Cognitive Theories

John O Greene. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

The term cognition simply refers to mental activities. Thus, in everyday conversation, when people make reference to paying attention, planning, forgetting, guessing, daydreaming, and so on, they are invoking cognitive concepts. The domain of mental activities is obviously very broad, encompassing everything that transpires from the initial perception of a stimulus (e.g., the sight and scent of roses and letter shapes on a card) to evocation of thoughts and emotions, and even production of overt responses (e.g., verbal and nonverbal expressions of joy and appreciation). Cognitive theories provide an important window on communication processes because both message production and message comprehension ultimately transpire in the mind.

The objective of cognitive theories is to describe the mental system(s) that give rise to the various phenomena of interest. In other words, explanation (and prediction and control) comes from specifying the nature of the mental structures and processes responsible for producing a particular phenomenon (in much the same way that one might explain the movement of an automobile by describing the action of the pistons, drive shaft, and so on). At the most fundamental level, cognitive theories focus on explicating foundational mental processes such as the nature of attention, perception, comprehension, memory, and response production. As an approach to illuminating the sorts of issues of interest to communication scholars, cognitive theories have been developed to address phenomena as diverse as communication skill acquisition, social anxiety, memory for messages in the mass media, romantic relationship development, and group decision making.

Historical Background

Cognitive science is a broad, interdisciplinary enterprise that draws from numerous intellectual traditions, among them philosophy, sociology, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and communication. The systematic, empirical investigation of mental processes dates to the late 19th century, with the work of Wilhelm Wundt and others, but some authors have suggested that the actual inception of cognitivism as we know it today did not occur until the mid-1950s. Prior to that time, experimental psychology had been dominated by various versions of behaviorism that gave little heed to unobservable mental processes. Nevertheless, other fields of study, including social psychology and developmental psychology, had made ready use of mentalistic concepts at least since the 1920s and 1930s. In that same period, early researchers in speech departments began to focus on topics such as attitude change and the processing of persuasive messages.

By 1970, incorporation of the assumptions, models, and methods of cognitivism into social psychology had led to the development of social cognition—an area of study focused on how people acquire, store, and use socially relevant information, especially information about themselves and others. These topics, quite naturally, were of interest to communication scholars, and during the decade of the 1970s, cognitive models of various symbolic and social processes began to appear in the field of communication. By the time Michael Roloff and Charles Berger’s edited book, Social Cognition and Communication, was published in 1982, the cognitive perspective was firmly ensconced as a way of theorizing about communication processes. The impact of cognitivism in advancing understanding of communication phenomena extends to the present, as evidenced by the work reported in David Roskos-Ewoldsen and Jennifer Monahan’s recent volume, Communication and Social Cognition.

Types of Cognitive Theories

Cognitivism is a general perspective that encompasses a number of only partially overlapping modes of theorizing. Although it is not exhaustive, one approach to distinguishing types of cognitive models identifies three basic theoretical stances. The first of these seeks to explain behavior by recourse to brain structures and processes. A particularly important development driving advances in theories of this sort is the growing use of neu-roimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allows researchers to identify areas of the brain involved in communication activities such as processing spoken language or viewing mass media content. In contrast, at the other end of the continuum of cognitive approaches are theories that invoke the terms of folk psychology as explanatory constructs. By folk psychology is meant the mentalistic terms employed in everyday parlance. Examples of such terms abound, but they include conceptions of goals, plans, attitudes, self-concept, and so on. The standard model of theorizing in the tradition of folk psychology is to explain behavior by recourse to one’s goals and the information (or beliefs) at one’s disposal.

Occupying something of a middle ground between theories cast in neuroanatomical terms and those cast at the level of lay psychology are theories expressed in functional terms. Theories of this sort seek to explain the phenomena of interest by specifying the functional architecture (as opposed to the physical architecture) responsible for observed regularities. Thus, functional theories are cast at the level of mind rather than brain. Theorists working at this level assume that the activities of the mind are instantiated in some way in the brain, but they are not terribly concerned with the precise nature of that link. It is this approach to theorizing that, to date, has been most common among communication scholars pursuing development of cognitive theories. Examples of functional-level theoretical constructs include conceptions of schemas, scripts, associative networks, procedural records, and processing capacity.

Distinguishing theories whose terms are essentially physical, functional, or of folk psychology is useful for identifying what sort of theoretical “animal” one is dealing with (and what sorts of data are relevant to informing and testing those theories). At the same time, such a simple three-category scheme is limited by the fact that, in practice, theories may blur the line between approaches. It is very common, for example, for hybrid theories to attempt to explicate commonsense terms in functional ways (thus, theories have been developed to specify the nature of the memory structures that represent self-concept, attitudes, etc.). On the other side of the continuum’s midpoint, theories developed within the discipline of cognitive neuroscience attempt to illuminate the link between brain and mind (i.e., the ways that the physical systems of the brain produce the functional systems of the mind).

Information Processing Systems

One of the key conceptual underpinnings of cognitive science is the notion that the mind is comprised of a series of subsystems, each responsible for carrying out certain operations along the path from stimulus to response. A rudimentary scheme for organizing discussion of these subsystems distinguishes three major processing stages: input processing, memory, and response generation. Although useful as an expository device, such a general scheme comes with the caveat that these processing subsystems overlap, and in fact, each contributes to the functioning of the others.

The input-processing system entails the mechanisms responsible for attention, perception, and comprehension. It is this system that allows us to recognize letters and words on a printed page, to identify facial expressions of emotion, to hear auditory stimuli as music, to follow the plot of a movie, and so on. The response-generation system is responsible for the production of both covert (i.e., mental) and overt (behavioral) outputs. The activities of this system, then, include processes such as goal setting, response planning, behavioral monitoring, and motor control.

The memory system is the repository of information acquired via the activities of the input-processing and response-generation systems. As such, the memory system holds both declarative information (i.e., factual knowledge) and procedural information (i.e., the knowledge that underlies the ability to perform skilled activities such as driving a car or pronouncing the phonemes of one’s native language). Cognitive theories typically distinguish between long-term and short-term (or working) memory systems. Long-term memory is an essentially unlimited-capacity system that, as the label suggests, retains information for extended periods of time (i.e., years, or even decades). In contrast, the working-memory system holds a small amount of information, often assumed to be that of which a person is consciously aware, and this only for brief periods of time (i.e., on the order of seconds).

Cognitive Theories Bearing on Communication Processes

Specific examples can help illustrate the nature and range of application of cognitive theories that bear directly on communication processes. Certain cognitive theories (e.g., action assembly theory, heuristic-systematic model) are addressed elsewhere in this encyclopedia and need not be covered here, but other examples are useful for illustrating the diversity of cognitive theories addressing communication phenomena.

Limited-Capacity Model

The idea that humans possess a finite pool of processing resources that can be flexibly allocated to carry out various information-processing tasks, and the corollary notion that some activities make greater demands on processing resources than others, dates to the pioneering work of Daniel Kahneman. Building on these ideas, the limited-capacity model, developed by Annie Lang and her associates, is concerned with processing of messages in the mass media. A general integrative framework, the model incorporates conceptions of limited processing resources, controlled and automatic processing, and appetitive and aversive motivational systems to address how people attend to, store, and retrieve media content. Noteworthy, too, in this approach is the use of physiological operationalizations to tap underlying processing mechanisms.

Construction-Integration Model

A fundamental principle to emerge from the study of perception is that it involves the interplay of bottom-up (or sensory-driven) and top-down (or conceptually driven) processes. This idea is at the heart of Teun van Dijk and Walter Kintsch’s model of discourse comprehension. This model addresses the ways that people are able to assign meaning to individual words and clauses (or propositions), to link successive clauses, and to arrive at an understanding of the overall gist of a message. Van Dijk and Kintsch hold that comprehension involves the interaction of perceptual systems, long-term memory of personal experiences and general knowledge (e.g., word meanings), and a dynamic cognitive representation of the message that is being processed. With regard to this final component, a key aspect of the model is the distinction between the representation of the message itself, the textbase, and the situation model—a representation of what the text is about (e.g., the actors, actions, events). The authors note that memory for the textbase is typically much more limited than memory of the situation model.

Dynamic Memory Theory

In their early work on people’s ability to understand and remember narratives, Roger Schank and Robert Abelson gave emphasis to the role of scripts—long-term memory structures representing familiar sequences of events (e.g., visiting a restaurant). In light of subsequent empirical research, Schank revised some of his earlier notions in developing dynamic memory theory, a description of the memory structures involved in processing current events by relating them to previous similar experiences. In this later formulation, less emphasis is given to the role of structures representing fixed sequences of specific types of events, and more attention is devoted to memory organization packets (MOPs)—more general memory structures that apply to whole classes of situated activities (e.g., conducting purchasing transactions). MOPs, then, organize sequences of more specific scenes (e.g., selecting grocery items from store shelves, going through the checkout line). Beyond its obvious implications for understanding the comprehension of narratives, the MOP concept has found application in the study of a variety of other communication phenomena, as is illustrated in the work of Kathy Kellermann and others.

Relational Framing Theory

Studies of interpersonal relationships consistently converge on the finding that they are arrayed along three dimensions: affection-hostility, dominance-submission, and involvement-noninvolvement. In relational framing theory, James Dillard, Denise Solomon, and their associates address the processes by which people make use of cues to draw conclusions about the nature of their relationships along these fundamental dimensions. According to the theory, virtually any statement or other social cue can be interpreted either with respect to its implications regarding the affection-hostility (liking) dimension or the dominance-submission (power) dimension. The theorists propose that cognitive structures, termed relational frames, allow people to make sense of, or understand, the relational significance of what would otherwise be ambiguous behaviors. The liking and power relational frames exert mutual inhibitory influence such that activation of one frame tends to suppress the other. The effect of cues relevant to the third relational dimension, involvement, is to intensify interpretations associated with the activated relational frame, whether it be liking or power.

Cognitive Rules Model

One of the pervasive understandings in the study of social behavior is that people act in the pursuit of various goals. Common examples of classes of goals include objectives such as securing material resources, establishing or maintaining interpersonal relationships with certain characteristics, and creating a desired image of oneself in the minds of others. Steven Wilson’s cognitive rules model addresses the processes by which a person formulates his or her interaction goals. The model invokes an associative network architecture—an approach to addressing memory phenomena that has found very widespread application in cognitive science. An associative network consists of nodes that represent concepts and links that represent relationships between nodes. In the cognitive rules model, features of social situations, characteristics of one’s conversational partner(s), and so on are linked with particular objectives. When a person encounters a specific configuration of situational features, the interaction goals associated with those features tend to be activated, and if this activation exceeds a threshold value, a goal is formed. Other aspects of the theory extend this basic formulation to address the effects of individual differences, situational ambiguity, and familiarity on social-goal formation.

Attitude Accessibility Theory

The attitude construct is a staple of social science, but research suggests that the relationship between attitudes and behavior is more complex than might initially be supposed. In an effort to better understand the link between attitudes and behavior, theorists like Russell Fazio (in psychology) and David Roskos-Ewoldsen (in communication) have pioneered the notion that attitudes may be more or less accessible in memory, and that accessibility, in turn, determines whether and how attitudes play a role in message processing, behavior, and attitude change. Like the cognitive rules model, attitude accessibility theory assumes an associative network architecture in which concepts, corresponding to attitude objects, are linked to evaluations. And, as in standard network models, the links between nodes vary in their strength such that when a given concept is activated, any evaluations with which it is strongly linked will be rapidly and automatically retrieved. In contrast, when associative links are weak, people may have to deliberate to determine their evaluation of a person, thing, or event. Among the predictions suggested by the theory are that readily accessible attitudes are more likely to predict behavior and to persist over time than are attitudes that are less accessible.

Planning Theory

Models of plans and planning were among the earliest developments in cognitive science, dating almost to its inception. Plans are typically held to be mental representations of a sequence of steps leading from some current state of affairs to a desired goal. Charles Berger’s planning theory is a noteworthy example of the application of the plan construct to explication of communication phenomena, particularly message-production processes (although the theory also applies to understanding the actions and messages of others). According to Berger, plans are hierarchical, with abstract action specifications at the top (e.g., persuade someone to purchase this used car) and successively more concrete steps below (e.g., offer a 30-day warranty). The theory further asserts that plans vary in their complexity, both with regard to their specificity and in their incorporation of contingencies and alternative paths of action. An important element of the theory is the hierarchy principle, which suggests that when a plan is thwarted, people will revise lower level (i.e., more concrete) action specifications rather than the more abstract elements of their plans.