Information processing theory

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The information processing theories 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.


Information processing as a model for human thinking and learning is part of the resurgence of cognitive perspectives of learning. The cognitive perspective asserts that complex mental states affect human learning and behavior that such mental states can be scientifically investigated. Computers, which process information, include internal states that affect processing. Computers, therefore, provided a model for possible human mental states that provided researchers with clues and direction for understanding human thinking and learning as information processing. Overall, information-processing models helped reestablish mental processes that cannot be directly observed as a legitimate area of scientific research.

Humans as Information Processing Systems[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). 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 planning. These cognitive processes can emerge from human language, thought, imagery, and symbols.

In addition to 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.

Nature versus nurture[edit]

This theory views humans as actively inputting, retrieving, processing, and storing information. Context, social content, and social influences on processing are simply viewed as information. Nature provides the hardware of cognitive processing and Information Processing theory explains cognitive functioning based on that hardware. Individuals innately vary in some cognitive abilities, such a memory span, but human cognitive systems function similarly based on a set of memory stores that store information and control processes determine how information is processed. The “Nurture” component provides information input (stimuli) that is processed resulting in behavior and learning. Changes in the contents of the long-term memory store (knowledge) are learning. Prior knowledge affects future processing and thus affects future behavior and learning.

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)[2] applied Information Processing Theory to family systems, with sensing, attending, and encoding of stimuli occurring either within individuals or within 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 schemes which influence what and how information is attended to and processed. Dysfunctions can occur both at the individual level as well as within the family system itself, creating more targets for therapeutic change. Rogers, P. R. et al (1999) 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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