Tag Archives: abstraction

Socio-Cognitive Systems – a position statement

By Frank Dignum1, Bruce Edmonds2 and Dino Carpentras3

1Department of Computing Science, Faculty of Science and Technology, Umeå University, frank.dignum@umu.se
2Centre for Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University, bruce@edmonds.name
3Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, dino.carpentras@gmail.com

In this position paper we argue for the creation of a new ‘field’: Socio-Cognitive Systems. The point of doing this is to highlight the importance of a multi-levelled approach to understanding those phenomena where the cognitive and the social are inextricably intertwined – understanding them together.

What goes on ‘in the head’ and what goes on ‘in society’ are complex questions. Each of these deserves serious study on their own – motivating whole fields to answer them. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these two questions are deeply related. Humans are fundamentally social beings, and it is likely that many features of their cognition have evolved because they enable them to live within groups (Herrmann et al. 20007). Whilst some of these social features can be studied separately (e.g. in a laboratory), others only become fully manifest within society at large. On the other hand, it is also clear that how society ‘happens’ is complicated and subtle and that these processes are shaped by the nature of our cognition. In other words, what people ‘think’ matters for understanding how society ‘is’ and vice versa. For many reasons, both of these questions are difficult to answer. As a result of these difficulties, many compromises are necessary in order to make progress on them, but each compromise also implies some limitations. The main two types of compromise consist of limiting the analysis to only one of the two (i.e. either cognition or society)[1]. To take but a few examples of this.

  1. Neuro-scientists study what happens between systems of neurones to understand how the brain does things and this is so complex that even relatively small ensembles of neurones are at the limits of scientific understanding.
  2. Psychologists see what can be understood of cognition from the outside, usually in the laboratory so that some of the many dimensions can be controlled and isolated. However, what can be reproduced in a laboratory is a limited part of behaviour that might be displayed in a natural social context.
  3. Economists limit themselves to the study of the (largely monetary) exchange of services/things that could occur under assumptions of individual rationality, which is a model of thinking not based upon empirical data at the individual level. Indeed it is known to contradict a lot of the data and may only be a good approximation for average behaviour under very special circumstances.
  4. Ethnomethodologists will enter a social context and describe in detail the social and individual experience there, but not generalise beyond that and not delve into the cognition of those they observe.
  5. Other social scientists will take a broader view, look at a variety of social evidence, and theorise about aspects of that part of society. They (almost always) do not include individual cognition into account in these and do not seek to integrate the social and the cognitive levels.

Each of these in the different ways separate the internal mechanisms of thought from the wider mechanisms of society or limits its focus to a very specific topic. This is understandable; what each is studying is enough to keep them occupied for many lifetimes. However, this means that each of these has developed their own terms, issues, approaches and techniques which make relating results between fields difficult (as Kuhn, 1962, pointed out).

SCS Picture 1

Figure 1: Schematic representation of the relationship between the individual and society. Individuals’ cognition is shaped by society, at the same time, society is shaped by individuals’ beliefs and behaviour.

This separation of the cognitive and the social may get in the way of understanding many things that we observe. Some phenomena seem to involve a combination of these aspects in a fundamental way – the individual (and its cognition) being part of society as well as society being part of the individual. Some examples of this are as follows (but please note that this is far from an exhaustive list).

  • Norms. A social norm is a constraint or obligation upon action imposed by society (or perceived as such). One may well be mistaken about a norm (e.g. whether it is ok to casually talk to others at a bus stop), thus it is also a belief – often not told to one explicitly but something one needs to infer from observation. However, for a social norm to hold it also needs to be an observable convention. Decisions to violate social norms require that the norm is an explicit (referable) object in the cognitive model. But the violation also has social consequences. If people react negatively to violations the norm can be reinforced. But if violations are ignored it might lead to a norm disappearing. How new norms come about, or how old ones fade away, is a complex set of interlocking cognitive and social processes. Thus social norms are a phenomena that essentially involves both the social and the cognitive (Conte et al. 2013).
  • Joint construction of social reality. Many of the constraints on our behaviour come from our perception of social reality. However, we also create this social reality and constantly update it. For example, we can invent a new procedure to select a person as head of department or exit a treaty and thus have different ways of behaving after this change. However, these changes are not unconstrained in themselves. Sometimes the time is “ripe for change”, while at other times resistance is too big for any change to take place (even though a majority of the people involved would like to change). Thus what is socially real for us depends on what people individually believe is real, but this depends in complex ways on what other people believe and their status. And probably even more important: the “strength” of a social structure depends on the use people make of it. E.g. a head of department becomes important if all decisions in the department are deferred to the head. Even though this might not be required by university or law.
  • Identity. Our (social) identity determines the way other people perceive us (e.g. a sports person, a nerd, a family man) and therefore creates expectations about our behaviour. We can create our identities ourselves and cultivate them, but at the same time, when we have a social identity, we try to live up to it. Thus, it will partially determine our goals and reactions and even our feeling of self-esteem when we live up to our identity or fail to do so. As individuals we (at least sometimes) have a choice as to our desired identity, but in practice, this can only be realised with the consent of society. As a runner I might feel the need to run at least three times a week in order for other people to recognize me as runner. At the same time a person known as a runner might be excused from a meeting if training for an important event. Thus reinforcing the importance of the “runner” identity.
  • Social practices. The concept already indicates that social practices are about the way people habitually interact and through this interaction shape social structures. Practices like shaking hands when greeting do not always have to be efficient, but they are extremely socially important. For example, different groups, countries and cultures will have different practices when greeting and performing according to the practice shows whether you are part of the in-group or out-group. However, practices can also change based on circumstances and people, as it happened, for example, to the practice of shaking hands during the covid-19 pandemic. Thus, they are flexible and adapting to the context. They are used as flexible mechanisms to efficiently fit interactions in groups, connecting persons and group behaviour.

As a result, this division between cognitive and the social gets in the way not only of theoretical studies, but also in practical applications such as policy making. For example, interventions aimed at encouraging vaccination (such as compulsory vaccination) may reinforce the (social) identity of the vaccine hesitant. However, this risk and its possible consequences for society cannot be properly understood without a clear grasp of the dynamic evolution of social identity.

Computational models and systems provide a way of trying to understand the cognitive and the social together. For computational modellers, there is no particular reason to confine themselves to only the cognitive or only the social because agent-based systems can include both within a single framework. In addition, the computational system is a dynamic model that can represent the interactions of the individuals that connect the cognitive models and the social models. Thus the fact that computational models have a natural way to represent the actions as an integral and defining part of the socio-cognitive system is of prime importance. Given that the actions are an integral part of the model it is well suited to model the dynamics of socio-cognitive systems and track changes at both the social and the cognitive level. Therefore, within such systems we can study how cognitive processes may act to produce social phenomena whilst, at the same time, as how social realities are shaping the cognitive processes. Caarley and Newell (1994) discusses what is necessary at the agent level for sociality, Hofested et al. (2021) talk about how to understand sociality using computational models (including theories of individual action) – we want to understand both together. Thus, we can model the social embeddedness that Granovetter (1985) talked about – going beyond over- or under-socialised representations of human behaviour. It is not that computational models are innately suitable for modelling either the cognitive or the social, but that they can be appropriately structured (e.g. sets of interacting parts bridging micro-, meso- and macro-levels) and include arbitrary levels of complexity. Lots of models that represent the social have entities that stand for the cognitive, but do not explicitly represent much of that detail – similarly much cognitive modelling implies the social in terms of the stimuli and responses of an individual that would be to other social entities, but where these other entities are not explicitly represented or are simplified away.

Socio-Cognitive Systems (SCS) are: those models and systems where both cognitive and social complexity are represented with a meaningful level of processual detail.

A good example of an application where this appeared of the biggest importance was in simulations for the covid-19 crisis. The spread of the corona virus on macro level could be given by an epidemiological model, but the actual spreading depended crucially on the human behaviour that resulted from individuals’ cognitive model of the situation. In Dignum (2021) it was shown how the socio-cognitive system approach was fundamental to obtaining better insights in the effectiveness of a range of covid-19 restrictions.

Formality here is important. Computational systems are formal in the sense that they can be unambiguously passed around (i.e. unlike language, it is not differently re-interpreted by each individual) and operate according to their own precisely specified and explicit rules. This means that the same system can be examined and experimented on by a wider community of researchers. Sometimes, even when the researchers from different fields find it difficult to talk to one another, they can fruitfully cooperate via a computational model (e.g. Lafuerza et al. 2016). Other kinds of formal systems (e.g. logic, maths) are geared towards models that describe an entire system from a birds eye view. Although there are some exceptions like fibred logics Gabbay (1996), these are too abstract to be of good use to model practical situations. The lack of modularity and has been addressed in context logics Giunchiglia, F., & Ghidini, C. (1998). However, the contexts used in this setting are not suitable to generate a more general societal model. It results in most typical mathematical models using a number of agents which is either one, two or infinite (Miller and Page 2007), while important social phenomena happen with a “medium sized” population. What all these formalisms miss is a natural way of specifying the dynamics of the system that is modelled, while having ways to modularly describe individuals and the society resulting from their interactions. Thus, although much of what is represented in Socio-Cognitive Systems is not computational, the lingua franca for talking about them is.

The ‘double complexity’ of combining the cognitive and the social in the same system will bring its own methodological challenges. Such complexity will mean that many socio-cognitive systems will be, themselves, hard to understand or analyse. In the covid-19 simulations, described in (Dignum 2021), a large part of the work consisted of analysing, combining and representing the results in ways that were understandable. As an example, for one scenario 79 pages of graphs were produced showing different relations between potentially relevant variables. New tools and approaches will need to be developed to deal with this. We only have some hints of these, but it seems likely that secondary stages of analysis – understanding the models – will be necessary, resulting in a staged approach to abstraction (Lafuerza et al. 2016). In other words, we will need to model the socio-cognitive systems, maybe in terms of further (but simpler) socio-cognitive systems, but also maybe with a variety of other tools. We do not have a view on this further analysis, but this could include: machine learning, mathematics, logic, network analysis, statistics, and even qualitative approaches such as discourse analysis.

An interesting input for the methodology of designing and analysing socio-cognitive systems is anthropology and specifically ethnographical methods. Again, for the covid-19 simulations the first layer of the simulation was constructed based on “normal day life patterns”. Different types of persons were distinguished that each have their own pattern of living. These patterns interlock and form a fabric of social interactions that overall should satisfy most of the needs of the agents. Thus we calibrate the simulation based on the stories of types of people and their behaviours. Note that doing the same just based on available data of behaviour would not account for the underlying needs and motives of that behaviour and would not be a good basis for simulating changes. The stories that we used looked very similar to the type of reports ethnographers produce about certain communities. Thus further investigating this connection seems worthwhile.

For representing the output of the complex socio-cognitive systems we can also use the analogue of stories. Basically, different stories show the underlying (assumed) causal relations between phenomena that are observed. E.g. seeing an increase in people having lunch with friends can be explained by the fact that a curfew prevents people having dinner with their friends, while they still have a need to socialize. Thus the alternative of going for lunch is chosen more often. One can see that the explaining story uses both social as well as cognitive elements to describe the results. Although in the covid-19 simulations we have created a number of these stories, they were all created by hand after (sometimes weeks) of careful analysis of the results. Thus for this kind of approach to be viable, new tools are required.

Although human society is the archetypal socio-cognitive system, it is not the only one. Both social animals and some artificial systems also come under this category. These may be very different from the human, and in the case of artificial systems completely different. Thus, Socio-Cognitive Systems is not limited to the discussion of observable phenomena, but can include constructed or evolved computational systems, and artificial societies. Examination of these (either theoretically or experimentally) opens up the possibility of finding either contrasts or commonalities between such systems – beyond what happens to exist in the natural world. However, we expect that ideas and theories that were conceived with human socio-cognitive systems in mind might often be an accessible starting point for understanding these other possibilities.

In a way, Socio-Cognitive Systems bring together two different threads in the work of Herbert Simon. Firstly, as in Simon (1948) it seeks to take seriously the complexity of human social behaviour without reducing this to overly simplistic theories of individual behaviour. Secondly, it adopts the approach of explicitly modelling the cognitive in computational models (Newell & Simon 1972). Simon did not bring these together in his lifetime, perhaps due to the limitations and difficulty of deploying the computational tools to do so. Instead, he tried to develop alternative mathematical models of aspects of thought (Simon 1957). However, those models were limited by being mathematical rather than computational.

To conclude, a field of Socio-Cognitive Systems would consider the cognitive and the social in an integrated fashion – understanding them together. We suggest that computational representation or implementation might be necessary to provide concrete reference between the various disciplines that are needed to understand them. We want to encourage research that considers the cognitive and the social in a truly integrated fashion. If by labelling a new field does this it will have achieved its purpose. However, there is the possibility that completely new classes of theory and complexity may be out there to be discovered – phenomena that are denied if either the cognitive or the social are not taken together – a new world of a socio-cognitive systems.


[1] Some economic models claim to bridge between individual behaviour and macro outcomes, however this is traditionally notional. Many economists admit that their primary cognitive models (varieties of economic rationality) are not valid for individuals but are what people on average do – i.e. this is a macro-level model. In other economic models whole populations are formalised using a single representative agent. Recently, there are some agent-based economic models emerging, but often limited to agree with traditional models.


Bruce Edmonds is supported as part of the ESRC-funded, UK part of the “ToRealSim” project, grant number ES/S015159/1.


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The Poverty of Suggestivism – the dangers of “suggests that” modelling

By Bruce Edmonds

Vagueness and refutation

A model[1] is basically composed of two parts (Zeigler 1976, Wartofsky 1979):

  1. A set of entities (such as mathematical equations, logical rules, computer code etc.) which can be used to make some inferences as to the consequences of that set (usually in conjunction with some data and parameter values)
  2. A mapping from this set to what it aims to represent – what the bits mean

Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the internal rigour of the set of entities and the inferences that are made from them (1), the mapping to what that represents (2) has often been left as implicit or incompletely described – sometimes only indicated by the labels given to its parts. The result is a model that vaguely relates to its target, suggesting its properties analogically. There is not well-defined way that a model is to be applied to anything observed, but a new map is invented each time it is used to think about a particular case. I call this way of modelling “Suggestivism”, because the model “suggests” things about what is being modelled.

This is partly a recapitulation of Popper’s critique of vague theories in his book “The Poverty of Historicism” (1957). He characterised such theories as “irrefutable”, because whatever the facts, these theories could be made to fit them. Irrefutability is an indicator of a lack of precise mapping to reality – such vagueness makes refutation very hard. However, it is only an indicator; there may be other reasons than vagueness for it not being possible to test a theory – it is their disconnection from well-defined empirical reference that is the issue here.

Some might go as far as suggesting that any model or theory that is not refutable is “unscientific”, but this goes too far, implying a very restricted definition of what ‘science’ is. We need analogies to think about what we are doing and to gain insight into what we are studying, e.g. (Hartman 1997) – for humans they are unavoidable, ‘baked’ into the way language works (Lakoff 1987). A model might make a set of ideas clear and help map out the consequences of a set of assumptions/structures/processes. Many of these suggestivist models relate to a set of ideas and it is the ideas that relate to what is observed (albeit informally) (Edmonds 2001). However, such models do not capture anything reliable about what they refer to, and in that sense are not part of the set of the established statements and theories that is at the core of science  (Arnold 2014).

The dangers of suggestivist modelling

As above, there are valid uses of abstract or theoretical modelling where this is explicitly acknowledged and where no conclusions about observed phenomena are made. So what are the dangers of suggestivist modelling – why am I making such a fuss about it?

Firstly, that people often seem to confuse a model as an analogy – a way of thinking about stuff – and a model that tells us reliably about what we are studying. Thus they give undue weight to the analyses of abstract models that are, in fact, just thought experiments. Making models is a very intimate way of theorising – one spends an extended period of time interacting with one’s model: developing, checking, analysing etc. The result is a particularly strong version of “Kuhnian Spectacles” (Kuhn 1962) causing us to see the world though our model for weeks after. Under this strong influence it is natural to confuse what we can reliably infer about the world and how we are currently perceiving/thinking about it. Good scientists should then pause and wait for this effect to wear off so that they can effectively critique what they have done, its limitations and what its implications are. However, often in the rush to get their work out, modellers often do not do this, resulting in a sloppy set of suggestive interpretations of their modelling.

Secondly, empirical modelling is hard. It is far easier (and, frankly, more fun) to play with non-empirical models. A scientific culture that treats suggestivist modelling as substantial progress and significantly rewards modellers that do it, will effectively divert a lot of modelling effort in this direction. Chattoe-Brown (2018) displayed evidence of this in his survey of opinion dynamics models – abstract, suggestivist modelling got far more reward (in terms of citations) than those that tried to relate their model to empirical data in a direct manner. Abstract modelling has a role in science, but if it is easier and more rewarding then the field will become unbalanced. It may give the impression of progress but not deliver on this impression. In a more mature science, researchers working on measurement methods (steps from observation to models) and collecting good data are as important as the theorists (Moss 1998).

Thirdly, it is hard to judge suggestivist models. Given their connection to the modelling target is vague there cannot be any decisive test of its success. Good modellers should declare the exact purpose of their model, e.g. that is analogical or merely exploring the consequences of theory (Edmonds et al. 2019), but then accept the consequences of this choice – namely, that it excludes  making conclusions about the observed world. If it is for a theoretical exploration then the comprehensiveness of the exploration, the scope of the exploration and the applicability of the model can be judged, but if the model is analogical or illustrative then this is harder. Whilst one model may suggest X, another may suggest the opposite. It is quite easy to fix a model to get the outcomes one wants. Clearly, if a model makes startling suggestions – illustrating totally new ideas or making a counter-example to widely held assumptions – then this helps science by widening the pool of theories or hypotheses that are considered. However most suggestivist modelling does not do this.

Fourthly, their sheer flexibility of as to application causes problems – if one works hard enough one can invent mappings to a wide range of cases, the limits are only those of our imagination. In effect, having a vague mapping from model to what it models adds in huge flexibility in a similar way to having a large number of free (non-empirical) parameters. This flexibility gives an impression of generality, and many desire simple and general models for complex phenomena. However, this is illusory because a different mapping is needed for each case, to make it apply. Given the above (1)+(2) definition of a model this means that, in fact, it is a different model for each case – what a model refers to, is part of the model. The same flexibility makes such models impossible to refute, since one can just adjust the mapping to save them. The apparent generality and lack of refutation means that such models hang around in the literature, due to their surface attractiveness.

Finally, these kinds of model are hugely influential beyond the community of modellers to the wider public including policy actors. Narratives that start in abstract models make their way out and can be very influential (Vranckx 1999). Despite the lack of rigorous mapping from model to reality, suggestivist models look impressive, look scientific. For example, very abstract models from the Neo-Classical ‘Chicago School’ of economists supported narratives about the optimal efficiency of markets, leading to a reluctance to regulate them (Krugman 2009). A lack of regulation seemed to be one of the factors behind the 2007/8 economic crash (Baily et al 2008). Modellers may understand that other modellers get over-enthusiastic and over-interpret their models, but others may not. It is the duty of modellers to give an accurate impression of the reliability of any modelling results and not to over-hype them.

How to recognise a suggestivist model

It can be hard to detangle how empirically vague a model is, because many descriptions about modelling work do not focus on making the mapping to what it represents precise. The reasons for this are various, for example: the modeller might be conflating reality and what is in the model in their minds, the researcher is new to modelling and has not really decided what the purpose of their model is, the modeller might be over-keen to establish the importance of their work and so is hyping the motivation and conclusions, they might simply not got around to thinking enough about the relationship between their model and what it might represent, or they might not have bothered to make the relationship explicit in their description. Whatever the reason the reader of any description of such work is often left with an archaeological problem: trying to unearth what the relationship might be, based on indirect clues only. The only way to know for certain is to take a case one knows about and try and apply the model to it, but this is a time consuming process and relies upon having a case with suitable data available. However, there are some indicators, albeit fallible ones, including the following.

  • A relatively simple model is interpreted as explaining a wide range of observed, complex phenomena
  • No data from an observed case study is compared to data from the model (often no data is brought in at all, merely abstract observations) – despite this, conclusions about some observed phenomena are made
  • The purpose of the model is not explicitly declared
  • The language of the paper seems to conflate talking about the model with what is being modelled
  • In the paper there is sudden abstraction ‘jump’ between the motivation and the description of the model and back again to the interpretation of the results in terms of that motivation. The abstraction jumps involved are large and justified by some a priori theory or modelling precedents rather than evidence.

How to avoid suggestivist modelling

How to avoid the dangers of suggestivist modelling should be clear from the above discussion, but I will make them explicit here.

  • Be clear about the model purpose – that is what kind of thing the model aims to achieve which indicates how it should be judged by others (Edmonds et al 2019)
  • Do not make any conclusions about the real world if you have not related the model to any data
  • Do not make any policy conclusions – things that might affect other people’s lives – without at least some independent validation of the model outcomes
  • Document how a model relates (or should relate) to data, the nature of that data and maybe even the process whereby that data should be obtained (Achter et al 2019)
  • Be explicit as possible about what kinds of phenomena the model applies to – the limits of its scope
  • Keep the language about the model and what is being modelled distinct – for any statement it should be clear whether it is talking about the model or what it models (Edmonds 2020)
  • Highlight any bold assumptions in the specification of the model or describe what empirical foundation there is for them – be honest about these


Models can serve many different purposes (Epstein 2008). This is fine as long as the purpose of models are always made clear, and model results are not interpreted further than their established purpose allows. Research which gives the impression that analogical, illustrative or theoretical modelling can tell us anything reliable about observed complex phenomena is not only sloppy science, but can have a deleterious impact – giving an impression of progress whilst diverting attention from empirically reliable work. Like a bad investment: if it looks too good and too easy to be true, it is probably isn’t.


[1] We often use the word “model” in a lazy way to indicate (1) rather than (1)+(2) in this definition, but a set of entities without any meaning or mapping to anything else is not a model, as it does not represent anything. For example, a random set of equations or program instructions does not make a model.


Bruce Edmonds is supported as part of the ESRC-funded, UK part of the “ToRealSim” project, grant number ES/S015159/1.


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