Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture "The Thinker" portrays a naked man hunched over in contemplation, perhaps wondering when the artist will turn on the heat in his studio. A thinker chiseled into solitary confinement by his creator finds the world a chilly place, with or without a wardrobe. People ruminate on their own, of course, but mental potential surges most forcefully-for better and for worse-when we coalesce into groups of various kinds and sizes.
Rodin's singular creation aptly symbolizes much psychological research over the past 50 years. Although people are inveterate social animals enmeshed in a web of interactions, the study of social thought and behavior has consisted largely of laboratory tasks administered to (and often inflicted on) individuals. Volunteers who talk to one another during these tests have committed a big-time blunder; their responses are as "contaminated," in psychological lingo, as the soil beneath Chernobyl's nuclear reactors.
A different line of research promises to power psychology into a more sophisticated and challenging view of the mind. This approach goes by a number of names, including socially shared cognition, interactive minds, and transactive memory. Participants in this scientific movement want to understand thoughts and behaviors that emerge from the interactions of two or more people. Such an ambitious goal calls for experiments that focus on real social encounters in the most natural settings possible, using innovative research designs and statistical methods.
"In the last few years, there has been significant growth in studies of how people collaborate in processing information about matters that concern them," says psychologist Richard L. Moreland of the University of Pittsburgh. "More social psychologists are acknowledging that cognition can be a group, as well as an individual, activity."
Influential theorists have periodically championed the social nature of thought since the dawn of experimental psychology more than 100 years ago. However, rigorous investigations of the ways in which thinking occurs in pairs and larger groups have surfaced only recently.
One pioneer in this untrammeled realm, William Ickes of the University of Texas at Arlington, unobtrusively videotapes pairs of people having spontaneous conversations and then has each person review the tape twice, once to label his or her own thoughts and feelings at precise points and again to identify those of his or her partner. By comparing these responses, he measures the accuracy with which people empathically read each other's minds.
Ickes' technique could help revamp training in professions that put a premium on empathic insight, such as psychotherapy and diplomacy. It's also attracting interest as a tool with which to test competing theories of …