The Emerging Rapprochement
between Cognitive and
Wayne D. Gray
The functional approach [Brunswik's] has its place mainly in the appraisal of the interplay
and relative contribution or weight of factors in the adjustment to a given ecology, while the
reductive approach [Experimental Psychology's] reveals the technological details of the
machinery that brings about such adjustment.
—Brunswik (1955/2001, p. 148)
Now if an organism is confronted with the problem of behaving approximately rationally, or
adaptively, in a particular environment, the kinds of simplifications that are suitable may
depend not only on the characteristics—sensory, neural, and other—of the organism, but
equally upon the structure of the environment. Hence, we might hope to discover, by a careful
examination of some of the fundamental structural characteristics of the environment, some
further clues as to the nature of the approximating mechanisms used in decision making.
—Simon (1956, pp. 129–130)
As revealed by the epigraphs, nearly 50 years ago Brunswik and Simon agreed on the necessity of understanding the environment to understand cognition. They also agreed that the cost and benefit of environmental cues was an important piece of the ecological-cognitive puzzle. For example, in discussing the relationship between the ecological validity of a cue and its utilization, Brunswik (1955/2001) pointed out that “ideally, cues should be utilized in accordance with their validity. But here we must inject … the element of 'cost' to the organism, just as we must ask for the cost of an automobile along with its efficiency in budgeting our expenditures. Functional theory here takes on certain features of economic theory” (p. 147). In turn, Simon (1956), in amassing the arguments against classical economics that eventually led to his Nobel Prize (Leahey, 2003), complained that the models of rational behavior employed in economics postulated “a much greater complexity in the choice mechanisms, and a much larger capacity in the organism for obtaining information and performing computations” than was supported by the psychology of that day. Stating his problem as one of “behaving approximately rationally, or adaptively, in a particular environment” he went on to explore the “fundamental structural characteristics of the environment” to show that “we should be skeptical in postulating for humans, or other organisms, elaborate mechanisms for choosing among diverse needs” (p. 137).
Given the common emphasis on the environment and common skepticism regarding the need to postulate complex cognitive processes, someone who was new to cognitive science might be forgiven for thinking that in the past 50 years, the intellectual descendants of Brunswik and Simon have merged into one happy family. Although this has not happened yet, it is happening now.