Information processing theory

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The information processing theory approach to the study of cognitive development evolved out of the American experimental tradition in psychology. Developmental psychologists who adopt the information-processing perspective account for mental development in terms of maturational changes in basic components of a child’s mind. The theory is based on the idea that humans process the information they receive, rather than merely responding to stimuli. This perspective equates the mind to a computer, which is responsible for analyzing information from the environment. According to the standard information-processing model for mental development, the mind’s machinery includes attention mechanisms for bringing information in, working memory for actively manipulating information, and long-term memory for passively holding information so that it can be used in the future.[1] This theory addresses how as children grow, their brains likewise mature, leading to advances in their ability to process and respond to the information they received through their senses. The theory emphasizes a continuous pattern of development, in contrast with Cognitive Developmental theorists such as Jean Piaget that thought development occurred in stages at a time.


Beginning in the 1950s, a major change occurred in the field of Psychology that has come to be known as the Cognitive Revolution. The cognitive revolution took form as what is now known as Cognitive Psychology. This field of psychology had freed itself from the behaviorist views that were dominant in the 1950s. It wanted to look at the interior mental processes, rather than the observable exterior views that behaviorism held. This revolution had a huge impact on theory and research in the field of psychology, as well as many other disciplines, such as human-computer interaction, human factors and ergonomics. Overall, information-processing models helped reestablish internal thought processes as a legitimate area of scientific research.

A central metaphor that was adopted by cognitivists at this time was the computer, which served to provide these researchers important clues and directions in understanding the human brain and how it processes information. Many psychologists and researchers believe that the Information Processing Theory was influenced by computers, in that the human mind is similar to a computer. However, today the metaphor of mind as computer has faded. The analogy has many strengths, in that humans have different memory stores and information is transferred from one store to another, however it does little to actually explain how the process works and has thus diminished in popularity.

Human as computer[edit]

Within this model, humans are routinely compared to computers. This comparison is used as a means of better understanding the way information is processed and stored in the human mind. Therefore, when analyzing what actually develops within this model, the more specific comparison is between the human brain and computers. Computers were introduced to the study of development and provided a new way of studying intelligence (Lachman, 1979) and added further legitimacy to the scientific study of the mind (Goodwin, 2005, p. 411). In the model below, you can see the direct comparison between human processing and computer processing. Within this model, information is taken in (or input). Information is encoded to give meaning and compared with stored information. If a person is working on a task, this is where the working memory is enacted. An example of that for a computer is the CPU. In both cases, information is encoded, given meaning, and combined with previously stored information to enact the task. The latter step is where the information is stored where it can later be retrieved when needed. For computers, this would be akin to saving information on a hard drive, where you would then upload the saved data when working on a future task (using your working memory as in step 2).

Cognitive processes[edit]

Cognitive processes include perception, recognition, imagining, remembering, thinking, judging, reasoning, problem solving, conceptualizing and singing, planning and more terms and applications. These cognitive processes can emerge from human language, thought, imagery and symbols.

Out of all of these specific cognitive processes, many cognitive psychologists study language-acquisition, altered states of mind and consciousness, visual perception, auditory perception, short-term memory, long-term memory, storage, retrieval, perceptions of thought and much more.

The four pillars of the information processing model[edit]

There are four fundamental assumptions – or four pillars – of the information processing approach. These pillars underlay and support this approach, as well as many other cognitive models.

Structure of the information-processing system[edit]

Info Processing Model

The standard information-processing model has three major components: sensory register, short-term memory (working memory), and long-term memory.

Sensory register[edit]

Main article: Sensory memory

Еаch sensory system hаs its own sensory store, or sensory register, which receives and briefly holds all of the external аnd internal stimuli that it receives. The sensоry register stores sensory information long enough for unconscious рrоcesses to analyze it tо determine whether the inрut shоuld be brought intо wоrking memory, оr discаrded.

Working memory[edit]

Main article: Working memory

Working memory is believed to be the center of conscious thought, analogous to the central processing unit of a computer, where information from long-term memory and the environment is combined to help solve problems. However, the working memory has a small capacity so that it is not able to attend to much information at a time, thereby limiting the abilities of humans to solve problems. The information processing perspective proposes that as children grow until about 15 years old, their working memory capacity for verbal/visual information also steadily increases, as demonstrated by improved performance on fluid intelligence tests. Many proponents of the information processing system correlate this increased working-memory capacity with increased speed of processing, the speed at which a person can fluently carry out relatively elementary information-processing tasks. It is believed that the physical maturation of the brain that occurs throughout childhood may cause faster processing speeds. This faster processing speed permits faster mental movement from one item of information to another, which improves one’s ability to keep track of a number of different items in working memory at once.[2]

Long-term memory[edit]

Main article: Long-term memory

Long-term memory is the stored representation of all that a person knows. The items stored in long-term memory lie dormant until they are called back into the working memory and thus put to use.

Long-term memory consists of explicit and implicit long-term memory systems. Children exhibit implicit long-term memory – memories that affect behavior, but with which we are unable to report, such as procedural memories – beginning in early infancy on. There also exist two categories of explicit memory: semantic and episodic memory. Children exhibit the ability to form semantic memories as quickly as when they learn words, which possibly aids the development of vocabulary. In contrast, episodic memories develop relatively slowly, appearing at about 3 years of age when children are able to answer questions reliably about past experiences.

Many psychologists believe that the ability to form episodic memories increases gradually throughout childhood due to continued maturation of the brain, particularly in the prefrontal lobes. Proponents of the information processing theory make sense of the development of memory systems, from implicit → semantic → episodic, in terms of childhood developmental needs.

Intelligence as processing[edit]

Before information processing theory, psychologists had trouble operationally defining intelligence. One psychologist even ventured to define intelligence as, "What intelligence tests measure." Information processing defines intelligence as processing. In this way, intelligence can be researched with a more definitive purpose. If the better processor is the smarter human, then getting at what makes people better processors from a psychological level all the way to a biochemical level will help humans understand intelligence much better.

Nature versus nurture[edit]

This theory views humans as being like machines, actively inputting, retrieving, processing and storing information. Context, social content, and social influences on processing are generally ignored in favor of a focus on internal systemic processes (Miller, 2011). Nature provides the hardware, or the neurological processing system likely predisposed to economical and efficient processing, as well as being pre-tuned to attend to specific stimuli. The “Nurture” component presents as the environment which provides the stimuli to be inputted and processed by the system

Quantitative versus qualitative[edit]

Information processing theory combines elements of both quantitative and qualitative development. Qualitative development occurs through the emergence of new strategies for information storage and retrieval, developing representational abilities (such as the utilization of language to represent concepts), or obtaining problem-solving rules (Miller, 2011). Increases in the knowledge base or the ability to remember more items in working memory are examples of quantitative changes, as well as increases in the strength of connected cognitive associations (Miller, 2011). The qualitative and quantitative components often interact together to develop new and more efficient strategies within the processing system. ‍‍

Current areas of research[edit]

Information Processing Theory is currently being utilized in the study of computer or ‍‍artificial‍‍ intelligence. This‍‍ theory‍‍ has also been applied to systems beyond the individual, including families and business organizations. For example, Ariel (1987) applied Information Processing Theory to family systems, with sensing, attending, and encoding stimuli occurring either within individuals within the system or as the family system itself. Unlike traditional systems theory, where the family system tends to maintain stasis and resists incoming stimuli which would violate the system's rules, the Information Processing family develops individual and mutual schemas which influence what and ‍‍how ‍‍information is attended to and processed. Dysfunctions can occur both on the individual level as well as within the family system itself, creating more targets for therapeutic change. ) utilized Information Processing Theory to describe business organizational behavior, as well as to present a model describing how effective and ineffective business strategies are developed. In their study, components of organizations that "sense" market information are identified as well as how organizations attend to this information; which gatekeepers determine what information is relevant/important for the organization, how this is organized into the existing culture (organizational schemas), and whether or not the organization has effective or ineffective processes for their long-term strategy.


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