Weaning yourself off cognitive models. Part 2: New assumptions for alternative ecological, behavioural or contextual approaches

In Part 1 of this Blog we saw that there were reasons for the cognitive revolution to be popular.  This has continued to this day, with psychologists still wanting to have totally theoretical internal models of human actions and either being happy as dualists or assuming everything will be explained by brain processes one day real soon now…

Here are six assumptions I have found useful to shake us out of this complacency.  Some newer ideas such as ‘embodied cognitions’ I think are attempting, within cognitive psychologies, to do this also.

These assumptions are not completely in line with either ‘standard’ behaviour analysis or ecological psychology, and can be varied and adapted further of course.  For example, I avoid Skinner’s use of the term ‘reinforcement’ as an outcome of behaviour, since it is tautological in observation and adds nothing—if our behaving alters the environment so we are more likely to do something similar again, then let us describe that change of the environment rather than just give it a label (although this is useful in applied work!).  I also have expanded Gibson’s ideas elsewhere to include social and language affordances of the environment. For adult humans, most of our many environments afford us, first and foremost, talking to others—telling of stories.

But remember with all this, I am just trying to get some new assumptions out there, and not believing these are the final replacements.  In the next few Blogs I will give detailed examples of how these can be applied.

Assumption 1. Most ‘cognitive’ phenomena are really about language use (verbal behaviour).  It is very difficult to actually observe the stimulus control of language use with humans, because we just seem to talk without stimuli and can talk even when no one is around.  This has led to attributions of mind, ‘mental processes’ and ‘cognitive processes’ throughout the history of psychology.  The majority of ‘cognitive processes’, in this view, are trying to model how humans can use language in adapting to their worlds.  This includes memory for example:

Memory, like belief, like all psychological phenomena, is an action; essentially, it is the action of telling a story. Almost always we are concerned here with a linguistic operation, quite independent of our attitude towards the happening. (Janet, 1925/1919, p. 661)

So, while the language responses used in cognitive experiments (“Tell us which colour the target was”) are assumed to be only substitutes for the internal processes of retrieving memories from a storage, behavioural, ecological and contextual approaches suggest that such responses are the memories, or better, are the remembering.  This assumption will become clearer once I begin teasing out the cognitive phenomena into behavioural and contextual terms below in more detail. So, most of what are called ‘cognitive’ phenomena can usually be simply relabelled ‘phenomena of language use’.

Assumption 2. The basis of language use (i.e., cognition) is social but this is missed out in cognitive analyses, which has instead employed ‘internal’ metaphors as their explanations by making some untenable assumptions (see Guerin, 2001a, b).  Language only works (does things to people) if trained listeners respond in ways they have been taught and shaped to use the language.  Language does nothing to the non-human environment or to untrained humans, so we must always consider the social basis of any phenomena involving language use.  Numerous examples will be given in following Blogs.

Assumption 3. The analysis of language use requires more detail than contained in Skinner (1957), and Gibson never included our ubiquitous use of language in his ‘affordances’.  Many behaviour analysts take Skinner monumental work as a finished product even though it used no research data and gave only rudimentary analyses.  For dealing with the ‘cognitive’ phenomena we must use more detailed analyses of how people use language responding to influence others.

Assumption 4. We can use the language analyses and research from discourse analysis, sociolinguistics and elsewhere to reconceptualise ‘cognitive’ phenomena in a contextual way.  Like the analysis of verbal behaviour, these fields of research are also committed to studying language use in its social context, to show how people utilize language to do things to people (Guerin, 1997, 2003, 2017).  The common strategies and ways of talking and writing have already been explored in these fields and provide more sophisticated analyses than found in the early Skinner (1957).

Assumption 5. Following all the above, big inroads into exploding the theoretical ‘cognitive’ analyses can be made by considering that thinking and consciousness are just language use when no one is there. This places them as part of our ‘normal’ conversations and uses of language in our lives, with the only difference being that they are not said out loud.

With this Assumption added, a huge array of ideas spring forth, and we can (potentially): observe thinking and consciousness; use discourse analysis to find out more about what they do in context; and replace a lot of the cognitive modules which fill up cognitive theories.  As put elsewhere, if we know all about someone’s life contexts (social relationships, economic, cultural, etc.), then we can potentially know what they will be thinking.

Thinking and consciousness are not therefore stuck inside our body or our heads.  Thinking and consciousness become part of the lived, physical world, and our environments plus our extensive language use training, afford us thinking and consciousness.  They do not appear to do so, because social contexts are difficult to see without a lot of effort, so it leads people to want to stick with their dualisms.

Assumption 6. Hence, to study most of the cognitive phenomena, especially what we commonly label as thinking and consciousness, we actually require a combination of anthropological methods and discourse analysis.


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