Cognition refers to (1) the wide variety of mental entities we locate within the mind, including thoughts, meanings, ideas, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, perceptions, intentions, memories, images, dreams, states of mind, consciousness and subconsciousness, and (2) the operations of the mind, such as association, search, comparison, attention, and inference. Cognition is thinking.
Ancient philosophers speculated on the nature of thought, and modern day researchers continue to explore cognition. What has changed over the years is just how we describe cognition, how we study it, and how we think it relates to our experiences in the world.
Plato tried to explain how it is that we can think of an abstraction rather than merely an instance of the abstraction, such as the abstract idea of “triangle” as opposed to a specific triangle. Modern day theorists propose models to describe how symbols and meaning work (Osgood et al. 1957).
Cognition plays a significant role in theories ranging over intrapersonal communication, interpersonal communication, small group communication, persuasive communication, attitude change, mass communication, and computer-mediated communication. In each instance, the notion of meaning is at the center of the cognitive perspective. Cognition/meaning may in fact be one of the few defining features of communication in its broadest sense. This close tie between cognition/meaning and communication links all types of communication and links the field of communication to psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. As meaning has been increasingly seen as located in the mind, the role of cognition has gained a place in communication theory. Many theories of communication share a central concern for meaning assigned to experience in context.
In the late nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century, psychologists attempted to understand the mind through the method of introspection. When introspection fell into disfavor as unworkable, behaviorism – a movement toward eliminating cognition from psychological accounts of human behavior – grew up in philosophy and psychology. The mind was banished from accounts of behavior. Stimuli entered a person and responses came out, both of which are directly observable. According to behaviorism, meaning would need to be located in the observable world, not in the mind. Meaning was synonymous with what could be verified as true, a correspondence between words and the things around us.
Early models of communication adopted a stimulus and response psychology (Weiner 1950; Shannon 1948; Shannon & Weaver 1949) that placed meaning in gestures and words. Not surprisingly, this notion of communication was compatible with the stimulus– response (S – R) view of language also popular at the time (Skinner 1959). In short, cognition was not a prominent component of early communication research and theory.
By 1983, Gerald Miller could write: “Among communication researchers, a respect for the role of human volition has replaced the law-governed, deterministic paradigm of communication behavior” (Miller 1983, 31). Miller maintained, “An actor’s perceptions of or meanings for a given situation constitute the primary data for communication researchers” (p. 32). Researchers began to look at discourse over time and in natural settings (Nofsinger 1991). Communication offered a place to study cognition in real-life contexts. Ironically, that is exactly what the psychologist Ulric Neisser called for in his assessment of cognitive psychology when he wrote: “cognitive psychologists must make a greater effort to understand cognition as it occurs in the ordinary environment and in the context of natural purposeful activity” (Neisser 1976, 7). One could look back to Bartlett (1932), famous for his work on memory within psychology, for early signs of just such a view of people as active, constructivist processors. In a similar vein, it is significant that Broadbent’s model of attention, often cited as introducing the cognitive revolution, appeared in his book entitled Perception and communication (1958). Social cognition (Roloff & Berger 1982) and intrapersonal communication are good examples of cognitive and communication studies converging (Roberts & Watson 1989).
Researchers in both cognitive psychology and communication have called for a return to the situated act, the larger unit of analysis found in ongoing discourse and human purpose. During the same time period, scholars from fields outside of communication have also proposed a communication perspective on cognition (e.g., Lave 1988; Levinson 1983; Seifert 1999; Smith 1999; Sternberg & Wagner 1994).
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