The 30 Most Influential Cognitive Psychologists Alive Today

Until the 1950s, the dominant school of psychology was behaviorism and the study of observable behaviors. However, by the end of the 1960s, the term cognitive psychology was introduced to describe new research on internal mental states. The field of cognitive psychology explores these mental processes, such as how people acquire, process and store information. Cognitive psychologists research subjects that include attention, language acquisition, learning styles, and other related topics. In fact, experts in neuroscience and linguistics often study cognitive psychology because the subjects overlap in so many ways.

Cognitive psychologists have provided theories responsible for great advances in psychology and education since the field gained widespread acceptance. From Ulric Neisser’s work on perception and pattern recognition to Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, the contributions made by cognitive psychologist have impacted many fields. Here are our selections for the 30 most influential cognitive psychologists – individuals who continue to contribute to the profession, based on their positions in academia, the honors they have received, and their published works.

1. John R. Anderson

Psychologist John Anderson is a professor of psychology and computer science at Carnegie Mellon. His current research involves the ACT-R theory of cognition. Anderson has published several books about thought, memory and cognition. His early research focused on intelligent tutoring systems, and many of his former students became leaders in that field of study. A former faculty member at Yale University, Anderson served as president of the Cognitive Science Society and was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

2. Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, where he has worked since receiving his Ph.D. in 1951. The results of Bandura’s famous Bobo doll study in 1961 set the foundation his self-efficacy and social learning theories, integrating a connection between behaviors, cognitions and the environment. In addition to serving as one of the youngest presidents of the American Psychology Association, Bandura has been on the editorial board of nine psychology journals and is a member of the APA Board of Scientific Affairs.

3. Aaron T. Beck

Cognitive therapy pioneer Aaron T. Beck is Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. His theories of clinical depression serve as the basis for treatments and interventions to this day. Beck created numerous scales and inventories for identifying anxiety and depression, including the Beck Depression Inventory and Beck Anxiety Inventory. In addition, Beck partnered with psychologist Maria Kovacs, Ph.D. to develop the Children’s Depression Inventory. Beck is President Emeritus of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Honorary President of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

4. Jerome Bruner

Cognitive psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner is a senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law. Bruner is responsible for many research studies, including the classic perception experiments, which addressed an organism’s internal interpretation of a stimulus. He is the author of A Study of Thinking, which ushered in the cognitive psychology movement. In addition to helping found Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Studies, Bruner has published 15 books and numerous articles in cognitive, developmental and educational psychology.

5. Susan Carey

Susan Carey is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, where she received her Ph.D. in 1971. Carey’s research of language acquisition led to the introduction of the fast mapping learning concept. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. Carey wrote the book Conceptual Change in Childhood, which addresses Piagetís research on animism with her own research with children and their knowledge of biological concepts.

6. Fergus I.M. Crake

Cognitive psychologist Fergus I.M. Craik is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Toronto, where he has worked since 1971. He is also a Senior Scientist at the Rotman-Baycrest Research Institute in Toronto. Craik’s early research focus was memory proficiency during the aging process. He collaborated with Dr. Bob Lockhart in the 1970s on the Levels of Processing theory. Currently, Craik studies normal aging processes, along with research on brain damage and cognitive processing.

7. Philip Johnson-Laird

Human cognition expert Philip Johnson-Laird is the Stuart Professor of Psychology at Princeton University’s Department of Psychology. He has published several books based on his research on the psychology of reasoning. Johnson-Laird has received numerous accolades for his decades of work. He is a Fellow of several societies, including the American Philosophical Society and the Association for Psychological Science. In 2007, Laird-Johnson was named member of the United States National Academy of Sciences.

8. Michael Gazzaniga

Michael Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a leading cognitive neuroscientist known for his research on split-brain and cerebral lateralization in the brain. During Gazzaniga’s many years in the field, he founded several neuroscience institutes at various American universities. His published books include Nature’s Mind and The Ethical Brain. Gazzaniga is a former President of the American Psychological Society. In addition, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and is a member of the Institute of Medicine and American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

9. Rochel Gelman

Rochel Gelman is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. As a developmental cognitive science researcher, she studies young children’s intuitive understandings and perceptions as they related to mathematics. She received accolades for developing the preschool exhibit at Philadelphia’s Please Touch museum. Gelman is a member of several academies, including the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among others. She is also Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Science.

10. Elizabeth Loftus

Psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth F. Loftus has conducted extensive research on the human memory and its application to forensic settings, including the misinformation effect and recovered memories of sexual abuse in childhood. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior and Professor of Law at University of California, Irvine. Loftus has been honored with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Contributions to Psychology and Law Award from the American Psychology-Law Society. Loftus has published more than 500 journal articles and 24 books.

11. Ken Nakayama

Psychologist Ken Nakayama is well-known for his research on prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces. He is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he has worked since leaving San Francisco’s Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in 1990. Nakayama, who conducts his research at Harvard’s Prosopagnosia Research Center, helped found the school’s Vision Sciences Society and acted as its first president. During his notable career, Nakayama has published 179 articles in psychological journals.

12. Allan Paivio

Allan Paivio is retired Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, where he began teaching in 1963, and continues to keep an office. His dual-coding theory (DCT) involves the storage of nonverbal and verbal information in long-term memory. He conducted research on language, imagery, memory and cognition for over 40 years, publishing almost 200 book chapters and articles, and five books. Paivio still consults with a private remedial education company in California.

13. Brian MacWhinney

Brian MacWhinney is a professor of psychology, computational linguistics, and modern languages at Carnegie Mellon University. He is highly regarded for the development of first and second language processing and acquisition and the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES), which he co-founded with Catherine Snow. MacWhinney’s current research is focused on extending the system to six more research areas. He is also well known for the development of several pioneering software systems used to run psychological experiments.

14. Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a language and cognition expert and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard College. One of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, Pinker has written seven books on the subjects of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Before coming to Harvard, Pinker worked at MIT and Stanford. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New Republic, as well as several language magazines. Pinker has been honored with numerous psychology awards for his research on language and the mind, including the Boyd McCandless Award from the American Psychological Association.

15. Michael Posner

Michael I. Posner is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oregon and an adjunct professor at New York’s Will Medical College. Posner’s research in the field of attention has included investigations into the development of attentional networks regarding numbers processing, visual search and reading in children. He has been recognized for his contributions to the field with a fellowship in the American Psychological Association and the American of Arts and Sciences, among many others. Posner is also the editor of many psychological works.

16. Henry L. Roediger III

In addition to being James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Washington University, Henry L. Roediger III taught at Purdue University, Rice University and Washington University. His research on learning and memory has been the focus of over 200 published articles. Roediger received a number of honors over his long career, including President of the Association for Psychological Science and the Howard C. Warren Medal. He was elected Fellow of many organizations, including the American Psychological Association.

17. Daniel Schacter

Daniel Schacter is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, where he uses cognitive testing and brain imaging techniques to research the biology of memory and amnesia, including the effects of aging on memory. In addition to writing three books and editing seven volumes, Schacter has published more than 200 journal articles on topics such as Alzheimer’s disease and false memory, among others. Schacter is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received the NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing from the National Academy of Sciences.

18. Richard Shiffrin

Richard Shiffrin is Luther Dana Waterman Professor of Cognitive Science at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University. During his career as a cognitive psychologist, Shiffrin has developed numerous theories of memory and attention. His research has focused on retrieval and forgetting, short-term and long-term memory, neural network models, and mathematical computer simulation. In addition to being a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Shiffrin’s numerous awards and recognitions have included the William James Fellow Award and Howard Crosby Warren Medal, among others.

19. Elizabeth Spelke

In addition to her role as professor of psychology at Harvard University, Elizabeth Spelke is the Director of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies. Her research has focused on the assessment of the behavior and brain function of infants and young children while studying the origins and nature of knowledge. She has received several awards, including the Jean Nicod Prize. Spelke is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

20. George Sperling

Cognitive psychologist George Sperling is Distinguished Professor of both Cognitive Science and Neurology & Behavior at the University of California Irvine. His research on the existence of sensory memory included the classic 1960 experiment that tested its capacity and duration. He continues to research vision and attention at Harvard’s Human Information Processing Laboratory. Sperling has numerous professional memberships and has been elected to many positions. He is the founder and organizer of the Annual Interdisciplinary Conference.

21. Larry Squire

Larry R. Squire holds a joint appointment with the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, San Diego, as Professor of Psychiatry, Neurosciences and Psychology. He joined the university immediately after completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He uses animal models and human patients for his experiments on the neurological bases of memory impairment. Squire has published two books and over 480 research articles. A former President of the Society for Neuroscience, Squire is an elected member of several organizations, including The Institute of Medicine and the American Philosophical Society.

22. Anne Treisman

Psychologist and researcher Anne Marie Treisman has studied attention, perception and memory since earning a doctorate from Oxford University in 1962. Currently a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, Treisman has spent decades defining the ways in which humans select and integrate meaningful objects into thoughts and actions. She has received numerous awards and honors for her attention research, including the National Medal of Science from President Obama. She taught at several institutions, including Oxford, University of California, Berkeley, and University of British Columbia. Treisman’s husband is fellow researcher Daniel Kahneman.

23. Daniel Kahneman

Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. His behavioral economics research with Amos Tversky and others established a cognitive basis for human errors stemming from biases. In addition, Tversky developed the prospect theory, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In 2011, he published the best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow summarizing his research. Kahneman is married to cognitive psychologist Anne Treisman.

24. Nancy Kanwisher

Nancy Kanwisher studies neural and cognitive mechanisms as a Professor at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. She has identified several brain regions with a role in the perception of visual stimuli, including the Fusiform Face Area (FFA) which is devoted to face processing. Before joining the faculty at MIT, Kanwisher taught at UCLA and Harvard University. Her honors include the 1999 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences, where she was elected in 2005.

25. Robert Sternberg

Psychologist and psychometrician Robert Sternberg is responsible for several theories related to creativity and thinking styles, including the Triarchic theory of intelligence. In addition to being a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, he is a Distinguished Associate of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. The former President of the American Psychological Association is a past President of the University of Wyoming and a Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Sternberg also taught at Oklahoma State University and Yale University, and has written more than 1500 books and articles.

26. Keith Holyoak

Keith H. Holyoak is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, where he studies the role of analogy in learning and the transfer of knowledge in children and adults. The Canadian born researcher first taught at the University of Michigan and is the co-editor of the 2012 edition of The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. Holyoak has published more than 170 scientific papers and books, including two collections of his poetry.

27. Howard Gardner

Psychologist Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elizabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences, which says humans process information in several distinctly separate ways. He has written more than 20 books, which have been translated into 30 languages. In 2005 and 2008, Gardner was named one of the world’s 100 most influential public intellectuals by both Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. Gardner is currently Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

28. Paul Ekman

Psychologist Paul Ekman has spent decades studying the relationship between emotions and facial expressions, earning the nickname “the human lie-detector.” He was a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco until 2004. Ekman has published The American Psychological Association named Gardner one of the 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century in 2001, and he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. The television series Lie to Me is based on Ekman’s work.

29. Steven Kosslyn

Neuroscientist and psychologist Steven Kosslyn is the Founding Dean at Minerva Schools at KGI, a global university with a unique scaffolded curriculum that emphasizes foundational concepts rather than knowledge dissemination. Kosslyn’s research focus is mental imagery and information processing. His prior positions include Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Sciences at Stanford and Professor at Harvard University. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the Guggenheim fellowship.

30. David M. Buss

David M. Buss is professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Buss is best known for his evolutionary psychology research which examines the sex differences in human mate selection. He has written several books, including Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Buss’s many honors include the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association in 1988.


About the Author

Jennifer Koebele, MS Ed. has spent more than 10 years writing about the field of education. As an educator with a master’s degree in education, Jennifer specializes in helping college students and young professionals reach their full potential through higher learning opportunities.