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Grounding Social Sciences in Cognitive Sciences

Sun, Ron
MIT Press: London, 2012
ISBN 0262017547 (hb)

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Reviewed by Wander Jager
Groningen Center for Social Complexity Studies, University of Groningen

Cover of book Ron Sun is well-known for his work on modelling cognitive processes and the CLARION model (Sun 2006), which may be familiar to several readers of JASSS. The current edited book is focussing on the "unification of the social and cognitive sciences through grounding of the social sciences in the cognitive sciences" (p. vii), which sounds rather ambitious. However, the necessity to include cognitive processes in modelling several social phenomena is being acknowledged by several scientists, also in the field of social simulation. Sun states that "current work in social simulation tends to ignore the role of cognitive-psychological processes and to adopt simplified models of agents instead" (p. 17). Whereas this is partly an over-generalisation (e.g., Conte and Paolucci 2001; Thiriot and Kant 2008; Wijermans, 2011 are examples of authors modelling cognition in social simulation models), the discussion of how much cognition is needed in modelling social phenomena is an important one (e.g., Gilbert 2006). This book thus may fit the call of Mason et al. (2007, p. 279) for encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations to build models that incorporate the detailed, micro level understanding of influence processes derived from focused laboratory studies but contextualized in ways that recognize how multidirectional, dynamic influences are situated in people's social networks and relationships. As this book proposes an interdisciplinary approach (p. viii) it might contribute to bring the cognitive into the social.

In the opening chapter, Sun explains clearly why cognitive processes are needed in understanding micro-macro interactions, addressing sociological, psychological, componential (components of the mind) and physiological levels. Sun addresses key issues such as the micro-macro link between society and individuals (p. 8) and downward versus upward causation across levels (p. 8). Four main fields of application of cognitive theory are being presented in the next parts of the book, respectively culture, politics, religion and economics.

Part II of the book presents three chapters on culture. From a perspective of the reader interested in the cognitive basis of culture, this is interesting material to read. However, for the reader interested in social processes, these chapters remain on a rather individualistic and cognitive level and implications for social behaviour are hardly being discussed. Many phenomena in cultural systems deal with opinion dynamics and dynamics in social networks. It would have been interesting to address conformity forces in culture as well as processes leading towards cultural conflict in this part, as this would connect the cognitive with the social.

Part III of the book is focusing on politics and is also composed of three chapters. One chapter focuses on the emotions underlying political behaviour (risk perception and support for war), a next chapter discusses, for example, theories of face and metaphors on political discourse. The final chapter of this part provides an interesting perspective on morality, following recent research that showed that morality can be understood as archetypical for the human mind and allows for spontaneous choices.

Part IV of the book consists of three chapters on religion. The first provides an interesting and up-to-date perspective on the cognitive representation of religion, discussing against other counterintuitive beliefs and their appeal. The author makes an important point in stressing the influence of religion on cognition, decision-making and judgment. Whereas obvious linkages are present with the previous part on culture, politics and in particular on morality, cross references are not mentioned. The second chapter provides a multilevel causal-mechanistic view on religion and provides an interesting discussion on the levels of analysis. The third chapter discusses a cognitive basis for rituals, explaining how low frequent and high arousal (traumatizing) rituals may serve a strong group identity and hostility against external groups. High frequent and less arousing rituals may be more functional in maintaining a doctrine and thus support conservatism.

Part V is devoted to economics. The first chapter addresses cognitive variables and parameters in economic models, with a special attention to different ways for parameterizing temporal discounting and the associated impulsive behaviour. It demonstrates the limitations of standard behavioural economics. Whereas this is the most operational chapter in terms of providing ideas for implementations, the next chapter of this part deals more with recent advances in neuro-economics, interestingly revealing how fMRI scans can be used to describe psychological mechanisms that in turn are relevant for economic behaviour. Different examples are given that focus on inter-temporal choice. The third chapter of this part combines the life-span cognitive theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence with human capital theory, thus linking cognitive with economic theory. This chapter provides a compelling idea of how the two are related and is very detailed concerning the results.

The last section of the book is aimed at exploring a possible unification of cognitive and social sciences. Two chapters address this important issue. The first correctly states that cognitive science has incorporated a lot of social aspects, but that social sciences generally do not incorporate a cognitive perspective on interaction. Yet cognitive science tells social science that many phenomena that are taken for granted, such as communication, perception and consciousness, eventually need further explanation. Different venues are discussed, such as modelling an individual as a multi-agent system, modelling agency, domain dependent reasoning and heuristics as effective cognitive processes. The chapter closes with a discussion on how experiments should be improved to avoid problems arising from manipulation of concepts clear to the researcher but possibly differently interpreted by respondents. A special attention is given to experimental games. Finally, in the last chapter, Herbert Gintis explains that the economic, sociological and biological models of human behaviour are incompatible and flawed, but can be developed into a unified framework by considering the nature of human psychology. This framework includes respectively gene-culture co-evolution, the socio-psychological theory of norms, game theory, the rational actor model and complexity theory.

To sum up, the book chapters provide an overview of different cognitive approaches to various social phenomena. The focus is clearly on the cognitive level, while implications on related social processes are not discussed in detail. This fits the perspective of Sun, who is an adherent of the view that "cognition-psychology is an important factor in, or even the holy grail and the final frontier of the social sciences" (p. 27). Notwithstanding the importance of the cognitive perspective, my opinion is that the book would have benefited from some contributions by social scientists. This could have provided a more detailed discussion of social interaction, networks and more processes that are relevant at the social level. In particular, this could have stimulated an overall discussion on cross-fertilisation between cognitive and social perspectives and helped to mutually identify important research challenges. Moreover, this could have resulted in more cross-references in the book and a more coherent perspective on linking the cognitive level to the social. Most of the chapters in the book are now relatively isolated, selected for addressing a particular topic, but not really connected within a larger framework.

For social simulators looking for operational tools to try to implement cognition in their models, this book hardly provides suitable building blocks. This book is more inspirational in the sense that it introduces different cognitive approaches rather than providing operational tools that can be implemented in social simulation models. Perhaps, at this stage, an operational book is too ahead of time, but considering the need for more cognitive foundations of agent architectures, I would have appreciated a clearer roadmap on how to implement cognition in social simulation models. By reading this book we must realise that a lot of effort should be put from both sides to bridge the gap between cognitive and social sciences. Surely, Sun has contributed to provide social simulators with a perspective on how cognitive scientists are working in the social direction. This may contribute to realise a joint map to find out where we can close this bridge.


* References

CONTE, R. and Paolucci, M. (2001). Intelligent Social Learning. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 4(1), http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/4/1/3.html.

GILBERT, N. (2006). When does social simulation need cognitive models? In Sun, R., (Ed.), Cognition and Multi-Agent Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MASON, A., Conrey, F. and Smith, E. (2007). Situating social influence processes: Dynamic, multidirectional flows of influence within social networks. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, pp. 279-300.

SUN, R. (Ed.) (2006). Cognition and Multi-Agent Interaction: From Cognitive Modeling To Social Simulation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

THIRIOT, S. and Kant, J.D. (2008). Using associative networks to represent adopters' beliefs in a multi-agent model of innovation diffusion. Advances in Complex Systems, 11 (2), pp. 261-272.

WIJERMANS, N. (2011). Understanding crowd behaviour: Simulating situated individuals. Thesis University of Groningen.

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