The Adaptive Character of Thought

The Adaptive Character of Thought

The Adaptive Character of Thought

The Adaptive Character of Thought

Synopsis

This important volume examines the phenomena of cognition from an adaptive perspective. Rather than adhering to the typical practice in cognitive psychology of trying to predict behavior from a model of cognitive mechanisms, this book develops a number of models that successfully predict behavior from the structure of the environment to which cognition is adapted. The methodology -- called rational analysis -- involves specifying the information-processing goals of the system, the structure of the environment, and the computational constraints on the system, allowing predictions about behavior to be made by determining what behavior would be optimal under these assumptions. The Adaptive Character of Thought applies this methodology in great detail to four cognitive phenomena: memory, categorization, causal inference, and problem solving.

Excerpt

The history behind this book illustrates the fact that science is an adventure and not a planned activity. When I finished my last major research monograph on the ACT* theory (Anderson, 1983), I set out to apply the theory to the acquisition of complex skills. As I described it in 1983, the goal of this endeavor was to "permanently break the theory." Much, but not all of this research involved the creation of intelligent tutoring systems and the study of students' behavior with these systems. Surely, I reasoned to myself, I would see the theory crumble as I tried to teach mathematics or programming based on the theory's analysis of skill acquisition. Well, our work on skill acquisition turned out better than I had any reason to believe. the theory did change a bit, and these changes are reported in Anderson, 1987, but much of the basic analysis stayed untouched.

In 1986, the course of action seemed clear. I needed to write a book that worked through the theory and elaborated on its foundations, but most of all organized and simulated the mounds of data that we had accumulated with our tutors on skill learning. I took a sabbatical, a 4-month jaunt in the beginning of 1987 to Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. It was supposed to be an opportunity to get away from my lab, which was forever spewing out data, and put in the thinking time to get this process started.

Well, something happened to me on the way to Australia. Lynne Reder and I took it as a goal on the trip to write a short paper drawing out the implications of the human memory literature for the computer science field of information retrieval. It seemed that a necessary prerequisite was to read a little about the field of information retrieval. As I did so, an issue about memory started to eat at me again. For a long time, I had felt that there was something missing in the existing theories of human memory, including my own. Basically, all of these theories characterized memory as an arbitrary and nonoptimal configuration of memory mechanisms. I had long felt that the basic memory processes were quite adaptive and perhaps even optimal; however, I had never been able to see a framework in which to make this point. in the computer science work on information retrieval, I saw that framework laid out before me. Human memory was functioning as an optimal information retrieval system.

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