The cognitive revolution was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes. It later became known collectively as cognitive science. The relevant areas of interchange were between the fields of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. They used approaches developed within the then-nascent fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience. A key goal of early cognitive psychology was to apply the scientific method to the study of human cognition. This was done by designing experiments that used computational models of artificial intelligence to systematically test theories about human mental processes in a controlled laboratory setting.
Several important publications triggered the cognitive revolution. These include psychologist George Miller's 1956 article "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" (one of the most frequently cited papers in psychology), linguist Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (1957) and "Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" (1959), and foundational works in the field of artificial intelligence by John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon, such as the 1958 article "Elements of a Theory of Human Problem Solving". Ulric Neisser's 1967 book Cognitive Psychology was also a landmark contribution.
In the 1960s, the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies and the Center for Human Information Processing at the University of California San Diego were influential in developing the academic study of cognitive science. By the early 1970s, the cognitive movement had surpassed behaviorism as a psychological paradigm. Furthermore, by the early 1980s the cognitive approach had become the dominant line of research inquiry across most branches in the field of psychology.
The cognitive revolution in psychology took form as cognitive psychology, an approach in large part a response to behaviorism, the predominant school in scientific psychology at the time. Behaviorism was heavily influenced by Ivan Pavlov and E. L. Thorndike, and its most notable early practitioner was John B. Watson, who proposed that psychology could only become an objective science were it based on observable behavior in test subjects. Methodological behaviorists argued that because mental events are not publicly observable, psychologists should avoid description of mental processes or the mind in their theories. However, B. F. Skinner and other radical behaviorists objected to this approach, arguing that a science of psychology must include the study of internal events. As such, behaviorists at this time did not reject cognition (private behaviors), but simply argued against the concept of the mind being used as an explanatory fiction (rather than rejecting the concept of mind itself). Cognitive psychologists extended on this philosophy through the experimental investigation of mental states that allow scientists to produce theories that more reliably predict outcomes.
The traditional account of the "cognitive revolution", which posits a conflict between behaviorism and the study of mental events, was challenged by Jerome Bruner who characterized it as:
...an all-out effort to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology [...]. It was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. [...] Its aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated. (Bruner, 1990, Acts of Meaning, p. 2)
It should be noted however that behaviorism was to a large extent restricted to North America and the cognitive reactions were in large part a reimportation of European psychologies. George Mandler has described that evolutionary history.
Lachman and Butterfield were among the first to imply that cognitive psychology has a revolutionary origin. After this, proponents of information processing theory and later cognitivists believed that the rise of cognitivism constitutes a paradigm shift. Despite the belief, many have stated both unwittingly and wittingly that cognitive psychology links to behaviorism.
Leahey said that cognitive scientists believe in a revolution because it provides them with an origin myth which constitutes a beginning that will help in legitimizing their science. Others have said that cognitivism is behaviorism with a new language, slightly bent model and new concerns which aim at description, prediction and control of behavior. The change from behaviorism to cognitivism was gradual. Rather a slowly evolving science which took the origins of behaviorism and built on it. The evolution and building has not stopped, see Postcognitivism.