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Socially distributed cognition

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Distributed cognition is a psychological theory that knowledge lies not only within the individual but also in the individual's social and physical environment. This theory was developed in the mid-1980s by Edwin Hutchins. Using insights from sociology, cognitive science, and the psychology of Vygotsky (cf. cultural-historical psychology) it emphasizes the social aspects of cognition. It is a framework (not a method) that involves the coordination between individuals, artifacts and the environment. It has several key components:

  1. Embodiment of information that is embedded in representations of interaction
  2. Coordination of enaction among embodied agents
  3. Ecological contributions to a cognitive ecosystem

In a sense, it expresses cognition as the process of information that occurs from interaction with symbols in the world. It considers and labels all phenomena responsible for this processing as ecological elements of a cognitive ecosystem. The ecosystem is the environment in which ecological elements assemble and interact in respect to a specific cognitive process. Cognition is then shaped by the transduction of information across extended and embodied modalities, the representations formed as result of their interactions and the attentive distribution of those representations toward a cognitive goal.

Distributed cognition is a branch of cognitive science that proposes that human knowledge and cognition are not confined to the individual. Instead, it is distributed by placing memories, facts, or knowledge on the objects, individuals, and tools in our environment. Distributed cognition is a useful approach for (re)designing social aspects of cognition by putting emphasis on the individual and his/her environment. Distributed cognition views a system as a set of representations, and models the interchange of information between these representations. These representations can be either in the mental space of the participants or external representations available in the environment.

This abstraction can be categorized into three distinct types of processes.

  1. Cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group.
  2. Cognitive processes may be distributed in the sense that the operation of the cognitive system involves coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure.
  3. Processes may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of related events.

Early researchEdit

John Milton Roberts thought that social organization could be seen as cognition through a community (Roberts 1964). He described the cognitive aspects of a society by looking at the present information and how it moves through the people in the society.

Daniel L. Schwartz (1978) proposed a distribution of cognition through culture and the distribution of beliefs across the members of a society.

In 1999, Gavriel Salomon stated that there were two classes of distributive cognition: shared cognition and off-loading. Shared cognition is that which is shared among people through common activity such as conversation where there is a constant change of cognition based on the other person's responses. An example of off-loading would be using a calculator to do arithmetic or a creating a grocery list when going shopping. In that sense, the cognitive duties are off-loaded to a material object.


Distributed cognition as a theory of learning, i.e. one in which the development of knowledge is attributed to the system of thinking agents interacting dynamically with artifacts, has been widely applied in the field of distance learning, especially in relation to Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) and other computer-supported learning tools. For example, in the field of teaching English Composition, Kevin LaGrandeur has argued that CSCL provides a source of common memory, collaborative space, and a cognitive artifact (tool to enhance cognition) that allows students to more easily build effective written compositions via explicit and implicit machine-human collaboration. Distributed cognition illustrates the process of interaction between people and technologies in order to determine how to best represent, store and provide access to digital resources and other artifacts.

Collaborative tagging on the World Wide Web is one of the most recent developments in technological support for distributed cognition. Beginning in 2004 and quickly becoming a standard on websites, collaborative tagging allows users to upload or select materials (e.g. pictures, music files, texts, websites) and associate tags with these materials. Tags can be chosen freely, and are similar to keywords. Other users can then browse through tags; a click on a tag connects a user to similarly tagged materials. Tags furthermore enable tag clouds, which graphically represent the popularity of tags, demonstrating co-occurrence relations between tags and thus jump from one tag to another.

Distributed cognition can also be seen through cultures and communities. Learning certain habits or following certain traditions is seen as cognition distributed over a group of people. Exploring distributed cognition through community and culture is one way to understand how it may work.

With the new research that is emerging in this field, the overarching concept of distributed cognition enhances the understanding of interactions between humans, machines and environments.

Metaphors and examplesEdit

Distributed cognition is seen when using paper and pencil to do a complicated arithmetic problem. The person doing the problem may talk with a friend to clarify the problem, and then must write the partial answers on the paper in order to be able to keep track of all the steps in the calculation. In this example, the parts of distributed cognition are seen in:

  • setting up the problem, in collaboration with another person,
  • performing manipulation/arithmetic procedures, both in one's head and by writing down resulting partial answers.

The process of working out the answer requires not only the perception and thought of two people, it also requires the use of a tool (paper) to extend an individual's memory. So the intelligence is distributed, both between people, and a person and an object.

Another metaphor for distributed cognition would be an airplane and the crew on it. It is not the cognitive performance and expertise of any one single person or machine that is important for the continued operation of the airplane. The cognition is distributed over the personnel, sensors, and machinery both in the plane and on the ground, including but not limited to the pilots and crew as a whole.

Hutchins also examines another metaphor of distributed cognition within the context of navigating a US navy vessel.[1] In his book USS Palau (Hutchins, 1996),[2] he explains in detail how Distributed cognition is manifested through the interaction between crew members as they interpret, process, and transform information into various representational states in order to safely navigate the ship. In this functional unit, crew members (e.g. pelorus operators, bearing takers, plotters, and the ship's captain) play the role of actors who transform information into different representational states (i.e. triangulation, landmark sightings, bearings, and maps). In this context, navigation is embodied through the combined efforts of actors in the functional unit.


On educational psychology:

People think in conjunction and partnership with others and with the help of culturally provided tools and implements.
Salomon, 1997 p. xiii

On cognitive science:

Nervous systems do not form representations of the world, they can only form representations of interactions with the world.[3]

The emphasis on finding and describing "knowledge structures" that are somewhere "inside" the individual encourages us to overlook the fact that human cognition is always situated in a complex sociocultural world and cannot be unaffected by it.
Hutchins, 1995 p. xiii

See alsoEdit


  • Brown, Ann L., et al. “Distributed Expertise in the Classroom.” Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations. Ed. Gavriel Salomon. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 188-28.
  • Dror, I. E. & Harnad, S. (2008). Offloading Cognition onto Cognitive Technology. in I.Dror & S. Harnad (Eds.), Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds (pp 1–23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Hutchins, Edwin (1995). Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press.
  • Hutchins, E. (1995) "How a cockpit remembers its speeds". Cognitive Science, 19, 265-288.
  • LaGrandeur, K. (1998). "Splicing Ourselves into the Machine: Electronic Communities, Systems Theory, and Composition Studies." ERIC, March, 1998: ED 410 563.
  • Norman, D.A. (1993) "Things that make us smart" (Addison-Wesley).
  • Perry, M. (2003) "Distributed Cognition". In J.M. Carroll (Ed.) "HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks: Toward an Interdisciplinary Science" (Morgan Kaufmann) 193-223.
  • Roberts, John M. (1964). "The Self-Management of Cultures" Explorations in Cultural Anthropology, New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Salomon, Gavriel (1997). Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge University Press.
  • Zhang, J. & Norman, D.A. (1994) "Representations in Distributed Cognitive Tasks", Cognitive Science, 18, 87-122.


  1. Caroll, J. M., (2003). HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science. Morgan Kaufmann.
  2. Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Bradford: MIT Press.
  3. Hutchins, Edwin. 12-3-09. Distributed Cognition lecture.

Further readingEdit

  • Dror, I.E. & Harnad, S. (eds.) (2008). Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds. (258 pp.) John Benjamins, Amsterdam.
  • Gureckis, T.M. and Goldstone. R.L. (2006) "Thinking in Groups", Pragmatics and Cognition, 14 (2), 293-311.
  • Pea, R. D. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. In G. Salomon (Ed.). Distributed cognitions (pp. 47–87). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Resnick, L, Levine, S. and Teasley, L., (Eds.), Perspectives of socially shared cognition (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological association, 1988).
  • Ross, D., et al., (Eds.), Distributed Cognition and the Will: Individual volition in social context (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007).[[CAtegory:Social

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