefer doing research or teaching at a local university. Or, you want to work at a healthcare company instead of running your private practice. As a cognitive psychologist, you might find yourself working for:
- Healthcare companies
- Government agencies
- Research facilities
- Colleges and universities
- Consulting firms
The possibilities are endless!
Interviews with a Cognitive Psychologist
Interested in learning more about cognitive psychology? Take a listen to the people who engage with this field every day! YouTube has plenty of interviews with cognitive psychologists covering topics from CBT to having a career in psychology to specific topics (like this TED Talk on “what we don’t see”).
Look into the day in the life of a cognitive behavioral therapist by watching this YouTube video from Kelly Watkins.
Learn about the road to a career in cognitive psychology by watching the Psi Beta National Honor Society President interview Dr. Julie Madden, a professor at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
And lastly, hear a cognitive psychologist’s take on clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Not all psychologists see things the same way!
Famous Cognitive Psychologists
Cognitive psychologists have shaped how we understand learning, memory, and other cognitive processes. We know what we know about the brain, thanks to these notable figures in psychology!
Jerome Bruner was one of the first psychologists to recognize the importance of sensation and perception in how we see the world and how our experiences may differ from the people around us.
Jean Piaget was a pioneer in cognitive psychology. His Four Stages of Cognitive Development explained how children grew from infants to adolescents, gaining new skills and looking at the world through a more developed lens.
Albert Bandura created experiments like the Bobo Doll Experiment to demonstrate how children learn through observation.
Daniel Kahneman developed one of the latest theories on processing information, the two-system theory. You can read about this theory in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow.
Nancy Kanwisher is a cognitive psychologist who identified different regions of the brain and how they process information. One of her notable achievements is recognizing the fusiform face area, which recognizes different faces.
How Did Cognitive Psychology Start?
Cognitive psychologists see psychology (and patients) differently than yesterday's behavioral psychologists or psychoanalysts. Compared to some other forms of psychology, cognitive psychology is relatively new. But that does not mean that a cognitive psychologist career is any harder or easier than another career in psychology. It's just a different approach.
In the 1950s, behavioral psychology was psychology's dominant school of thought. Psychologists look at the way our behaviors shape our personalities. Think about psychologists like B.F. Skinner or Ivan Pavlov. This approach to psychology was at its peak...and then Ulric Neisser came along.
Ulric Neisser studied at Harvard University and Swarthmore College. He worked with some of the greatest psychologists at the time, including one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology is another field that challenged behaviorism and considered how thinking and cognition factored into behaviors. When Neisser went to Harvard for his doctorate, he studied "experimental psychology." After further research, mainly focused on thought, memory, and perception, he published "Cognitive Psychology." To this day, he is considered the father of cognitive psychology.
Is Cognitive Psychology a Science?
Yes! Cognitive psychology is a scientific approach within the world of psychology. Some scholars equate cognitive psychology to cognitive science. APA defines cognitive science as "an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the mind and mental processes that combines aspects of cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, epistemology, neuroscience, anthropology, psycholinguistics, and computer science."
Cognition and the Role of Cognitive Psychologists
Cognition Defined: Cognition refers to the mental processes and activities of acquiring, processing, storing, and using information. It encompasses various activities, including thinking, understanding, learning, remembering, problem-solving, perception, attention, and language. Cognition is integral to how we experience the world and make decisions based on our experiences and knowledge.
Actions Taken by Cognitive Psychologists:
- Research and Experimentation:
- Cognitive psychologists research to understand the intricacies of the human mind. This includes conducting experiments in lab settings to study various cognitive functions such as memory, perception, and decision-making.
- Study of Memory:
- One of the primary areas of study is memory. Cognitive psychologists delve into how we remember, why we forget, and the different types of memory (short-term and long-term).
- Attention and Perception Analysis:
- Another critical area is understanding how humans focus their attention and perceive stimuli from the external environment. This includes studying sensory processing, selective attention, and factors that influence perception.
- Language and Thought:
- Cognitive psychologists examine the relationship between language and thought, exploring how language shapes our understanding of the world and how cognitive processes influence language development and use.
- Problem Solving and Decision Making:
- They investigate how humans approach problems, reason logically, make decisions, and solve various challenges. This often overlaps with understanding biases, heuristics, and the influences on decision-making processes.
- Neurocognitive Processes:
- With advancements in neuroimaging techniques, many cognitive psychologists collaborate with neuroscientists to study the brain structures and neural pathways involved in cognition.
- Clinical Applications:
- Some cognitive psychologists work directly with patients, especially those with cognitive impairments like Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or traumatic brain injuries. They design and implement strategies to help improve or maintain cognitive function in such patients.
- Design and Analysis of Cognitive Assessments:
- They design tests and tools to measure cognitive abilities and deficits. These assessments can diagnose cognitive disorders, measure the effects of treatments, or gauge cognitive abilities in various populations.
- Consultation and Application in Real-world Settings:
- Cognitive psychologists often collaborate with businesses, educational institutions, and other organizations to apply cognitive principles. This can include optimizing learning environments, improving user experience design, or enhancing training programs.
- Education and Advocacy:
- Many cognitive psychologists work in academia, teaching the next generation of psychologists and other professionals. They also play a role in public education, demystifying complex cognitive concepts and advocating for understanding cognitive processes in everyday life.
Cognitive psychologists play a pivotal role in enhancing our understanding of the human mind and its intricate functions. Their insights contribute to academia and have practical applications that can improve quality of life, education, healthcare, and various industries.
Cognitive Psychology Examples
Not all cognitive psychologists focus on the same subjects, although they all relate to memory, perception, and language. If you work toward a career in cognitive psychology, you might find yourself:
- Researching language acquisition
- Working directly with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to slow regression
- Teaching cognitive psychology courses at the undergraduate level
- Giving presentations to businesses on perception and memory
- Developing assessments to understand better how information is remembered and stored in the brain
Resources for Researching a Cognitive Psychologist Career
Do you still have questions about what it's like to be a cognitive psychologist? Reach out to cognitive psychologists and people who have experience in this field! There are many ways to go about connecting with cognitive psychologists.
Audit Cognitive Psychology Classes. Are you in college, or do you live near a university? Research cognitive psychology programs and the people who teach them. You may be able to audit a cognitive psychology class and get a sense of the subjects you will learn as a cognitive psychology major.
Stanford University, for example, offers the following classes in its cognitive psychology program:
- Cognitive Neuroscience: Vision
- Minds and Machines
- Psychology of the Climate Crisis
- Statistical Methods for Behavioral and Social Sciences
- Introduction to Perception
Do these classes interest you? Find similar classes near you that you can audit!
Ask Questions in Online Forums. Even if you don't live near a university or don't know cognitive psychologists, the Internet gives you access to so many people! The CognitivePsychology and CognitivePsychologist subreddits, for example, are very active. Read through conversations with people interested in cognitive psychology and ask questions to cognitive psychologists!
Talk to Admissions Counselors and Other Resources. If you're still in high school or undergrad, contact your counselors. They can connect you with cognitive psychologists and other resources that will help you. Parents, family friends, and other networking events can also point you in the right place. If you are interested in a cognitive psychologist career, make it known! The more people know that you are interested in the subject, the more likely they will connect you with someone who will make your career dreams a reality.