Cog Friday: Group Cognition

The human mind is a singular thing… until it enters a group. Group cognition is the study of how the mind processes information when people are in a group setting, and it has some interesting implications on thought processes.

It happens all the time that people who are working together will come up with the same idea or say the same thing at the same time. Before MRIs and brain technologies, we had “Jinx, buy me a Coke!” as a way of recognizing this aspect of group cognition. This emerges from the language-based interactions – speaking, listening and observing – and thought builds from the various utterances and expressions of members of the group.

Interaction-based thinking can be very productive; students who work on math projects in a group setting may be able to hit upon a solution more quickly than an individual. Because we all think differently – sometimes we diverge from a thought and bring in another idea that successfully yields a solution, and sometimes we converge from a thought and add the one piece of information that results in a satisfying solution.

Thought takes direction – tangential, convergent, divergent, and so on, and with multiple possibilities emerging from the individual cognitive processes of group members, the outcome can amount to an original group idea. Problem-solving may be one cognitive process particularly well-adapted to group cognition.

On the other hand, decision-making which is an outcome of problem-solving has been shown to be weakened by group cognition. An example of this phenomenon in cognitive literature is political decision-making. People in a group are more willing to accept a decision because they feel that it has been made based upon valid information, research or beliefs. Consequently, individuals do not always come to an individual conclusion and often go against an intuitive feeling when coming to a decision, or a vote.

This aspect of group cognition is worthy of consideration because, in democratic societies, people do in fact have the ability to make their own decision and do not need to go along with a group decision. This presents a difficult impasse, but on important issues, sometimes it is better to not go along with a group.

How this relates to education and students’ individual development is of great importance. Particularly during the teenage years, cognitive processes are booming. Why and how to diverge from a group decision is a critical thing to teach children, because social politics are important to the social-emotional-intellectual development of youth.

Students need to learn how to work with a group and how to walk away from a group. Students must listen to the ideas of others and listen to their own ideas. They must seek out and evaluate all the information they have and determine the right course of action (solution or decision) they should follow.

Students need to be told that there is a difference between their ideas and group ideas so that they have the basis for this discernment. Talking to kids about what they think, what their teachers and friends think, and what they would do in certain situation is the surest way to prepare them to be problem-solvers and decision-makers in their own right within a society that becomes increasingly complex, socially and politically, as we grow up.

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