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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Towards a computational theory of social groups: A finite set of cognitive primitives for representing any and all social groups in the context of conflict

Pietraszewski, D. (2021). 
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-62. 


We don't yet have adequate theories of what the human mind is representing when it represents a social group. Worse still, many people think we do. This mistaken belief is a consequence of the state of play: Until now, researchers have relied on their own intuitions to link up the concept social group on the one hand, and the results of particular studies or models on the other. While necessary, this reliance on intuition has been purchased at considerable cost. When looked at soberly, existing theories of social groups are either (i) literal, but not remotely adequate (such as models built atop economic games), or (ii) simply metaphorical (typically a subsumption or containment metaphor). Intuition is filling in the gaps of an explicit theory. This paper presents a computational theory of what, literally, a group representation is in the context of conflict: it is the assignment of agents to specific roles within a small number of triadic interaction types. This “mental definition” of a group paves the way for a computational theory of social groups—in that it provides a theory of what exactly the information-processing problem of representing and reasoning about a group is. For psychologists, this paper offers a different way to conceptualize and study groups, and suggests that a non-tautological definition of a social group is possible. For cognitive scientists, this paper provides a computational benchmark against which natural and artificial intelligences can be held.

Summary and Conclusion

Despite an enormous literature on groups and group dynamics, little attention has been paid to explicit computational theories of how the mind represents and reasons about groups. The goal of this paper has been, in a conceptual, non-technical manner, to propose a simple but non-trivial framework for starting to ask questions about the nature of the underlying representations that make the phenomenon of social groups possible—all described at the level of information processing. This computational theory, when combined with many more such theories—and followed by extensive task analyses and empirical investigations—will eventually contribute to a full accounting of the information-processing required to represent, reason about, and act in accordance with group representations.