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Alignment, Transactive Memory, and Collective Cognitive Systems

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Abstract

Research on linguistic interaction suggests that two or more individuals can sometimes form adaptive and cohesive systems. We describe an “alignment system” as a loosely interconnected set of cognitive processes that facilitate social interactions. As a dynamic, multi-component system, it is responsive to higher-level cognitive states such as shared beliefs and intentions (those involving collective intentionality) but can also give rise to such shared cognitive states via bottom-up processes. As an example of putative group cognition we turn to transactive memory and suggest how further research on alignment in these cases might reveal how such systems can be genuinely described as cognitive. Finally, we address a prominent critique of collective cognitive systems, arguing that there is much empirical and explanatory benefit to be gained from considering the possibility of group cognitive systems, especially in the context of small-group human interaction.

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Notes

  1. In psycholinguistics, “alignment” has recently been used as a specialized term for the emerging sameness of linguistic representations (e.g., Pickering and Garrod 2004). We use it here in a more generic sense of systems temporally coordinating their behavior, whether the same or not.

  2. The basis for alignment might be found in more basic neural mechanisms. For example, the presence of a mirror neuron system in humans has obtained some empirical support (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004) and may be the basis for shared understanding of actions across two people observing each other (and consequences of actions; Bekkering et al. 2009). This substrate could partly underlie our capacity to map our own actions onto the observation and understanding of others’ actions by employing overlapping neural hardware. It may be that this connection between two people’s actions and representations can produce interpersonal influences that shape even basic cognitive response processes (Sebanz et al. 2003).

  3. For example, the mirror neuron system may directly map perceived actions to one’s own potential action execution, a rapid blend of self- and other- that needs no high-level processes.

  4. An article by Robert Rupert (2004) argues the extended mind hypothesis is wrong to think of external aids (notebook) as part of the cognitive system because external memory differs radically from internal memory. We don’t think those objections apply to the case of transactive memory as the transactive memory system is meshing of individual memory systems traditionally conceived of. See Tollefsen (2006) for a similar response to worries about memory and collective cognition.

  5. As one reviewer rightly notes this knowledge might be tacit. They might simply have a “sensitivity” to others epistemological and cognitive domains.

  6. Incidentally, it occurs to us that it may not be the best way to test the existence of a system by whether it performs better or worse than some other system; the question is whether two people indeed act as a transactive system, and this seems to be separate from whether they are performing well.

  7. It is worth noting here that one of the objections that Rupert has raised in the past (2004) to extending the boundaries of the mind, have focused on the role of memory in conversation. According to Rupert, external memory aids such as notebooks should not count as memory because we don’t use them in the way that we use working memory in the context of conversation and if we did it would be an odd and painful conversation. We think he is right about this. Tollefsen (2006) has argued that the extended mind hypothesis is much more plausible when it comes to social coupled systems (involving other cognitive agents) than when it simply involves artifacts. Our alignment system and the research on alignment in conversations suggest that we were built to couple with others cognitively and not with artifacts like notebooks. The synergy, mutual adaptation, and on going interaction that is required for systems is more plausibly found in transactive memory systems than between Otto and his notebook.

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Acknowledgements

The author’s would like to thank the editors Kourken Michaelian and John Sutton and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This paper was supported in part by NSF grant BCS-0826825 to the first and second authors.

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Tollefsen, D.P., Dale, R. & Paxton, A. Alignment, Transactive Memory, and Collective Cognitive Systems. Rev.Phil.Psych. 4, 49–64 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-012-0126-z

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