Weaning yourself off cognitive models. Part 4: Uncertainty reduction, catharsis, cognitive dissonance, prototypes and ‘schema-driven thinking’

Seven. This point and the next point are two of the hidden, underlying scaffolds which have been propping up cognitive theories without many people noticing.  As their reaction to the old stimulus-response behaviourisms with their reinforcers, drives and needs, cognitive psychology imported two main ‘drivers’ of behaviour.  These were refreshing in the 1960s but ultimately weak in their stated form.  To help wean us off cognitive models, I will briefly give my ‘social’ versions of both these which brings their social contexts back into play (Guerin, 2001).

The main ‘drivers’ were different forms of ‘control processes’ which originally were compared to old-fashioned thermostat units (yes, high tech…).  Miller, Galanter and Pribram’s (1960) TOTE model is given at the top and below is a ‘more sophisticated’ version.


Both suffer from not giving details about WHY these units act to equalize or reduce output to match some goal amount.  Where do those goals come from even?  If we could answer that then we would not need the control unit in fact.  Real thermostats are given goals by people—socially driven goals. We will see that the same is true for these cognitive models.

The two main answers were uncertainty reduction and catharsis (dealt with more in 8 below). Uncertainty reduction seeps through many cognitive models in different forms. The original Miller version was that there was too much information (an elusive term btw) in the world for humans to take in and process, so humans needed to simplify the world and not deal with everything. In this way, we end up with schema, prototypes, dichotomies, etc.  Our cognitive processing system is there to take in the world but simplify it so that we can easily remember and process what is important, and not get overwhelmed.

Sometimes this ‘explanation’ included a bit of catharsis as well (from Freud), that there was so much going on in our worlds that we might become stressed out and anxious, and this is why we have cognitive processing units—to simplify the world so we can deal with it better and avoid anxiety.

I have dealt with the flaws in this reasoning more closely elsewhere (Guerin, 2001), so for now just notice how ad hoc this all is.  They relied on William James’ statement (with no evidence) that young babies are overwhelmed by the world and for them the world is a “blooming buzzing confusion”.  I had four children and we never noticed this at all, however.

Jumping now to our Assumptions from Blog 2 in this series, we can see that by ‘simplifying the world’ they really mean ‘using language’.  And we are overwhelmed when we have to tell someone the complete details of what has happened, so we therefore have socially acceptable discourses which can replace giving all the gory details: “Yes, I felt a little sick yesterday so I took the day off”, “All I saw in the park was a dog”, are all we need to say.  But this is only when we are talking about our what is happening in our worlds and have to justify, defend or boast.

If we are not talking about what we are doing, then we can carry out amazingly complex and multi-tasking activities. If tennis stars, racing car drivers, video game players, runners and others had to talk about what they were doing before doing it or worse, during, then yes, it would be a blooming buzzing confusion.  But we can do the complex activities and then have an acceptable way in discourse to simplify when we tell someone.

So, the uncertainty reduction drivers built into cognitive models is really about what we learn to do when we are telling other people about what we do, not when we are actually doing it.  The whole driver for cognitive models is social and relevant only to talking about what we do (to be sure, that is very important in our lives).

Eight. Other cognitive theories followed catharsis more as their foundation or scaffold. We have seen one version of this above, that we supposedly get all anxious when there is too much information to take in, whereas I re-framed that as, “We get anxious when we have to tell someone about what we do or are going to do”.

Other theories proposed that just not knowing something is aversive and so we have a cognitive processing system to reduce what we do not know or to disguise it by simplifying.  [This is seen in a common explanation for religion and elsewhere; we are supposedly anxious about not knowing the meaning of life or whether our existence has a purpose, so being religious reduces this anxiety.  Freud used a similar form of explanation as well (Guerin, 2001).]

Once again, with our Assumptions from Blog 2 we must see this as language uses in a social context.  Being uncertain or not knowing is not inherently anxiety-provoking; I do not know what my dog is currently doing but that is not a big deal.  However, being uncertain or not knowing is inherently anxiety-provoking when this is in a social or language context. If my dog has got out several times and attacked some neighbours then I will be anxious and wanting to do something about this (and be preparing what to say to my neighbours if something has happened).

Nine. A common example in cognitive psychology of catharsis is cognitive dissonance, which has also got into the popular media of late. This proposes that if we ‘have’ or ‘believe’ (these both need more analysis, btw) contradictory thoughts ‘in our head’ then that produces a state of dissonance or anxiety, and we therefore are ‘driven’ to reduce that state by changing one of more of these ‘beliefs’ (or changing our behaviour sometimes).

In brief (Guerin, 2001), contradictory thoughts are not a problem, just as uncertainty and not knowing are not a problem.  But once again, having contradictory thoughts or beliefs is a problem when confronted with this socially, and will occur through language use.

I can tell my mother that I really like her new painting while at the same time I joke with my siblings that her new painting is awful. This contradiction is not a problem and I will sleep ok at night.  But, it is a problem when the two ways of talking get confronted: one of my siblings starts calling me two-faced behind my back; my mother finds out what I said to my siblings; I am telling my mother how lovely her new painting is in front of my siblings and I have to keep a straight face.  In each case, I have to get some discourse ready to deal with these new situations, but up until then, there was no anxiety about being contradictory.

What this is saying is that cognitive dissonance is really social dissonance.  The classic cognitive dissonance experiments can be re-analysed in this way (Guerin, 2001).

Ten. In discussing thinking and concepts, cognitive psychology has been based on the idea that we process, remember and recall ‘information’ not as complete and full data but as simplifications.  Two versions of these you will come across are schema-based thinking and prototypes.

All that schema-based thinking and prototypes mean are, once again based on our Assumptions, that we simplify with words (remember our mantra? Cognition equals language use and language use equals social).  When we ‘schematize’ the world to simplify, this is only when we use language to deal with people.  When we mow the lawns without talking (no stresses, social issues or contradictions involved), then we have no need to ‘schematize’ mowing the lawns.  We only need to schematize when we are talking about mowing the lawns: “Why didn’t you do a proper job of mowing this time?”  Mowing the lawns in itself requires no simplifications or schematizing.

Prototypes were proposed as another way to think about the simplification of our worlds (for talking, anyway). Instead of remembering and processing a ‘dog’ schema or category, it was proposed that we remember and process a ‘dog prototype’.  This just means we base our simplification on a typical example or ‘exemplar’ (the word they often used). For a dog, this might be a Labrador, as a middle-of-the-road standard dog (sorry Labrador owners…).  We then process all dogs in this way but with an indication of how different our actual dog is to the prototype dog which is stored away somewhere inside us: “I saw this lovely dog today in the park; it was sort of larger than your average dog and a strikingly different dark brown colour”.

In a social context, prototypes can be viewed as a ‘socially safe’ way of talking that will not attract criticisms, mockery, etc. If you said to me, “Oh I saw a dog today” and I replied, “What? Like a chihuahua?”, you would be puzzled since that is not a socially common dog to use as a reference (in fact, you would probably take it as a poor attempt at a joke).

So, all the cognitive psychology research on schema and prototypes can be seen as useful, but the theories dubious. If we re-frame the research instead as “studying how people use language use in ways that are socially fluent and acceptable”, then there is useful material there.  But following our Assumptions, we would need to look more closely at the contexts in which people use different language strategies and what happens when they do. This requires changing methodology from the typical cognitive psychology methodologies (as also per our Assumptions), and so most of the cognitive psychology research would be lacking in this way (so far).

Eleven. Memory research, or remembering-in-context, needs to be handled in the same way to wean ourselves off cognitive models. Almost all the research is on remembering as verbal/social behaviour.  Some ‘perceptual remembering’ (Kohler, Gibson) needs to be analysed in other ways.

So, when dealing with cognitive psychology and memory research we are dealing with discourse analysis, how people learn to talk in certain ways in certain contexts.  For example, almost everything in cognitive psychology about remembering colours is about remembering speaking about colours.  But the same methodology problems as for Point 10 exists here. For remembering, then, I will just leave you with one of my favourite quotes, which was written a long time before cognitive psychology existed but needs to be resurrected:

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. A sentinel outside the camp watches the coming of the enemy. When the enemy arrives, the first business of the sentinel is to perform particular actions related to this arrival; he must defend himself or must hide, must lie flat, crawl in order to escape notice, and make his way back to the camp. These are actions of adaptation demanded by the event, and the perception of an event is nothing else than the totality of such acts of adaption. But simultaneously with these acts of adaptation, the sentinel must exhibit a reaction of a new kind, a kind which is characteristic of memory; he must prepare a speech, must in accordance with certain conventions translate the event into words, so that he may be able ere long to tell history to the commander. This second reaction has important peculiarities which differentiate it markedly from the first reaction. The actions which comprised this, the action of self-defence, that of lying flat, that of hiding in one way or another, are no doubt preserved like all the tendencies; but they can only be reproduced, can only be activated anew, if the sentinel is again placed in the same circumstances, being faced by the same enemy and upon the same ground; they will not be reproduced in different circumstances, as for instance when the sentinel has gone back to camp, is among his comrades, and in the presence of his commander. On the other hand, the second reaction, his account of the matter, though it likewise is after a fashion adapted to the event, can readily be reproduced under new conditions when the sentinel is among his comrades in the presence of the commander, and when there is no sign of the enemy. The stimulus which will arouse the activation of this tendency is a special form of social action, a question. Thus the essential characteristic of the sentinel’s story is that it is independent of the event to which it relates, whereas the reactions which comprise his perception have no such independence. ( Janet, 1925/1919, pp. 661–662)



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