On Social Cognition

Humans are social creatures. Our brains function differently when we are engaged with others compared to when we are engages alone. We have capacity to solve much more complex problems when working together compared to when we work alone, but we also have greater capacity to deceive ourselves. 

This summer, I finally read Edwin Hutchin’s Cognition in the Wild, and the accounts I have encountered in other works seems spot-on. Iin the book, Hutchins reviews how ship navigation is a thinking task that cannot be accomplished if one person uses their cognitive capacity without offloading some to technologies (to store and compute for example) and without using multiple brains (to access capacity they have but you don’t and to speed processing through parallel processing).  Good things can happen when we think together. 

This should be contrasted, however, with the problem of “group think” that characterizes much cognition in organizations and social groups. We know that individuals from marginalized populations may be reluctant to contribute to group discussions.  We know that WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) perspectives dominate. We know that leaders who articulate their preferences first limit further discussion and idea generation. Bad things happen when we think together. 

It seems to me the fundamental difference between these two versions of group cognition is the nature to the problem. When the problem is tame—we all agree on its existence, the desired outcome, and we have strategies that will lead to the answer—then group cognition seems likely to increase efficiency and improve performance. Working together when we share goals and strategies can benefit all. When the problem is wicked—we lack consensus, value different outcomes differently, and we can bring different approaches to the problem, then group cognition can be limiting. For many reasons, when faced with these types of problems, our group cognition can be less efficient and our performance suffers.