Social relationships and groups: New insights on embodied and distributed cognition

Eliot’s intro and first section to his paper:

Human cognition mostly takes place in the context of other people. This is true in two ways. First, if we consider the immediate context of other people who are physically present, they may influence or even help constitute an individual’s cognition by providing information, agreeing or disagreeing, being part of a group decision-making process, etc. (Tollefsen, 2006 and Wegner, 1986). And as a broader context, the group memberships and socially defined identities that make each of us who we are (e.g. an American, a professor, a father) both motivate and potentially bias our cognition as we move through our lives. As Clancey (1997, p. 366) put it, the “overarching content of thought is not…[descriptions or symbolic representations of states of the world], but coordination of an identity” in a social context. If I sit alone in my office working on a paper for publication, my actions are nevertheless socially shaped, for they ultimately reflect socially defined identities and goals (e.g. to write an interesting paper; to win the approval of professional colleagues; to be a successful researcher; to earn a living for myself and my family). Indeed, a pure case of individual (nonsocial) cognition – cognition that is independent not only from immediate social influences but also from the individual’s network of social relationships, group memberships, and self-identities – is difficult to even imagine.

The field of social psychology has as its defining focus such social influences on individual cognition, affect, and behavior, in both forms (the immediate social context, and the larger web of relationships and identities that shape the individual). Thus, this special issue on situated/embodied/distributed perspectives on social cognition addresses issues that are central to the field of social psychology. For this reason it is interesting to note that these emerging perspectives have actually been introduced to the field only recently (e.g. Barsalou et al., 2003, Semin and Smith, 2002, Semin and Smith, in press and Smith and Semin, 2004) – as much as a decade or two after they were initially advanced within artificial intelligence and cognitive science (Brooks, 1986/1999, Clancey, 1997 and Clark, 1997). However, as argued elsewhere in more detail (Smith & Semin, 2004), despite its recent onset, the integration of situated/embodied/distributed perspectives with the substantive concerns of social psychology is likely to be extraordinarily fruitful, even revolutionary in many respects. The reason is that the merger of these new perspectives, which have mostly been applied to improve our understanding of individual cognition and adaptive behavior, and the emphasis of social psychology on the centrality of the social context of behavior, opens up new vistas for conceptual and theoretical exploration.

This article addresses the intersection of embodied and distributed cognition, a focus that holds special interest from the viewpoint of social psychology. We can conceptualize this intersection in three ways. The first point is simply what these perspectives have in common: both seek to extend our conception of cognition beyond information processing performed by the brain, to include the body and sensory-motor systems (embodied cognition) as well as other bodies and minds (distributed cognition). Second, the principle of embodiment has to date been applied mostly to understanding individual functioning (e.g. the role of motor representations in language comprehension). Adding a distributed cognition perspective suggests that embodiment also has implications beyond the level of the individual, for example with regard to interpersonal cooperation or relationships. Third, socially distributed cognition, such as group problem-solving, has mostly been conceptualized as involving abstract, amodal information processing. But adding the embodiment perspective calls attention to potential embodied influences on group interaction and collective cognition. In fact, it can be argued that an important function of embodiment is to externalize cognitive processes so they can influence and be influenced by others. For example, if someone looks puzzled and scratches his head when trying without success to solve a puzzle or retrieve some information from memory, it may cue others to jump in and offer suggestions or help. If cognition was disembodied – implemented purely by inner computation processes lacking any external signs – distributing cognition across a group of people would be much more difficult.

This paper will discuss two areas within the intersection of the embodiment principle and distributed cognition. First, there are embodied aspects of social relationships as well as of individual-level cognition, and some preliminary evidence is now available on this point. Second, we will examine some general properties of socially distributed cognition (e.g. group problem-solving) in comparison to individual-level cognition. Research in this area has only begun to examine embodiment effects, but we will suggest some relevant possibilities.

1. Embodiment of social relationships

The principle of embodiment has typically been applied in an effort to understand individual-level functioning. For example, research addresses how the physical properties of muscles and limbs ease demands for neural control in locomotion (e.g. Thelen & Smith, 1994) or how multimodal representations of concepts enable language comprehension (e.g. Barsalou, 1999). A broader look at the embodiment concept includes examination of how aspects of social functioning – specifically, social relationships – are signaled and regulated by embodied cues.

The most directly relevant framework for addressing this topic is the relational models theory developed by Fiske (2004), a cognitive anthropologist. Fiske holds that there are four fundamental types of social relationships. Communal sharing (CS) describes a relationship where people focus on what they have in common and share resources as needed; it is typically found between close kin, and among members of cohesive groups, clans, etc. Authority ranking (AR) describes relationships structured by ordered differences in power or status; they are typically found in workplaces and other hierarchical social institutions, and also in many cases between parents and children. Two other types of relationships are argued to be historically more recent developments, and we will have little to say about these. Equality matching (EM) describes equal sharing or tit-for-tat exchange relationships, and market pricing (MP) involves the exchange of goods using assigned values.

Fiske’s work (2004) includes detailed accounts, supported by anthropological evidence across numerous cultures, of the types of embodied cues that are associated with each of these four relationship types. Specifically, CS relationships are said to be embodied by sharing substances such as food, physical closeness and touch, and synchronized bodily movements; AR relationships are embodied by differences in size or vertical position in space. It is valuable to think of these embodiment hypotheses in terms of Barsalou’s (1999) Perceptual Symbol System model, which holds that conceptual knowledge is represented by abstracted and generalized perceptual experiences that can be simulated (partially re-enacted) in context-sensitive ways. Barsalou’s model goes beyond the idea that we use bodily metaphors for types of social relationships, holding instead that perceptual experiences of physical closeness or synchrony or of differences in size or height partially constitute our concepts of relational closeness or differences in power or authority.