Edward Reed on the Fundamental Mistake of Cognitive Psychology

Like always, Reed absolutely nails it.

Cognitive psychology has never outgrown its roots in behaviorism. The early cognitive psychologists actually called themselves subjective behaviorists (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960)-a concept, if not a term, that is still exploited (Baars, 1986; Mandler, 1985). Because of its roots in S-R theory, cognitive psychology has always tried to distinguish cognition from mere response, or mere sensation, or even mere perception. Cognition is somehow supposed to be more than these things.

This is a deadly strategy for anyone interested in creating a science of cognition. The emphasis on keeping cognition distinct from other aspects of an animal’s encountering its surroundings has meant that cognitivists have often studied what animals and people do when they are not in adequate contact with their environment. How do observers cope with a lack of information? How do actors cope with unpredictable changes in circumstances? Evidence about how animals are disjoint from their environment forms the basis of most modern theories of cognition. Most of cognitive psychology has become the study of how animals and people manage under unnatural conditions.

The fundamental mistake in all these theories lay in not repudiating S-R theory outright. Time and again cognitivists have ceded whole areas of study to behaviorists. This is nonsense. Darwin did not say that Creationism was right about invertebrates but that natural selection worked for vertebrates. Such arbitrary divvying up of a field of study is ridiculous. If behaviorism is wrong, then it is wrong, period. (Whether it can be used to approximate some truths is a separate issue). By disdaining to study behavior and “basic” sensory-motor processes cognitivists guaranteed their own failure.

Encountering the world: Toward an Ecological Psychology, p. 170


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