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Cognitive Psychology Programs and Online Degrees

The brain, once the most mysterious part of the human body, is now the subject of a vast amount of psychological research. Many of the toughest questions about how the brain works can be explained within the scope of cognitive psychology.

For example, is complex thought possible in the absence of language, or can such ideas only be expressed and considered through verbal and nonverbal communication? How does the brain process musical notes, recognizing their combinations and deriving pleasure from them? How can a person hold on to some memories for years while others are soon forgotten? Why do people consistently fall prey to certain cognitive biases that can be easily disproved by logic?

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If these theoretical questions fascinate you, consider this field. Read on to learn all about the field of cognitive psychology, including:

  • What is cognitive psychology?
  • What does a cognitive psychologist do?
  • How do you become a cognitive psychologist?
  • How much can you earn, and what is the career outlook?

Cognitive Psychologist at Work After Getting an Online Psychology Degree

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive psychology is the science of how we think. It examines the many mental processes that go on within our brains, including attention, perception, memory, language, problem-solving, and learning. There are currently three main approaches in cognitive psychology: experimental psychology, computational psychology, and cognitive neuroscience/neuropsychology.

Experimental cognitive psychology studies mental processes using the scientific method. As the name implies, experimental cognitive psychology involves testing hypotheses with controlled experiments to better understand how people think. For example, a researcher might track eye movement to understand how the brain responds to images.

Computational psychology views brains as computers. In this view, thinking is just a way of processing information. Researchers in this field try to better understand mental processes by creating math and computer-based simulations of brain activity.

Cognitive neuroscience focuses on the physical brain to understand how humans think. Cognitive neuroscience assumes all mental processes come from the interactions of neurons in the brain. Through observing the brain during experiments, researchers can better understand which parts are used for different tasks and how they work together. Cognitive neuroscience often focuses on how thinking is affected by a brain injury or mental illness. There is also a field called neuropsychology, which is closely related. The primary difference is that cognitive neuroscientists are mostly researchers, whereas neuropsychologists are mostly clinicians.

These three approaches often overlap to provide complementary insights. The scientific method, used in experimental cognitive psychology, is also applied in computational psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscientists often use computer models to simulate neural responses, and cognitive researchers rely on findings from all methods.

As you can probably tell, cognitive psychology is an interdisciplinary field of study. It borrows from biology, neuroscience, computer science, medicine, philosophy, and psychology. The breadth of the field allows cognitive psychologists to advance not just medical technologies and treatments, but also artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is the study of machine learning. Cognitive psychological research is used to make computers smarter. Without cognitive psychology, computer scientists can build machines that perform tasks normally associated with thinking, but they can’t build machines that process information as we do. For example, a computer may be able to recognize inappropriate content on a webpage, but it will not be able to process that content and put it into context. Creating machines that can process information in the same way that we do can allow scientists to create experiments that would be difficult to perform on humans.

Leveraging AI research, cognitive psychologists can identify how various stimuli will affect a person’s thinking and then use that information to improve lives. For example, cognitive psychology research shows us that exercise increases a person’s ability to learn. We can use this insight to design classrooms, playgrounds, and curriculums that make learning easier.

What Does a Cognitive Psychologist Do?

In general, cognitive psychologists do research. However, some treat patients and others teach. Many do more than one. Researchers usually have a narrow focus, like seeing how adults can improve their language-learning abilities. Clinicians work with patients and, like researchers, often specialize. For example, a cognitive psychologist might work mostly with Alzheimer’s and memory care patients.

Cognitive psychologists who teach usually do so in universities and medical schools. Some instructors might only teach graduate-level students and have a narrow focus, while others might teach a broad range of undergraduate-level courses.

Depending on their focus, cognitive psychologists are most often employed by government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and research universities. Those in clinical practice usually work in hospitals, treatment facilities, and mental health clinics.

Much of cognitive psychology—whether research, clinical, or otherwise—focuses on six areas of study: memory, language, perception, learning, attention, and problem-solving.


Cognitive psychologists study how memories are made, stored, and lost. This is called “the memory process.” Cognitive psychologists studying memory look at the relationship between the senses and memory, the relationship between memory and reality, and why some information gets locked in for the long haul, while some is quickly forgotten.

Cognitive psychologist research into memory has a wide-reaching impact on everything from medical science to educational psychology to criminal justice. For example, one researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, conducted research that demonstrated the fallibility of memory. In an experiment, she showed people a video of a car crash. Afterward, using language that reflected judgment about the severity of the crash, Loftus asked participants to rate the speed of the vehicle in the video they had seen. When she described the crash in more dramatic terms, participants recalled the car driving faster than when she described the crash in milder terms. This study, and others like it, shaped the way criminal justice systems collect and view eyewitness testimony.


Cognitive psychologists study how language is acquired, understood, and produced. How a person acquires language tells us about their abilities and the linguistic environment. How well they comprehend language offers an indicator of reasoning capability. The conditions under which a person communicates, and what they say, tells us a lot about how the person thinks.

Many psychologists and philosophers believe that language is the thing that makes us human. It may come as a surprise, then, that we don’t know much about it. For example, there is still no definitive scientific evidence to explain the human capacity for language, though researchers have tried. Cognitive neuropsychologists have compared human brains to various mammals yet have found no clear brain structures unique to language or humans. While it is difficult to prove there is no difference, the lack of evidence supporting the difference has philosophical implications.


The study of perception is about how people combine sensory inputs with their existing knowledge to find meaning. In other words, it is about how we make sense of the things around us. This includes studying things like object recognition, illusions, and motion detection.

A cognitive neuroscientific approach to perception has helped scientists use the phantom limb phenomenon (an illusion of sorts) to their advantage. Amputees who feel pain in lost limbs have been given new robotic limbs to treat their pain. By mapping the brain activity of people experiencing phantom limb phenomena, researchers were able to identify the parts of the brain responsible for the perception. From there, they could experiment with targeted electric and drug therapies.


Cognitive psychologists also often explore mental processes involved in learning. This research overlaps with many other categories of research. It includes how people observe and categorize information from the world around them. Researchers in this area consider the factors that can help or hinder a person’s ability to acquire and use new information.

Teachers often rely on research done by cognitive psychologists to help their students learn. For example, cognitive psychologists have done controlled studies comparing the effectiveness of cramming for a test versus studying in short, spaced-out increments. As a result, teachers can now tell students that if they study 15 minutes a night for four straight days, they are more likely to do well on a test than if they study an hour the night before.


The study of attention in cognitive psychology is about what people focus on. There are countless things happening around us at any given moment, but to navigate the world we have to ignore some of it. Cognitive psychologists study how and why our brains focus on certain stimuli. This can be done by researchers to find treatments for ADHD or by marketing agencies to get your attention and sell you products. For example, to find an ideal learning environment, a researcher could conduct studies comparing the brain’s ability to focus on a given task under various conditions.

Problem Solving

In cognitive psychology, problem-solving refers to the mental processes that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems. Problem-solving involves several processes:

  • Perceiving a problem
  • Storing the perception in memory
  • Relating the problem to other relevant information
  • Categorizing components of the issue

Problem solving strategies include algorithms, “rules of thumb,” trial-and-error, or sudden insights.

Cognitive psychologists often study factors that stand in the way of a person’s ability to problem-solve. For example, researchers have conducted studies in which participants are given word problems featuring some information they didn’t need in order to solve the problem. They found that people trying to solve more complex problems were more likely to be misled by irrelevant information. This insight can be used to help researchers identify blind spots in their own analyses and to better communicate their research.

Cognitive Psychologist Salary and Career Outlook

The median cognitive psychologist salary is just shy of $95,000, but your earning potential will partially depend on where you work and your specific job role. Research scientists, on average, make around $85,000. If you choose to teach, the average for a professor (in any field) is just a shade higher at $86,000. On the other hand, if you work in technology to improve user experience, the median income is above $115,000.

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted the number of people employed as psychologists will rise by 11% from 2016 to 2026. Relatedly, the number of psychology professors is expected to increase by 15%.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Cognitive Psychologist

Although you can receive a master’s in cognitive psychology, you will not be considered a cognitive psychologist until you earn a Ph.D. The basic steps to becoming a cognitive psychologist are as follows:

  1. Earn a Master’s Degree, though this is not a requirement for all doctoral programs.
  2. Get your Doctorate Degree.
  3. Gain licensure. If you do research or teach, you do not need a license. For any type of face-to-face treatment, you do. Licensure requirements vary by state, so check with your state’s psychology board, which you can find through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards website.

Master’s Degree in Cognitive Psychology

With a master’s in cognitive psychology you will not be a psychologist, but you can apply for jobs as a research assistant, lab assistant, or a handful of other roles. A master’s in cognitive psychology is not a requirement for all doctoral programs in the field, but it may help your chances of admission or shorten the length of a doctoral program. This degree program generally takes about two years to complete.

Entrance Requirements

Entrance requirements vary widely between schools and concentrations. Some master’s programs require you to pass a subject test in psychology and take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Other programs do not. Many programs require applicants to have some undergraduate credits in statistics, psychology, biology, social sciences, and research methods. Almost all graduate programs require a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average.


Some programs offer a master’s in psychology or science, while others have a Master of Philosophy in the discipline. Usually, cognitive psychologist programs exist within psychology departments, but sometimes they are housed under a neuroscience (or similar) department. It typically takes between two and three years to complete a master’s degree.

Common concentrations include cognitive neuroscience, quantitative psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, developmental and evolutionary psychology, behavioral science, and social psychology. Some programs allow students to choose between research and clinical tracks.

Master’s in Cognitive Psychology Online

Unfortunately, very few online psychology degrees are available. Students seeking cognitive and perceptual psych online programs may find many individual online courses—including some that are free—but very few degree programs.

However, students interested in this field can learn more about it by earning an online general psychology degree and specializing in cognitive psychology. A number of online psychology master’s and bachelor’s degrees allow students to take elective courses in perceptual psychology. Bachelor’s degrees tend to have more room for electives, so students interested in learning as much as they can about cognition and behavior may want to earn an online bachelor’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in cognitive psychology.

Students should also contact schools with online master’s and doctoral programs in psychology and ask about individual plans of study. Some schools will allow students to create their own degrees or specializations, provided knowledgeable faculty members are available to oversee them.

Doctorate Degree in Cognitive Psychology

If you want to be a cognitive psychologist, you need a doctorate in the subject. Programs run between four and six years, sometimes depending on whether you already have a master’s. Most doctoral programs do not require a master’s degree or a degree in psychology. However, students with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field may be more successful in gaining admittance with a master’s degree in psychology.

Much like with master’s programs, entrance requirements for doctoral degrees vary between schools and concentrations. Some doctoral degrees require GREs and subject exams, but others do not. If you’re considering a concentration in cognitive neuroscience, those programs often require more biology and other natural science requirements for entry. If you’re studying computational cognitive psychology, the program is likely to require some completed math and computer science courses. Almost all graduate programs require a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average.

Common concentrations include cognitive neuroscience, quantitative psychology, psycholinguistics, philosophy of mind, developmental and evolutionary psychology, behavioral science, and social psychology. While some master’s programs allow students to choose between research and clinical tracks, this option is much more common at the doctoral level.

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