A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 15 | On Cognition And Stupidity Part 1

As I detailed in an earlier post, Welles‘ conception of the workings of the mind (essentially a cognitive theory) is based on the cognitive theory of Sigmund Freud (you know the one: the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego). However, as Freud’s theory has since fallen out of favor it would pay now to see what has changed in cognitive psychology since Welles crafted his theory of stupidity in 1986.

…Or perhaps what he simply neglected while he was writing it.

The cognitive revolution (so it’s called) had already begun in the 1950s which would eventually overtake the behaviorist approach that Welles explicitly advances within his own theory by the 1980s. (The reason for this is because behaviorist theories were mostly centered in North America and cognitivist theories were imported from Europe. However, the thing is Welles uses certain terms within his theory which suggests that he was at least familiar with the premises of cognitive psychology.) In any case, cognitive psychology itself is marked by the idea that we can reverse-engineer the workings of the mind (and therefore behavior) by studying artificial intelligence and computer science. …It just so happens that both of these things use the concept of information extensively and so the concept was extended into the field of psychology. The very fact that people in scientific areas were already using the term information in the context I would have it used came as a relief in that I wouldn’t have to justify its use in this context at all. The only problem would be justifying my specific way of understanding it.

Likewise, I found some solace in cognitive psychology that the second necessary aspect of Welles’ theory — that we, human beings, have some kind of ability to receive environmental information and process it away from the environment — is very well developed and accepted among cognitive psychologists. Actually, cognitive psychology is, by nature, a field interested in information-processing involving the brain, the mind, and its relationship to sense-experience and that’s EXACTLY the kind of thing that I was looking for in developing a theory of stupidity. In that way, I found that justifying the ability itself is somewhat unnecessary and I can move ahead on the grounds that such a thing is not only possible but scientifically documented. I also knew exactly what I would have to do in order to redevelop Welles’ theory of stupidity: cut out the Freudian stuff, look at the schema in terms of complex information processes, and connect cognition back to behavior through the schema conceptualized as a system of information.

That sounded like a winning formula.

But in order to do this I would have to make some modifications to how we understand a few terms in cognitive psychology. The first was the concept of thinking itself. Cognitivists generally don’t consider thinking itself to be a behavior due to it’s impact on other behaviors.  However, I would contend that thinking is absolutely a behavior and should be seen as such. There is absolutely no reason for a distinction between thinking and any other action and we can study thinking behaviors just like we can any other kinds of behaviors psychologically: through a cognitive framework. It might seem odd to say that cognition is the root of cognition but this isn’t some fanciful theory and is indeed supported even by cognitive psychology in the various studies of meta-cognition. Essentially, if we are to really understand human thought processes (and therefore stupidity, as that’s where our behaviors come from) then we will have to study meta-cognition far more thoroughly than we have before.

The second would be in our conception of learning. One of the basic tenets of cognitivism is that brains are a lot like computers. However, we have yet to produce a computer that is capable of all of the things the brain is capable of in terms of sheer variety and simultaneous application. But one phenomena in particular that is currently being demonstrate in artificial intelligence is the ability to teach itself behaviors through its programming. As this is the case, human beings should be able to do this too. On this account I have a bone to pick with Welles: his theory suggests that all of behavior is adopted because of our own positive or negative mental states. But if this is the case then a person couldn’t ever become less inclined to behave certain ways unless they enjoyed it. This is relevant because if thinking is a behavior then this model doesn’t seem like it’s a necessary one  — theoretically cognitive behaviors could be learned so that emotions play little to no part in decision-making. This gives us something to consider:

Any theory of cognition (which we need for understanding stupidity) should be able to account for the ability to learn new cognitive behaviors and unlearn old ones.

The last thing that we have to concern ourselves with is the concept of a belief. Welles sees the schema or the belief system of a person as the definitive cause of action. Emotions only come in later to entrench behaviors that arise from the schema. But in cognitive psychology the schema is considered the system in which information is organized and related to one another. This an interesting connection that Welles drew between belief, behavior and information that he didn’t really explore: essentially the belief would have to involve information and the belief in that information would inspire action. When I thought of this for the first time I realized that this wasn’t exactly a new way of looking at beliefs. Pragmatists had used a similar definition of a belief (provided by Alexander Bain) since the school’s inception: “that upon which a man is prepared to act.” Welles here seems to connect the “that” to “information”. In other words, a belief is information that a person is prepared to act on. It would be this conception of a belief that would prove to be integral in my general theory of stupidity.

But before we get there it would pay to look at the implications of this definition of a belief and how it impacts our understanding of cognition from a cognitivist’s perspective. And, of course, how this ties back into our earlier discussion about information and the environment. Between those two things, we would be well on our way toward a working theory of stupidity.

To Be Continued


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