The cognitive revolution is the name for an intellectual movement in the 1950s that began what are known collectively as the cognitive sciences. It began in the modern context of greater interdisciplinary communication and research. The relevant areas of interchange were the combination of psychology, anthropology and linguistics with approaches developed within the then-nascent fields of artificial intelligence, computer science and neuroscience.

The cognitive revolution in psychology was a response to behaviorism, which was the predominant school in experimental psychology at the time. This school was heavily influenced by Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, and other physiologists. They proposed that psychology could only become an objective science were it based on observable behavior in test subjects. Because mental events are not publicly observable, Behaviorist psychologists avoided description of mental processes or the mind in their literature.

The field of cognitive psychology developed as a response to this approach to psychology. One of its main ideas was that by studying and developing successful functions in artificial intelligence and computer science, it becomes possible to make testable inferences about human mental processes. This has been called the reverse-engineering approach.

This account of the "cognitive revolution" was challenged by Jerome Bruner who characterized it as: all-out effort to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology […]. It was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. […] Its aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated. (Bruner, 1990, Acts of Meaning, p. 2)

The cognitive approach was brought to prominence in 1958 with the publication of Donald Broadbent's book, Perception and Communication. The 1967 book,Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser is also considered an important milestone. Other influential researchers include Noam Chomsky, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell. The cognitive revolution reached its height in the 1980s with publications by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and artificial intelligence experts like Douglas Hofstadter.

The cognitive revolution had significant sources in British, French, and German psychology of the early part of the 20th century. Behaviorism had been much of an insular American movement and the cognitive movement can be seen as a natural development of earlier modern psychology (see Mandler).

Proponents of the movement often cite Chomskian linguistics as an impetus for behaviorism's falling from popular favor. It should be noted, though, that the term "behaviorism" is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple approaches towards behavior. At the time the revolution occurred, the popular "behaviorism" was Kenneth Spence and Clark Hull's Stimulus-Response psychology. Radical behaviorists continued to hold to Skinner's behaviorist model of language acquisition, which some have argued was not adequately refuted by Chomsky's anti-behaviorist arguments (MacCorquodale 1970).

The rejection of mental states by the behaviorists was based on a philosophical concept known as Occam's Razor. It states that a theory should make the fewest assumptions possible while still accounting for known data. Radical behaviorists argue that data can be accounted for by using observable phenomena and that there is no need to assume a "mental" world exists at a metaphysical level (see parsimony). Cognitive psychologists argued in response that experimental investigation of mental states do allow scientists to produce theories that more reliably predict outcomes. Modern neuroimaging technology has made it possible to observe brain states, but how these correspond to mental structures is still a challenge.

By the early 1980s the cognitive approach had become the dominant research line of inquiry in many of the (applied) psychology research fields.

Five major ideas from the cognitive revolution

In his book The Blank Slate (2002), psychologist Steven Pinker identified five key ideas that made up the cognitive revolution: [1]

  1. "The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback."[1]
  2. "The mind cannot be a blank slate because blank slates don't do anything."[2]
  3. "An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind."[3]
  4. "Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures."[4]
  5. "The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts."[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Pinker 2003, p.31
  2. Pinker 2003, p.34
  3. Pinker 2003, p.36
  4. Pinker 2003, p.37
  5. Pinker 2003, p.39


  • Bruner (1990) Acts of Meaning.
  • Chomsky (1959). A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Language 35(1):pp. 26–58.
  • Mandler, G. (2007). A history of modern experimental psychology: From James and Wundt to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate. Penguin. ISBN 0142003344. 
  • Skinner, B. F. (1989). Review of Hull's Principles of Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51, 287–290
  • Ken MacCorquodale's Response to Chomsky's Review of Verbal Behavior [1]

Further reading


  • Baars, Bernard J. (1986) The cognitive revolution in psychology Guilford Press, New York, ISBN 0-89862-656-0
  • Gardner, Howard (1986) The mind's new science : a history of the cognitive revolution Basic Books, New York, ISBN 0-465-04634-7; reissued in 1998 with an epilogue by the author: "Cognitive science after 1984" ISBN 0-465-04635-5
  • Johnson, David Martel and Emeling, Christina E. (1997) The future of the cognitive revolution Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-510334-3
  • LePan, Don (1989) The cognitive revolution in Western culture Macmillan, Basingstoke, England, ISBN 0-333-45796-X
  • Murray, David J. (1995) Gestalt psychology and the cognitive revolution Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, ISBN 0-7450-1186-1
  • Olson, David R. (2007) Jerome Bruner: the cognitive revolution in educational theory Continuum, London, ISBN 978-0-8264-8402-4
  • Richardson, Alan and Steen, Francis F. (editors) (2002) Literature and the cognitive revolution Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, being Poetics today 23(1), OCLC 51526573
  • Royer, James M. (2005) The cognitive revolution in educational psychology Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, Connecticut, ISBN 0-8264-8402-6
  • Simon, Herbert A. et al. (1992) Economics, bounded rationality and the cognitive revolution E. Elgar, Aldershot, England, ISBN 1-85278-425-3
  • Todd, James T. and Morris, Edward K. (editors) (1995) Modern perspectives on B. F. Skinner and contemporary behaviorism (Series: Contributions in psychology, no. 28) Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, ISBN 0-313-29601-4


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