Explaining everyday problem solving

University dissertation from Cognitive Science

Abstract: How well can we explain natural occurrences of cognitive behaviours given the theoretical frameworks available to us today? The thesis explores what has to be assumed in cognitive theory in order to provide such an explanation, in contrast to being able to predict behaviour under controlled circumstances. The behaviours considered are all of the type described as involving higher level cognition or being representation hungry. Examples are problem solving and certain types of decision-making. Three different theoretical frameworks are examined: (1) general theories such as Newell and Simon’s Universal Problem Solver, (2) the stances sometimes referred to as “situated cognition,” particularly those that try to exclude cognitive components from their explanatory framework (e.g. extreme versions of situated action and practice theory); and (3) domain-specific theories of cognition. The last category can broadly be separated into two different types of theories: those who claim that specialised cognitive processes are activated through situational features (e.g. evolutionary psychology) and those who claim that specialised cognitive processes are successful relative such features (e.g. ecological rationality). The conclusion is that none of the stances are sufficient on their own. The proposed solution is instead to take both the hypothesised domain-specific process and the information it utilises into account. If we allow for “high-quality” information of a more domain-general nature, that indicates which parts of the current situation are important, or makes it possible for the individual to assume certain relations in advance, then this information can account for parts of the flexibility and stability required of the cognitive processes. Examples of such information are causal relations and epistemic information connected to social information. Since these point us to how the features of the situation at hand were produced, they help us identify relevant aspects of, and relations between different situations. By utilising high-quality information, domain-specific processes can be made broader, and less specialised, while keeping a close tie to the situations in which they are active. In this way we can begin to explain real life cognitive behaviours.

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