Everyday Cognition

Everyday cognition refers to the study of thinking—memory, reasoning, and judgment—in naturalistic settings and with real-world content. Examples of such thinking include the way in which we form impressions of people in our everyday lives, how we retrieve memories from our childhood, how we decide which brand is the best buy at the supermarket, and how we judge the likelihood of landing a job that we've applied for. The study of everyday cognition can be contrasted with traditional laboratory research on memory and thinking, where cognitive processes are studied outside of their everyday context and are assumed to be completely general (even universal) across contexts and materials. Thus, for example, rather than studying general problem-solving processes in the lab, researchers in everyday cognition have examined how grocery shoppers use nonstandard math in making their buying decisions and how dairy workers fill orders and determine the price of these orders. Similarly, rather than looking at the degree to which lab participants reason with abstract probability problems or simulations of lotteries or gambles, researchers in naturalistic decision making have looked at the real-world decision making of urban firefighters and military commanders in the field.

Everyday cognition research is also notable for the wide variety of methods used, in contrast to traditional laboratory research. Thus, for example, these methods include diary keeping, survey research, field studies, analyzing think-aloud protocols, and the use of archival data, to name just a few (in addition to traditional laboratory techniques). Everyday cognition research also often involves a focus on special populations (e.g., amnesia patients, experts in everyday skills such as typewriting or baseball) and applied problems (e.g., eyewitness testimony, adherence to schedules of medication).

Two prototypical topics in the area of everyday cognition that illustrate some of these differences from traditional laboratory research on memory and cognition, as well as the variety of different techniques used in the former area, are autobiographical memory and the study of practical reasoning in work settings. The topic of autobiographical memory (AM) is concerned with what we recall about our personal life history: how accurate or distorted these memories are, how they are distributed over the different periods of our lives (e.g., early childhood, adolescence, middle age), how events are represented and organized in memory, and how such memories are retrieved. In general, studies of AM differ from traditional laboratory studies of memory in that researchers on AM typically have little control over the conditions under which such memories are acquired and rehearsed and, in many cases, no way of judging their accuracy. In addition, AMs are typically months, years, or even decades old rather than being acquired in the same research session, and, unlike the memories studied in most lab research, AMs typically have significant personal meaning for the participant.

Studies on AM have used a variety of different research methods. For example, much traditional research has used a cue word method in which participants are asked to retrieve personal memories that match a given cue (e.g., an emotion or an object). In one particular version of this sort of study, participants were asked to recall AMs that met certain criteria, such as a memory of a time when they drove on the freeway and nearly had an accident. By presenting cues in different orders and measuring the time it took for participants to retrieve a memory, this research concluded that AMs are represented primarily in terms of activities (e.g., going to a restaurant) rather than in terms of general actions that are associated with a variety of contexts and activities (e.g., paying the bill), emotions, people, or the like.

In addition to studies using this sort of more familiar experimental manipulation, research on AM has also used long-term diary studies with single or small numbers of participants. For example, in two classic studies individual researchers recorded samples of events and experiences over 6-year periods of their lives, along with ratings of these events (e.g., in terms of salience and emotionality) and, in one case, details of the who, what, when, and where of the event. These researchers then tested their memory for randomly sampled examples of these events, either on a monthly basis or in the final year of the 6-year period. A common finding of both of these studies is that the diarists' memory for events proved to be much better than would be expected from traditional lab studies of memory. A subsequent study in which the recorded events were randomly sampled (i.e., by having participants write a description of whatever they were doing and thinking when a beeper they were carrying went off) found somewhat greater forgetting, though still better recall than that found in most lab studies of memory. Finally, some recent diary studies have focused on the involuntary, automatic recall of AMs, such as memories elicited by some odor or song or scene, as opposed to deliberate, strategic memory searches.

A second example of everyday cognition research can be found in a set of studies by Sylvia Scribner on the practical problem solving engaged in by workers at a dairy plant. This research looked at product assembly workers who had to fill orders by retrieving cases and partial cases of dairy products from a large ice box, drivers who had to calculate the price for specific quantities of milk and other dairy products, and inventory workers who took stock of existing supplies in the ice box. This research is of interest for a couple of different reasons. First, Scribner began with ethnographic observations of these workers performing their everyday tasks in a "natural" setting (i.e., the dairy) rather than trying to abstract some general processes out of that setting. From these observations Scribner formulated a conception of the workers'practical problem-solving strategies, which she then tested by means of task simulations with these same workers, as well as by comparing the experienced workers' performance with that of relative novices on the same tasks. Based on this evidence, Scrib-ner concluded that the dairy workers typically reformulated the problem facing them in such a way that they could perform the task with optimal efficiency and flexibility and with minimal effort, for example, by completing an order by moving the minimal number of units. These workers also used properties of the environment (e.g., known dimensions of the ice box) in problem solving.

In general, Scribner, like so many other researchers in everyday cognition, has been at pains to point out how this sort of practical reasoning differs from the sorts of problemsolving tasks studied in traditional laboratory research. Thus, for example, practical, everyday problems typically relate to the overall goals and activities of the problem solver, rather than simply being isolated tasks to be solved for their own sake. Similarly, the workers' use of the environment in their problem solutions differs from the usual emphasis in laboratory studies (or school settings) on participants (or students) solving problems symbolically or "in the head."

Research on everyday cognition clearly takes a variety of different forms and, at this point in time, is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, the study of cognitive processes in real-world settings and with everyday materials presently offers a significant challenge to traditional research on memory and cognition.

Stanley Woll

California State University

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