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Naturalising the group mind: the cognitive life of small groups and teams

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posted on 2022-03-28, 18:05 authored by Kellie Williamson
Groups of people can do extraordinary things. A team of chefs is able to satisfy hundreds of guests, night after night, impressing them with the quality of that which they create and the efficiency and professionalism with which it is created. A Premier League football team astounds fans across the world with captivating on-field performances. Teams of paramedics operate under some of the most extreme temporal and emotional pressures confronted by humans, and are able to do so successfully. While there are countless examples of high-performing groups of people, there are likely just as many unsuccessful groups; not all football teams dazzle spectators, especially in amateur competitions throughout the world, and even at the elite level the best groups can have an 'off day.' Just as there are differences in abilities, skills and performance between individuals, there are differences between groups. Groups of people vary not only in the extent or continuity of their successes, but also across numerous other dimensions. Some groups are much less formal than professional teams of chefs or athletes. These less formal groups are the everyday groups we find ourselves in: book clubs, parent groups, craft groups, temporary committees, families and so on. What all of these groups, both formal and informal, have in common, is that on many occasions they involve multiple people undertaking cognitively demanding tasks together. They're remembering, planning, acting and deciding together. The cognitions and actions of each group member are coordinated such that the group is able to attempt, and hopefully complete, the relevant task and, if all goes well, do so successfully. From a scientific and philosophical perspective, the existence of such groups raises a number of interesting questions. In particular, what, if anything, makes genuine group behaviour different from aggregated individuals' behaviour, such as the behaviour of a mob or herd? And, particularly compelling, what are the processes or factors that enable multiple individuals to act as a group, especially successfully? -- One well-known way of characterising group behaviour, in both the social sciences and in the popular media, is to describe this behaviour in terms of a 'group mind'. A specific theory of the group mind is hard to pin down, but it has been associated with the surrendering of individuals' own intentionality to the group's will, a problematic metaphysics of downward causation and 'crowd' or 'herd' mentality - not the kind of skilful group performance one expects from the kinds of groups described above. Moving away from this characterisation of group behaviour, in this thesis I construct a newly robust theory of group-mind-cognition that avoids the problematic aspects typically associated with group mind claims. The motivation for this is straightforward. If we are to understand and explain how cognition unfolds in our everyday lives, an acceptable and shared goal among the cognitive sciences, then we need to understand the nature of groups, given their prevalence in our everyday life. I argue that the most useful way to do this is to characterise groups of the kind described above, as cognitive systems or information processors in their own right, under the right conditions. Throughout this thesis, a general account of group cognition is developed, which is applicable to a variety of groups across a variety of domains. -- Central to this account is the notion of 'cognitive interdependence' between the members of the group. Members are cognitively interdependent if they mutually influence one another's cognition, not merely by way of a stimulus and response relation, but through transforming one another's cognition and affecting one another's cognitive processing. By highlighting cognitive interdependence, two important steps can be made: firstly, the metaphysical claim that group cognition is a real phenomenon, subjectable to scientific and philosophical inquiry, is secured, and secondly, it helps to identify the kinds of factors and processes that facilitate successful group performance. Through identifying different forms of cognitive interdependence, this account emphasises the ways that cognitive processes can be distributed across interdependent group members. So as to generalise across a variety of different groups performing many different tasks, this account also explores the dynamic nature of cognitive interactions between group members, whereby members mutually influence one anothers' cognitions and actions, seemingly automatically, thereby enabling swift, improvisatory responses by the group to novel, unpredictable situations. On this view, group cognition is characterised as both distributed and dynamic.


Table of Contents

ch. 1: The conceptual and empirical space for group cognition -- ch. 2: Groups as organised wholes -- ch. 3: The cognition and enduring, higher-level interdependence -- ch. 4: Dynamicising interdependence: coordination "On the fly" -- ch. 5: A philosophy of cognition for small groups and teams -- References.


Bibliography: pages 163-172

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis masters research


Thesis (MPhil), Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Cognitive Science

Department, Centre or School

Department of Cognitive Science

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

John Sutton


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Kellie Williamson 2012.




1 online resource (172 pages) illustrations

Former Identifiers

mq:28299 1990313