Cognition in general: SRC Cognition group pt1

A guest post by Nanda Wijermans

Cognition – from hearing people talk around me it has something to do with people’s minds, views and their behaviour  and it is considered  very important. But what can/should we as SES researchers do with it? Actually, what do we mean when we talk about cognition?

To move on from wondering and pondering, we decided to start a reading group on Cognition to  learn and develop a shared understanding through reading and discussing. Recently we had our first thematic session: cognition in general. 

This week’s readings were:

In this selection we focused on getting a general overview, a first step in building common language and knowledge. 

In a 5-minute history-of-cognitive-science-quicky, SRC PhD student, Matteo Giusti described the development of the cognitive sciences of the last century.  The transformation of explaining mental processes and human behaviour starts with behaviourism, i.e. the view of the mind as a black box and introduction of rigour in methodology by focusing on measurable stimulus response behaviours. In the ‘60s classic cognition shifted it’s towards the mind itself. The mind was approached as an information processing system. The most recent change in the ‘90s concerns embodied cognition. Stressing the mind being inherently part of the human body and external world of an individual.

Discussions of the readings:  In general the different overviews were regarded very helpful, particularly, because everyone had heard of bits and pieces but missed connections between them.

Seed & Tomasello (2010) highlight that many of the basic cognitive skills and mental representations used by humans to navigate the social and physical world are possessed by all primates. For instance, all primates understand the behaviour of others in terms of underlying goals & intentions and perception and knowledge.  Apart from differentiating man from other primates on the complex cognitive skills, their main distinguishing feature was attributed to cultural intelligence and the ability of humans to form cultural groups that cooperate and learn.

Gintis (2009) contributed by providing an overview of the economic, psychological, social and biological models of human behaviour and arguing for a unification of the social science with the help of evolutionary game theory. Moreover, Gintis was valuable for our discussion by being quite provocative, highlighting recent debates and providing his own vision. By arguing very strongly for the Rational Actor model he enables both rationality lovers and haters to argue more precisely. For instance that the rational actor model is not the same as a Homo Economicus, what are the boundaries of models, or the differences between routine choices and deliberative choices.

Kolmussen & Agyeman (2010), who move more into our field, addresses pro-environmental behaviour. Along with providing an overview in its own right, our discussions turned into a debate of the usefulness of ‘pro-environmental behaviour’ as a concept for studying social-ecological systems. Who decides what is ‘pro-environmental’ … tricky. What about other concepts such as sense of place?  Pulling it back to cognition, it boils down to what are motives, how are they affected and how can they be studied particularly in relation to behaviour.

Based on all the readings and discussions we brainstormed on topics for our next meetings. One thing was very clear: a dedicated reading session of Rationality is a must-have, which sets the topic for our next meeting in May.

This session was organised by Maja Schlüter, Matteo Giusti, Andrew Merry and his social media network, Tracy van Holt and Nanda Wijermans.

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