Sunday, August 31, 2014

Couples as Socially Distributed Cognitive Systems: Remembering in Everyday Social and Material Contexts

I can see this - it makes a wee bit of sense. The authors focus in this piece on a review of the empirical research suggesting that social sharing of memories is one of the most mundane examples of distributed cognition.

Below is the introduction to the much longer paper, which can be read at the link in the title.

Memory Studies; 2014: 7(3):285–297
DOI: 10.1177/1750698014530619

Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts

Celia B Harris, Amanda J Barnier, John Sutton. and Paul G Keil

In everyday life remembering occurs within social contexts, and theories from a number of disciplines predict cognitive and social benefits of shared remembering. Recent debates have revolved around the possibility that cognition can be distributed across individuals and material resources, as well as across groups of individuals. We review evidence from a maturing program of empirical research in which we adopted the lens of distributed cognition to gain new insights into the ways that remembering might be shared in groups. Across four studies, we examined shared remembering in intimate couples. We studied their collaboration on more simple memory tasks as well as their conversations about shared past experiences. We also asked them about their everyday memory compensation strategies in order to investigate the complex ways that couples may coordinate their material and interpersonal resources. We discuss our research in terms of the costs and benefits of shared remembering, features of the group and features of the remembering task that influence the outcomes of shared remembering, the cognitive and interpersonal functions of shared remembering, and the interaction between social and material resources. More broadly, this interdisciplinary research program suggests the potential for empirical psychology research to contribute to ongoing interdisciplinary discussions of distributed cognition.

Socially distributed remembering: theoretical and empirical background

Remembering the past plays a crucial role in our lives, our identities, our plans, and our social relationships (Harris et al., 2013b), and the fact that we frequently talk about the past with others has important consequences for the way we remember (Campbell, 2003; Harris et al., 2008, 2010; Pasupathi, 2001; Sutton et al., 2010; Weldon, 2000).In the current article, we apply the theoretical framework of distributed cognition (Barnier et al., 2008; Hutchins, 1995; Sutton, 2006) to group remembering. As we have argued elsewhere (Barnier et al., 2008; Sutton et al., 2010), a distributed cognition framework provides explanatory power for complex social memory phenomena; it drives novel research questions, new methods, and empirically testable hypotheses. In the current article, we update this argument by presenting findings from a maturing program of empirical research on shared remembering in couples. 

Distributed cognition: definitions

The distributed cognition framework suggests that cognitive states and processes are sometimes distributed, such that neural and bodily resources couple in coordinated ways with material or social resources to accomplish cognitive tasks (Barnier et al., 2008; Clark, 1997). According to this view, external resources can become parts both of occurrent cognitive processes and of enduring integrated cognitive systems: ‘When parts of the environment are coupled to the brain in the right way, they become parts of the mind’ (Chalmers, 2008: 1; see also Sutton, 2010). This definition begs the question of what the ‘right way’ is for coupling to occur. Clark and Chalmers (1998) pro- posed the following criteria:
1. That the resource be reliably available and typically invoked …
2. That any information thus retrieved be more-or-less automatically endorsed …
3. That information contained in the resource should be easily accessible as and when required. (Clark, 2010: 6–7)
While debate continues to refine these conditions (Sterelny, 2010; Sutton, 2010; Sutton et al., 2010), we can usefully adopt them for the purposes of this exposition, to motivate and test against empirical research.

What kinds of cognitive tasks?

There are three compatible possibilities for the kinds of cognitive tasks that lend themselves to distribution across internal and external resources. First, cognitive distribution might enable the accomplishment of highly complex tasks that cannot be completed by an individual alone, such as navigating a ship (Hutchins, 1995). Second, cognitive distribution might enable individuals to accomplish tasks ‘better’ in some way, or more efficiently, or at least differently and with different outcomes from doing the tasks alone. Third, cognitive distribution might enable the maintenance of capacity to complete everyday tasks (which used to be done alone) as individual cognitive resources decline or fail. For instance, Clark and Chalmers (1998) described a thought experiment regarding ‘Otto’, a man with Alzheimer’s, whose notebook entries have literally become the con-tents of his memory. In observing strikingly similar real-world cases, Dennett (1996) noted that older individuals often ‘load their home environments with ultra-familiar landmarks, triggers for habits … Taking them out of their homes is literally separating them from large parts of their minds’ (see also Dahlb├Ąck et al., 2013; Drayson and Clark, in press).

Socially distributed cognition

Cognitive distribution is arguably an everyday phenomenon, and the examples used to illustrate it are likewise everyday, like the cocktail waiter who relies on the shape of the glasses to remember ingredients in drinks, or an artist using a sketchpad (Clark, 1997; Van Leeuwen et al., 1999). Despite the field’s focus on material resources, distributed cognitive systems are likely to involve both material and social resources (Barnier et al., 2008; Sutton et al., 2010). In the current article, we review empirical research motivated by the view that social sharing of memories is one of the most mundane examples of distributed cognition (see also Barnier et al., 2008; Barnier, 2010).

We focus here on intimate couples remembering together. We have a number of reasons to expect that they are a particularly good example of the kinds of groups in which socially distributed cognition occurs (see also Wu et al., 2008). Adapting Clark and Chalmers’ (1998) criteria for considering objects as part of cognition, Tollefsen (2006) suggested that Person A can be incorporated into Person B’s cognitive processing under the following conditions: (1) if Person A is avail-able and typically invoked; (2) if Person B accepts Person A’s information without question; (3) if Person A is readily accessible by Person B; and (4) if information stored by Person A was endorsed by Person B at some point. Long-married couples who frequently discuss their past and future across their lives may meet these criteria (see also Sutton et al., 2010; Tollefsen, 2006). Put another way, couples are ‘persisting integrated systems’ (cf. Rupert, 2010; see also Wegner, 1987; Wegner et al., 1985).

Making couples the unit of analysis can yield insights not available when studying individuals (see also Hinsz et al., 1997). That is, groups such as couples may exhibit emergence when they remember together; meaning the group product is different from the aggregation of individual memories (see also Theiner, 2013; Theiner and O’Connor, 2010). Such emergence may be positive (such as the generation of new information) or negative (such as the introduction of errors). Wegner’s (1987) Transactive Memory theory predicts benefits of shared remembering as one kind of emergence: ‘group memory structures develop and become capable of memory feats far beyond those that might be accomplished by any individual’ (Wegner, 1995: 319).

Shared remembering in experimental psychology

In cognitive psychology, the collaborative recall paradigm was developed to measure the impact of remembering with others (Weldon and Bellinger, 1997). Using this method, the memory output of a group is compared to the pooled or aggregated (non-redundant) output of the same number of individuals remembering alone (see Basden et al., 2000; Harris et al., 2008; Rajaram and Pereira-Pasarin, 2010). This comparison is useful for considering whether groups show the kind of emergent properties that would be predicted by conceptualising them as distributed cognitive systems, since it indexes whether the recall of a collaborative group is quantitatively different from the sum of its parts.

Collaborative groups reliably remember less than aggregated groups; that is, they show collaborative inhibition. This ‘cost’ of collaboration has been demonstrated for materials such as word lists, stories, pictures and historical facts (see Harris et al., 2008). Typically, groups of strangers are tested (Rajaram and Pereira-Pasarin, 2010), although groups of friends also show collaborative inhibition (Harris et al., 2013a). However, a study by Meade et al. (2009) found that expert pilots, who are trained to communicate efficiently, reversed the typical effect and showed benefits of collaboration – collaborative facilitation – when remembering aviation-relevant information, such that collaborative groups remembered more than aggregated groups.

A handful of studies suggest that intimate couples may also benefit from remembering together. For instance, Ross et al. (2004) found that older couples made fewer memory errors on a shopping list task when they collaborated, whereas Johansson et al. (2005) found that a subset of older couples – those high on division of responsibility and on agreement about expertise – were relatively less impaired by collaboration. However, these studies have not reliably demonstrated the memory facilitation that we might expect, and a number of other studies have failed to find any benefits of shared remembering in couples at all (e.g. Gould et al., 2002).

In our studies, we extended the methodology of the standard collaborative recall paradigm to study shared remembering in its everyday social context. We focused on intimate couples – the kinds of groups who regularly remember together. We also focused on a range of memory tasks, from basic word lists to significant, shared autobiographical events. Finally, we focused on the communication and interaction during collaboration and other differences between couples (e.g. relationship intimacy). We examined whether the benefits of shared remembering, as suggested by a distributed cognition framework, may be identifiable in certain kinds of groups and for certain kinds of memories.

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