Information Processing Theory essay

Information processing theory represents is an empirically tested approach to the study of cognition and cognitive development, according to which human mind and processes occurring in it are likened to certain algorithms. However, unlike typical algorithms, where the main emphasis made upon input and output, scientists developing information processing theory make focus on the processes of cognitive development. Although information processing theory was initially developed by Atkinson and Shriffin in 1968, subsequent generations of psychologists and researchers revised and modernized it, adding new approaches and alternatives (Huitt, 2003).

From the contemporary perspective, information processing theory represents one of the most intrinsic and important parts of cognitive psychology. The empirical bedrock on which information processing theory rests comes largely from years of research on how animals and humans of different ages behave when confronted with simple problems that require choosing between two visual displays. One display is correct and the other incorrect; the problem calls on the solver to discover which is which. The information in these displays, as in real-life, contains both relevant and irrelevant elements.

The problems can be solved whether the information is processed actively or passively. Active information processing abstracts and selectively encodes the relevant information and ignores that which is, or appears to be, irrelevant to the solution of the problem (Cowan, 1995). Passive information processing nonselectively encodes all of the perceptible information, relevant and irrelevant alike, in parallel (Cowan, 1995). In a complementary manner, the problems permit solutions by means of automatic associative learning or by means of rational hypothesis testing.

When these problems were presented to animals they mostly tended to process the information in the displays nonselectively and to solve the problems in the automatic associative mode. When human adults were presented with the problems they typically abstracted the relevant information and solved the problems in the rational hypothesis-testing mode. How human children encoded the information and solved the problems depended on their age. The youngest children, like the infrahuman animals, mostly tended to encode the information nonselectively and to solve the problems in the associative mode (Cowan, 1995) .

But between early childhood and young adulthood there was a gradual, systematic, quantitative increase in both the tendency to abstract the relevant from the irrelevant information and in the tendency to solve the problem by testing plausible hypotheses. Information processing theorists associate human cognitive processes with certain algorithms. In the middle of the past century the most prominent of the neobehaviorists, Hull produced a mathematical theory of learning intended to explain a variety of simple learning behaviors based on a series of explicit postulates from which testable deductions were derived (Kendler, 1995).

His theory began with noting that organic evolution provides the normal organism with receptor organs capable of responding to the important stimuli in its environment (S), motoric organs that can make the necessary responses (R), and a nervous system that connects these stimuli and responses (-) (Kendler, 1995, p. 73). Information processing theorists went further by breaking down the process of the human thinking processes and cognitive performance. When individual receives some stimuli through senses, his brain puts this information into the sensory store. Then the information is placed into short term memory.

In case the information is not encoded from short term memory to long term memory, it is abandoned. However, once in long term memory the information is ready for retrieval. Miller, one of the pioneers of information processing perspective indicated that it is important to understand some of the key assumptions of information processing approach, including the emphasis on, the role of the knowledge base in cognitive development; “the conceptualization of thinking as involving distinct processes executed over time, and the ways in which change in the system can occur” (qtd in Cowan, 1995, p.113).

It is evident that as children get older they are able to process more information and process it faster than younger children. Processing capacity is the amount of information a person can remember or think about ay one time. Researchers measure it by representing series of information very quickly and counting how many items a person can remember in exact order; these changes in processing capacity help explain age differences on many kinds of cognitive tasks (learned tasks).

As children mature and their capacity grows, they gain the ability to consider several sources of information at the same time, and their cognitive processing becomes more flexible and powerful. Because human brain processing information can recognize familiar tasks, it automatically applies correct path for a human to act, thus decreasing the working memory and allowing higher processing of information.

In information processing theory this process is called automaticity, an ability of a human to complete everyday talks with minimum interference of other simultaneous activities, which logically result in a reduction of brain activity and shifts in brain usage (Anderson et al, 1998). Therefore, throughout individual’s life, brain repeatedly recognizes learned tasks and processes the algorithm necessary to complete those tasks more effortlessly. Attention becomes more sustained and selective with age; children become better at focusing on just those aspects of a situation that are relevant to their goals.

Older children are also better at adapting attention to task requirements. Gains in cognitive inhibition, believed to be due to development of the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, are particularly marked in middle childhood. They lead to expansion of processing capacity and underlie children’s greater selectivity of attention. A major strength of the information-processing approach is its precision in breaking down cognition into separate elements so each can be studied thoroughly.

As a result, information processing has uncovered a variety of explicit mechanisms of cognitive change and has contributed greatly to the design of teaching techniques that advance children’s thinking (Huitt, 2003). Much of the cognitive development consists of developing strategies for reaching the maximum potential of our mental limited capacity. From the critical viewpoint, humans have to develop new strategies for learning, remembering, and processing information more efficiently so they can increase the capacity to assimilate new information and new problems.


Anderson M. et al. (1998). Implicit and Explicit Mental Processes, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998 Cowan N. (1995). Attention and Memory: An Integrated Framework, Oxford University Press Huitt, W. (2003). The information Processing Approach to Cognition. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Available at <http://chiron. valdosta. edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/infoproc. html> Retrieved Aug 16, 2006 Kendler T. S. (1995). Levels of Cognitive Development, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995