Bounded rationality, enactive problem solving, and the neuroscience of social interaction

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Frontiers in Psychology


This article aims to show that there is an alternative way to explain human action with respect to the bottlenecks of the psychology of decision making. The empirical study of human behaviour from mid-20th century to date has mainly developed by looking at a normative model of decision making. In particular Subjective Expected Utility (SEU) decision making, which stems from the subjective expected utility theory of Savage (1954) that itself extended the analysis by Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944). On this view, the cognitive psychology of decision making precisely reflects the conceptual structure of formal decision theory. This article shows that there is an alternative way to understand decision making by recovering Newell and Simon’s account of problem solving, developed in the framework of bounded rationality, and inserting it into the more recent research program of embodied cognition. Herbert Simon emphasized the importance of problem solving and differentiated it from decision making, which he considered a phase downstream of the former. Moreover according to Simon the centre of gravity of the rationality of the action lies in the ability to adapt. And the centre of gravity of adaptation is not so much in the internal environment of the actor as in the pragmatic external environment. The behaviour adapts to external purposes and reveals those characteristics of the system that limit its adaptation. According to Simon (1981), in fact, environmental feedback is the most effective factor in modelling human actions in solving a problem. In addition, his notion of problem space signifies the possible situations to be searched in order to find that situation which corresponds to the solution. Using the language of embodied cognition, the notion of problem space is about the possible solutions that are enacted in relation to environmental affordances. The correspondence between action and the solution of a problem conceptually bypasses the analytic phase of the decision and limits the role of symbolic representation. In solving any problem, the search for the solution corresponds to acting in ways that involve recursive feedback processes leading up to the final action. From this point of view, the new term enactive problem solving summarizes this fusion between bounded and embodied cognition. That problem solving involves bounded cognition means that it is through the problem solver’s enactive interaction with environmental affordances, and especially social affordances that it is possible to construct the processes required for arriving at a solution. Lastly the concept of enactive problem solving is also able to explain the mechanisms underlying the adaptive heuristics of rational ecology. Its adaptive function is effective both in practical and motor tasks as well as in abstract and symbolic ones.

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