What is a stage theory

Information processing theory: definition and examples

Information processing theory is a cognitive theory that uses computer processing as a metaphor for how the human brain works. Originally proposed by George A. Miller and other American psychologists in the 1950s, the theory describes how people focus on information and encode it in their memories.

Key findings: information processing model

  • Information processing theory is a cornerstone of cognitive psychology, which uses computers as a metaphor for how the human mind works.
  • It was originally proposed by American psychologists like George Miller in the mid-1950s to explain how people process information into memory.
  • The most important theory in information processing is the step theory developed by Atkinson and Shiffrin, which describes a sequence of specified information in three steps to be coded into long-term memory: sensory memory, short-term or working memory, and long-term memory.

Origins of information processing theory

In the first half of the 20th century, American psychology was dominated by behaviorism. Behaviorists only examined behaviors that could be directly observed. This left the inner workings of the mind like an unrecognizable "black box". However, around the 1950s computers emerged that gave psychologists a metaphor to explain how the human mind worked. The metaphor helped psychologists explain the various processes that the brain is involved in, including attention and perception. This could be compared to entering information into a computer and the memory could be compared to the memory of a computer in space.

This was called the information processing approach and is fundamental to cognitive psychology to this day. Information processing is particularly interested in how people select, store, and retrieve memories. In 1956 the psychologist George A. Miller developed the theory and also introduced the idea that one can only hold a limited amount of information in short-term memory. Miller specified this number as seven plus or minus two (or five to nine blocks of information), but more recently other scientists have suggested the number may be smaller.

Major models

The development of the information processing framework has continued and expanded over the years. The following are four models that are particularly important to the approach:

Atkinson's and Shiffrin's theory of the stage

In 1968, Atkinson and Shiffrin developed the stage theoretical model. The model was later modified by other researchers, but the basics of stage theory remain a cornerstone of information processing theory. The model deals with the storage of information in memory and shows a sequence of three stages as follows:

Sensory memory - Sensory memory includes everything that we perceive through our senses. This type of reminder is extremely short and only lasts up to 3 seconds. In order for something to get into sensory memory, the individual must pay attention to it. The sensory memory cannot take care of all the information in the environment, so it filters out what it considers irrelevant and only sends what appears to be important for the next level, the short-term memory. The information most likely to advance to the next level is either interesting or familiar.

Short-term memory / working memory - Once information reaches the short-term memory, which is also referred to as main memory, is further filtered. Again, this type of memory doesn't last long, only around 15 to 20 seconds. However, if information called a service check is repeated, it can be stored for up to 20 minutes. As noted by Miller, the memory capacity is limited, so only a certain amount of information can be processed at a time. How many pieces are not agreed, though many still refer to Miller to identify the number as five through nine.

There are several factors that affect what and how much information is processed in memory. Cognitive resilience varies from person to person and moment to moment depending on the person's cognitive abilities, the amount of information processed, and the ability to focus and pay attention. Information that is known and has been repeated many times requires less cognitive skills and is therefore easier to process. For example, if you've done these tasks multiple times, riding a bike or car is minimal cognitive load. Eventually, people will pay more attention to information they think is important so that information is more likely to be processed. For example, when a student is preparing for a test, they are more likely to care about information that is on the test and forget about information they don't think they'll be asking.

Long-term memory - Although short-term memory has a limited capacity, the capacity of long-term memory is believed to be limitless. Different types of information are coded and organized in long-term memory: declarative information information that can be discussed, such as facts, concepts and ideas (semantic memory) and personal experiences (episodic memory); Procedural information, such as information on how to drive a car or brush your teeth; and images that are mental images.

Craik and Lockhart's Level of Processing Model

Although Atkinson and Shiffrin's stage theory is still very influential and provides the floor plan on which many later models are based, its sequential nature is oversimplified in how memories are stored. As a result, additional models were created to expand on it. The first of these was created by Craik and Lockhart in 1973. Her levels of processing theory indicates that the ability to access information in long-term memory depends on how much it has been worked out. Elaboration is the process of making information meaningful so that it is more likely to be remembered.

People process information at different levels of elaboration, so the information is more or less likely to be retrieved later. Craik and Lockhart specified a continuum of elaboration that begins with perception, continues through attention and labeling, and ends with meaning. Regardless of the degree of elaboration, all information is likely to be stored in long-term memory. However, higher levels of elaboration make it more likely that the information will be able to be retrieved. In other words, we can access far less information that we actually have stored in long-term memory.

Parallel distributed processing model and connectionist model

The parallel distributed processing model and connection-oriented model in contrast to the linear three-stage process established in the stage theory. The parallel distributed processing model was a forerunner of connectionism, which suggested that information from multiple parts of the storage system be processed at the same time.

This was expanded in 1986 by Rumelhart and McClelland's connection-oriented model, according to which information is stored in different locations in the brain that are connected by a network. Information with more connections can be more easily accessed by one person.


Information processing theory's use of a computer as a metaphor for the human mind has proven effective, but it is also limited. Computers are not affected by emotions or motivations in their ability to learn and remember information, but these things can have a powerful impact on people. While computers tend to process things one at a time, evidence shows that humans are able to process things in parallel.


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