What is cognitive psychology, and how to use eye tracking for it?

  by Mirta Mikac, Product Manager

According to American Psychological Association (APA), cognitive psychology is one of the principal subfields of psychology. It is also described as the field exploring internal mental processes, including perception (our ability to see or hear the world around us), attention (our capability to selectively focus on one piece of information while disregarding irrelevant details), memory, thinking, use of language, learning, and problem-solving¹. While cognitive psychology mainly focuses on cognitive processes through inferences from our behavior, cognitive neuroscience, on the other hand, concentrates on establishing connections between mental processes and resulting brain activity. Its primary focus is researching the underlying biology influencing our information processing¹.

Cognitive psychology in a nutshell

Even though cognitive psychology is a relatively modern subfield of the dynamic field of psychology, its importance is rapidly increasing as cognitive processes have been integrated into various other subfields of psychology, such as abnormal (dealing with psychopathology and deviations in behavior), educational (studying how learning processes can be improved with the knowledge retention), developmental (examining various changes, including the cognitive ones, which happen throughout our lifespan), and social (understanding of our perception about others and how this perception affects our choices, behaviors, and beliefs).

How it all started

Despite being a relatively young branch of psychology, cognitive psychology became one of the most popular subfields. It grew into prominence between the 1950s and 1970s. In earlier times behaviorism approach was dominantly advocating the ideology of humans learning their behaviors from interacting with their environment2. The focus was strictly on observable behavior, while emotions and thoughts were not considered. However, with the cognitive revolution, researchers, based on complex representations and computational procedures, started emphasizing that our internal processes affect behavior3. This resulted in research expanding to consider memory, attention, and language acquisition in relation to observable behavior.

The most important event for the field of cognitive psychology dates to 1967 when German psychologist Ulric Neisser5 introduced the term cognitive psychology in his ground-breaking book Cognitive Psychology4 and is hence considered the father of this field. His main research focus was on perception and memory, where he challenged behaviorist theory with his postulations that mental processes could be measured and subsequently analyzed.

Ulric Neisser

The role of eye tracking in cognitive psychology

Various research over decades has repeatedly shown the link between eye movements and cognitive processes, including attention, memory, and decision-making. Hence, eye trackers are one of the essential experimental methods to investigate human cognition nowadays. Such technology provides insights into eye movement characteristics and how they are influenced by cognition and behavior. In the case of attention, the analysis of eye movements helps determine the location of focus and visual field during the execution of particular tasks12. Moreover, our eyes can uncover distinct stages of decision-making processes (before, during, and after making the decision). For instance, research has shown that the analysis of smooth pursuit can be used to specify how the decision is formed and predict its outcome8. In contrast, saccades show detailed insights into decision-making durations9. On the other hand, given the structural and functional connection between the hippocampal and the oculomotor system7, eyes are also called windows into memory. They also play an essential role during encoding, retrieval, and memory reconstruction6. Studies have found that gaze fixations occurring in the encoding phase are not only linked to neural markers of memory formation10 but that humans use their eye movements to maintain a memory11.


APA Dictionary of Psychology, American Psychological Association,  https://dictionary.apa.org/cognitive-psychology


Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.


Solso, R.L., MacLin, M.K., & MacLin, O.H. (2005). Cognitive psychology (7th ed.). Pearson Education New Zealand.


Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Photo of Ulric Neisser: Emory Magazine Spring 2012, Emory University, https://www.emory.edu/EMORY_MAGAZINE/issues/2012/spring/register/tribute-neisser/index.html


Ryan, J.D., & Shen, K. (2020). The eyes are a window into memory. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 32, 1-6.


Ryan, J.D., Shen, K., & Liu, Z. (2019). The intersection between the oculomotor and hippocampal memory systems: empirical developments and clinical implications. Ann N Y Acad Sci.


Fooken, J., & Spering, M. (2019). Decoding go/no-go decisions from eye movements. Journal of Vision, 19(2), 5.


Spering, M. (2022). Eye Movements as a Window into Decision-Making. Annual Review of Vision Science, 8, 427-448.


Liu, Z.-X., Shen, K., Olsen, R.K., & Ryan, J.D. (2017). Visual sampling predicts hippocampal activity. J Neurosci, 37, 599-609.


Wynn, J.S., Olsen, R.K., Binns, M.A., Buchsbaum, B.R., & Ryan, J.D. (2018). Fixation reinstatement supports visuospatial memory in older adults. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform, 44, 1119-1127.


Kowler, E. (2009). Attention and Eye Movements. Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, 605-616.