Cognitive diversity and adaptability to (environmental) change

Cognitive diversity and adaptability to (environmental) change

By Jacopo Baggio, Jacob Freeman and Thomas Coyle

When the going gets tough, why do some groups get going--drawing on their `chemistry’—to solve problems, while other groups fall apart? This question brought Jacob, Tom and I together to conduct experiments and study how diverse cognitive styles affect the collective management of a natural resource. 

Our idea is simple. In biology, communities of organisms with more diverse ways of interacting with the environment (functional traits) display more resilience to disturbances. Why should it be so different for human communities? 

We each have two fundamental cognitive abilities—general intelligence and social intelligence—that allow us to model and interact with our environment. General intelligence allows us to model our physical environment and make logical inferences about the behavior of natural resources. Social intelligence allows us to model our family, friends, and even strangers’ mental states, and make inferences about how best to behave in a social situation. We believe that these two cognitive abilities form the basic building block of a group’s ability to cope with disturbances in their environment—whether social or ecological--and manage natural resources effectively. Diversity in cognitive abilities could then be key: in a group, you need people able to recognize patterns in our environment (understand how a resource works), and you need people able to communicate and resolve tension, more so in case of changes negatively affecting our future well-being.

To test this idea, Jacob, Tom and I devised a simple experiment based on a common pool resource game designed by Marco Janssen and colleagues. In this game, groups of four share a computer screen and they all have the ability to harvest resources (represented by tokens). Individuals receive payment for each token collected, and, face the temptation to act selfishly. However, if each individual attempts to collect all of the tokens for herself, the resource collapses and everyone loses out. Thus, groups must work together to manage the tokens and sustain the resource over time. The key innovation that we made was to change how quickly tokens regenerate to simulate environmental changes that either accelerate resource depletion or enhance resource re-growth.

The results of our experiment indicate that when conditions degrade, groups with individuals high in both general intelligence and social intelligence more sustainably harvest tokens. Such groups display resilience to an `environmental change’ that negatively affects the growth of tokens. Conversely, groups only high in general intelligence or social intelligence experience a breakdown in cooperation and overharvest the tokens. When conditions improve, a functional diversity of intelligences displays less importance. In fact, in this situation, our results indicate that groups high in general intelligence only perform the best, taking advantage of the novel opportunity presented by the `positive climate change.’

The results suggest that cognitive diversity – defined as the presence of multiple and distinct mental abilities (e.g., general intelligence and social intelligence) – influences collective action on problems that require cooperation among group members. However, such diversity may also shape the ability of groups to devise specific and diverse norms, rules and institutions, that affect feedbacks between humans and the environment. Understanding how cognitive diversity has influenced and is influencing the ability of groups to devise novel ways to deal with more or less unpredictable change (either environmental, social, and/or technological) can be key to increase our resilience to such changes. 

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