In the first two of this little series of Blogs, I raised some problems for cognitive theories (Guerin, 2016) and gave some Assumptions for rethinking cognitive thinking. We find this difficult to change partly because it has permeated public media and conversation. A shop-keeper asks a customer if they want to buy something and they reply: “Look, I am not sure. I have to go away and process this information more.” Now this is probably a conversational strategy just to say “No!” politely, but the lingo is there, and so if you asked that person what they were going to do that night, they might answer: “Well, I will run the main pros and cons over in my head tonight, and then make a decision.” But this is all theoretical modelling, and this certainly does not constitute a description of what actually takes place as real events that night.
To help rethink cognitive metaphors I will give some examples over the next few Blogs. I have written about these in books and papers but they have never been collected together, which is my aim here.
One. The first Table gives some of these basic points of cognitive models as you might find them in a Psychology textbook, and then presents one version using the Assumptions given in Blog 2 of this series. Some of these points in the Table will be discussed further.
Two. The word ‘processing’ is very abstract and means many different things to different people. In general, you should think of it as just meaning ‘doing something’, but it usually refers to our uses of language to affect other people. Remember from our Assumptions that ‘cognition’ usually means the use of language, and so ‘cognitive processing’ just means doing things with language. (There are some uses of ‘processing perceptual information’ which need a different analysis.)
Note that we do not sit down and think about processing information. It just happens. What this means is that all our history of conversations and the situations we have in life bring all this about and we just behave or talk, so we need an analysis of those situations not of some processing architecture.
Note also that sometimes we specially emphasize that we are going to sit down and ‘consciously’ process some information (usually important events in life), and spend effort doing this. But right there are the clues for analysing these special situations: some social situations lead us to develop conversations which might be said out loud later justifying what we think we are processing. Next time this happens to you, make some long and very honest observations about what is really happening here. You are having ‘conversations’ going on about what you might say to other people about the outcome, you are not actually processing anything at all to decide that outcome (in the cognitive sense).
Three. Most of what was just said also applies to ‘decision making’. This is a dangerous word because it is so vague, and usually just means ‘doing something’ but again, it is normally ‘cognitive’ so it usually means ‘doing something with language to people’. If there is any change in our behaviour we can state, “Yes, I decided to do that” even though we really do not know what just happened and where that ‘decision’ came from (what led us to behave that way). Once again, any ‘performance’ of deep and meaningful ‘decision making’ (with lots of grimacing while you are ‘deciding’) is really about your social performance afterwards, not actually involved in the decision making (behaviour change that is).
In this sense, decision making is really about negotiating the impact of the ‘decision’ with your major social audiences in life afterwards—getting conversational snippets ready to show off or defend yourself. So, your ‘internal’ decision making is more about developing conversations to socially negotiate with the people in your life about what you have done (but you do not develop them inside you either).
Four. Many cognitive theorists have appealed to two major ‘motivations’ in life (Guerin, 1997), or have suggested two systems or types of cognition and decision-making (Kahneman, Thalen, etc.).
From our Assumptions these clearly seem to delineate those behaviours not directly involving our uses of language to affect other people, and those behaviours which do.
All the ones in the following table under “Language use” need to be analysed as uses of language and therefore will involve other people as the parts of the world we are changing with those behaviours. This needs to be remembered: if it involves language then it involves other people.
So, for example, ‘mindfulness’ exercises involve naming parts of the world such as colours or shapes (out loud or silently) and this is done because of other people or is done for other people. It is not an internal event which only involves some hidden mysterious part of ‘You’. Face up to it, doing mindfulness is a social event and there is nothing wrong about this—it can still be useful.
Five. In a similar way to the above, two other common ‘cognitive’ constructs are about the uses humans make from the language system they learn, and therefore they also involve other people. ‘Metacognition’ involves social situations where you think or talk about your ‘cognitive processes’ (i.e., all the other stuff in these Blogs). These are social because the conversations and discourse snippets which occur in ‘metacognition’ are about describing stories to other people, and these stories can be made up or drawn from your history of similar conversations. You do not ‘find’ these metacognitive reports sitting inside your head as a screen dump of your mind.
Six. Executive functioning is likewise about your uses of language which are built around other of our behaviours, but we again have to remember that they are conversational reports built for other people. (Mantra? Cognition is verbal and verbal is social… aum). Executive function research from cognitive psychology can give us some interesting avenues for thought and research. A recent summary suggested three types of executive functioning (or three situations is better here):
- Inhibition: “suppressing or resisting a prepotent (automatic) response”. That is, situations in which there is a normal way of behaving and the person ‘uses their executive functioning’ to stop that way of behaving. This is clearly important in therapies of many sorts. The different take on this here, however, is that the ‘executive functioning’ is actually coming from your social contexts and social audiences, and how you have conversations and arguments with them. It is not happening inside you and YOU are not running this inhibition show.
- Set-shifting: This refers to situations in which you “switch between task sets or response rules”. I instruct you to not get up when the bell rings (as you always do) and you have to start switching your ‘sets’ (your behaviours in other words). Once again, you can see that this is about social control either directly or through the conversations you need to have with me afterwards when it succeeds or not.
- Working memory: In the same way again, “integrating new information with old information and maintaining it over time” really refers to being socially instructed to behave differently, and the word ‘information’ always suggests that we are talking about learning to talk differently and maintain this. “Every time you see the ‘cognitive’ I want you to say out loud, ‘verbal’. See how long you can do that for?”
So really, executive functioning is social control either over what you do or else over your later talking about what you did (or failed to do).