Information Processing Theory

The information processing theory is a cognitive approach to understanding how the human mind ‍‍transforms‍‍ sensory information. ‍‍The model assumes‍‍ that information that comes from the environment is subject to mental processes beyond a simple stimulus-response pattern. "Input" from the environment goes through the cognitive systems which is then measured by the "output". Information that is received can take several paths depending on attention, encoding, recognition, and storage. The central executive feature controls how much information is being processed, though more primitive sensory areas of the brain first accept environmental input. The theory looks at real time responses to presented stimuli and how the mind transforms that information. The model is used in several areas of research such as; cognitive development, neuroscience, social learning, and artificial ‍‍intelligence.‍‍



The cognitive revolution in the late 1950's sparked the emergence of the theory. One major catalyst of the cognitive revolution was the invention of the computer. The model is constructed to represent mental processes much like that of a computer. No one theorist claims to have invented the model. A consensus model was refined by Atkinson and Shiffrin that is known as the modal model (1968). The concept simply encompasses the ideas of internal processes that were ignored by the predominate behaviorists. ‍The model ‍creates a basic structure for experimental research of these internal ‍‍processes.‍‍


Over long spans of time individuals process information with greater efficiency. ‍‍The model assumes‍‍ that through the process of maturation one develops greater abilities to attend to stimulus, recognize patterns, encode, and retrieve information. Over the life span individuals experience more information, associations, and ways to categorize the input. The process may seem passive, but the model assumes that input from the environment is actively being transformed and rehearsed thus becoming a part of long-term memory. For environmental information to become a part of long-term memory one must attend to, rehearse, and make sense of the stimuli. The interaction between nature and nurture coincide for changes in development. The model does not attempt nor can it distinguish between the two.


Qualitative and quantitative methods can be used according to the theory. Quantitative methods include recall or recognition tasks involving word or number lists. These tasks involve participants reading or being read a list of words or numbers that they will be tested on later. The recall task is where the participants will be asked to write or restate items that they remember from the original list. The recognition task is where participants are shown another list of words or numbers that include items that were on the original list and some that were not. The number of items recalled or recognized would be the quantity that is measured. A child's memory capacity is quite limited in early life. Measuring the increase in capacity throughout development can show valuable changes. An example of qualitative methods may be measuring verbal representations of memory. The development of word usage to measure mental representations is quite effective in studying changes in memory. A young child often uses very few words to describe a memory or anything for that matter. During human development researchers can measure meaningful changes through verbal representations.

Human as Computer
  • 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)
  • In the model below, you can see the direct comparison between human processing and computer processing.
  • Within this model, 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).

Working Memory


  • The above diagram is a model of Baddeley's model of working memory, which can be found in the Miller (2011) text on pages 272-272.
  • Central Executive – part of working memory where information is controlled
  • Visuospatial sketchpad – visual and spatial information
  • Phonological loop – sounds
  • Episodic buffer – where information is brought to the forefront, used, constructed
  • Long-term memory – information retained indefinitely

Learning and Memory

  • Process of forming memories follows a 3-step model:
  1. ‍‍Encoding‍‍
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval
  • When children are faced with information that is unfamiliar to them, they are left with the task of developing strategies to encode the information so as to store it and accurately and easily access it at a later time.
(Miller, 2011)

This video is a neat display of how the brain processes external stimuli, moves the information to short-term storage (working memory), and then transfers that information to long-term memory...

Memory and Development
  • The method of storing information into memory differs depending on the age of the child.
  • As children develop, they experience increased cognitive abilities, increased memory capacity, and other social/cultural factors all serve as major contributors to development.
  • Older children:
    • are more likely to develop memory strategies on their own,
    • better discern what memory strategies are appropriate for particular situations and tasks, and
    • are better able to selectively attend to important information and filter out extraneous information.
  • The strategies children use to encode and remember information are of interest to information-processing researchers (e.g., task analysis research).
  • Example, “young children are capable of using rehearsal to aid memory if they are told to rehearse, but they are deficient at spontaneously producing a strategy” (Miller, 2011, ‍‍p.283‍‍) – production deficiency.
  • Therefore, young children are unable to ascertain the appropriate time to use particular strategies, which serves as a major developmental marker.

  • As children develop they become more capable of developing appropriate strategies to acquire and remember units of knowledge when necessary.
  • A child’s ability to selectively ‍‍choose‍‍ which information they attend to is another developmental milestone
    • A child may choose a strategy that does not produce a desired outcome (utilization deficiency)
    • Children may use several strategies on the same task
    • They may frequently change their strategies used
    • Or, strategies develop as a result of increased knowledge, development, etc.
  • Children develop strategies over the course of their development
  • They may employ strategies at an early age that prove ineffective later in development. Also, they may develop new strategies that they find effective and useful later in life.
(Miller, 2011)

Memory and Knowledge
  • As stated above, younger children have less memory capacity.
  • A child’s level of comprehension is integrally connected with their memory (Miller, 2011, p.285)
  • As the child develops, they are able to process information at a faster speed, and they have an increased capacity of how much information they can take in at a time.
  • Increased memory capacity allows the child to process and store more bits of information. (Miller, 2011, p.290)
  • Thus, older children are able to take in more information at a faster rate, therefore allowing better efficiency of information processing.
  • Information-Processing Theory views memory and knowledge formation as working together, and not as separate, mutually exclusive concepts.
  • Humans are better able to remember things they have knowledge of, which increases the recall of stored information.
  • Increased knowledge allows the person to more readily access information because it is categorized and the bits of information relate to one another.
  • Increased knowledge enables the child to more readily access information from their long-term storage and utilize it in appropriate situations‍‍ (p.285)‍‍
  • The more associations one is able to make and the more complex their network of associations, the better their information recall.
  • A developmental milestone examined in children is their ability to take information and expound upon it. Younger children are more likely to purely recall the information they process. However, as children develop and gain knowledge, they are better able to gather information, make inferences, judgments, and go beyond pure recall. (Miller, 2011, p.286)
  • As children develop, they also gain an understanding of their own memory and how it works, which is called metamemory.
  • Also, children also gain information about how human cognitive functioning, which is called metacognition.
  • These are other important developmental milestones, which indicate the child is able to process much more complex and less concrete information.
  • This is important in our overall functioning, because it shows an understanding of our own functioning related to specific tasks and how to best adapt our learning and memory strategies.

The video below is from a class discussion that neatly describes the process by which children (in this case students) process information, store it, and utilize it later. The diagrams shown are helpful in conceptualizing the process.

View of humanity

  • Information Processing Theory views humans as information processing systems, with memory systems sometimes referred to as cognitive architecture (Miller, 2011).
  • A computer metaphor is often applied to human cognitive systems, wherein information (a stimulus) is inputted (sensed) and the brain then performs processes such as comparing the information to previously stored information (schemas), transforming information (encoding), or storing information in long-term memory.

Nature versus nurture
  • This theory views humans as being like machines, actively inputting, retrieving, processing and storing information.
  • Context, social content, and social influences on processing are generally ignored in favor of a focus on internal systemic processes (Miller 2011).
  • Nature provides the hardware, or the neurological processing system likely predisposed to economical and efficient processing, as well as being pre-tuned to attend to specific stimuli.
  • The “Nurture” component presents as the environment which provides the stimuli to be inputted and processed by the system

Quantitative versus qualitative
  • 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).
  • The qualitative and quantitative components often interact together to develop new and more efficient strategies within the processing system.


Social Influences‍‍

  • One's culture greatly influences how one remembers bits of information by how the culture emphasizes various elements, emotions, or even events (Shaki & Gravers, 2011).
  • As the text discusses, children can manage and handle more information at once due to increased capacity, and “because new information can be packaged into preexisting categories and structures” (Miller, 2011, p.290)
  • The knowledge gained, however, is not obtained without interaction with the child’s external environment (Miller, 2011, p.290)
  • Attitudes and beliefs about gender, race, sex roles, etc. greatly influence how a child processes and recalls information (Miller, 2011, p.290)
  • Beck (1975) suggests that as we develop we learn how to process external stimuli, and these messages are processed, interpreted and incorporated into one’s internal schemas
  • For example, children in a school setting who are taught that men and women occupy certain gender-stereotypic jobs are thus more likely to process information through such a “filter" (Best, 1983)
  • The text points out that children may even reconstruct images later to fit with their schema of a particular occupation (Miller, 2011, p.290)
  • This relates to the construction of scripts, which are assumptions or expectations about what is supposed to happen in a particular situation. They can greatly influence how a child remembers events and may potentially lead to assumptions about people, events, etc. (Miller, 2011, p.287-288)
  • Scripts -- beliefs and expectations about what should happen.
  • While scripts are helpful in making the information-processing system more efficient, they can hinder the recall of specific information and enhance the generalizations made about people, events, etc.
  • Language is an integral part of one's culture that can greatly influence the information-processing system.
  • Language, the nature of a task's instruction, and the type of task can all greatly impact the processing of information (Shaki & Gravers, 2011).
  • Furthermore, individualistic versus collectivistic cultures can have different outlooks on human development as well as the proper formation and development of an individual, which therefore influences motivations and actions toward goals (Hamamura et al, 2009).

Current Areas of Research
  • 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) applied Information Processing Theory to family systems, with sensing, attending, and encoding stimuli occuring either within individuals within the system or as 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 schemas which inflcuence what and ‍‍how ‍‍information is attended to and processed. Dysfunctions can occur both on the individual level as well as within the family system itself, creating more targets for therapeutic change.
  • Rogers, Miller, and Judge (1999) utilized Information Processing Theory to describe business organizational behavior, as well as to present a model describing how effective and innefective 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 relevent/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.

  • Models based upon Information Processing Theory takes a somewhat simplistic view of cognitve processing, with information processing being viewed as a largely linear process. This model does not take into account simultaneous or parallel processing. Another example where the linear model, which suggest rehearsal is required to encode information in long term memory, is likely faulty occurs in cases of trauma, where information can be encoded automatically and without rehearsal due to a single exposure to traumatic stimuli.
  • ‍‍The metaphor of the computer is off-putting to many, who dislike comparing human beings to machines. Additionally, no current computer program can truly simulate the full range of human cognition.‍‍
  • Computer constructed models that are based upon this theory are highly complex and again cannot take into account all nuances of human thought despite their complexity.
  • Information ProcessingTheory does not account for fundamental developmental changes, or changes to the "hardware" of the brain. For example, how do humans gain the ability to utilize representational thought utilizing language? How do people develop "formal operations" thinking, such as abstract logical or social thinking when they previously thought in "concrete" ‍‍terms?‍‍
  • There is an excessive focus on internal cognitive processes, with little attention being paid to environmental influences or the nature of the external stimuli the individual is exposed to. Additioanlly, the impact of emotions or behaviors on cognitive processing or interpretation is not sufficiently included in this model. For example, the information processing model does not consider how an individual can process a stimuli differently if they are angry versus if they are in a calm state.
  • The information processing model is described as being universal, with little attention being paid to individual differences or cultural differences.

‍ References and Suggested Further Readings

Ariel, S. (1987). An information processing theory of family dysfunction. Psychotherapy, 24, 477-‍‍495.‍‍

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. The psychology of learning
and motivation, 89-105.

Best, R. (1983). We’ve all got scars: What boys and girls learn in elementary school. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Goodwin, C.J. (2005). A history of modern psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Danvers, MA.
Hamamura, T., Meijer, Z., Heine, S.J., Kamaya, K., & Hori, I. (2009). Approach – avoidance motivation and information
processing: A cross-cultural analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 454-462.

Miller, P. H. (2011). Theories of developmental psychology. New York, NY; Worth.

‍‍Rogers, P. R., Miller, A., & Judge, W. Q.‍‍ (1999). Using information-processing theory to understand planning/performance relationships
in the context of strategy. Strategic Management ‍‍Journal,‍‍ 20, 567-577.

Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical
reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33– 46.

Shaki, S. & Gevers, W. (2011). Cultural characteristics dissociate magnitude and ordinal information processing. Journal of Cross-
Cultural Psychology, 42, 639-650.