The Psychology of Coordination and Common Knowledge Research Study Review

(Or as I would like to call it, The Intersection of Common Knowledge with Sexism and Racism, but that will have to wait for my own research study.)

This was written in response to a request from the VU University Amsterdam admissions department as part of the Social Psychology master’s degree application.  I need to write more often because I certainly enjoyed this, however short it is.

Within social psychology, cooperation research is normally devoted to altruistic cooperation, where one individual appears to assist a different individual without any incentive or reward, but there is little research literature devoted to mutual coordination or what the authors of the Psychology of Coordination and Common Knowledge (Pinker et al.) term, common knowledge, “any string of embedded levels of knowledge that falls short of infinity.” The authors decided to address the epistemological challenges and explore the problems associated with cognition and motivation of mutual cooperation between two or more individuals. They wanted to test their hypothesis, whether people react positively to common knowledge when confronted with an activity that requires cooperation with one or more other individuals. Based on previous research, the authors expected to find more cooperation through common knowledge and mutual benefit that with secondary shared knowledge.

The authors utilized a randomized sample of. The studies were designed to examine common knowledge through four filters. Experiment One employed one coordination game and assessed two individuals decide to work alone for an explicit benefit or decide to work with another individual (without affirmation that the other individual will coordinate their work efforts with them) utilizing three additional shared knowledge scenarios for an uncertain benefit. Experiment Two applied a different coordination game utilizing the same scenarios. Experiment Three utilized a variation of Experiment One making it more challenging by adding additional “similarity manipulation,” and knowledge comprehension questions. The Fourth Experiment utilized a variation of the previous experiments to investigate the framing of a coordination problem and its affects upon the rates of coordinated participation and evaluate participants’ expectations of the other individual’s decision.

Throughout the four experiments, results were generally the same: more participants chose to collaborate with common knowledge than with uncertain shared knowledge, and more participants chose to collaborate with secondary knowledge than with private knowledge. Based on these results, the authors concluded that the critical element necessary to an individual’s decision to collaborate with another, especially where common knowledge is present among all individual participants, is the environment in which the collaboration is activated.

The methods that were used successfully answered the research question, “…whether people are sensitive to common knowledge when deciding whether to engage in risky coordination,” and thus, the study is “methodologically sound.” However, the study question only takes into account a very specific set of parameters. The venue in which the study occurs is limited to an online, impersonal, anonymous social-network venue. There is no face-to-face contact to allow for body and facial language communication between individuals, though they address this shortcoming in their general discussion.

The language of communication is English, there is no discussion of communication and coordination within cultures that are not North American English (if not just the United States), given the use of Amazon Mechanical Turk, and they do not cite any studies conducted within any other cultures or language groups. The implication of the study is that most individuals within a global society understand common knowledge as though common knowledge is ingrained and understand throughout the population of every country and culture.

The results of the study are inadequate on several counts. The authors mention the conjunction of common knowledge with body language, but it is not discussed in the body of the study at all. It is limited to the general discussion, and it is never mentioned elsewhere. The lack of face-to-face communication is an additional weakness; given that communication in the study is conducted exclusively through impersonally written scenarios and the participants are not able to see each other. The common knowledge scenario is only viewed through the cooperation of individuals, rather than between groups, and that cooperation is contingent upon the promise of financial profit and implied individual greed, however minimal. There is also no discussion of social constructs or the underlying propaganda behind those constructs that influences stereotypes, sexism, and racism and how they collectively inform common knowledge. And while economic gain was ruled incidental to the desire to collaborate, it was still an element, even when evaluating participants based upon their desire to help others to achieve a common goal. These criticisms don’t completely invalidate the study — it has applications to, and implications within, social network scenarios — but I question the application of the study results to the real world outside of the Internet. Given these criticisms, I find the study flawed, weak, and conclusive, only within the limited parameters that it was conducted.

This study suggests several ideas for future work, and there are broader implications I would like to explore, specifically within small groups or a community where I would address cooperation, the language of sexism embedded in socially constructed propaganda, and its influence upon common language and other forms of propaganda. Rather than conduct the new studies via social networks or Amazon Mechanical Turk, I would conduct these studies within a physical space, perhaps utilizing participatory action research methods with participants acting as co-researchers in a series of on-going research projects.

The present study relies upon a social network infrastructure within Amazon Mechanical Turk framed by a money and greed incentive to join with another participant. While financial gain is not necessarily a material motivation to participate, and while results do not necessarily indicate that individuals participated with a greater interest in financial gain versus the common knowledge employed, the suggestion of financial gain had a strong presence throughout. If I had the opportunity to conduct this same research study, I would place it in a physical space and I would conduct it with variables of cooperation between individuals based on a fabricated form of common knowledge that is specific to the study’s scenario to determine independent common knowledge rather than general societal common knowledge. Rather than utilizing just English, if possible, I would utilize other local languages as well and employ body and facial expressions as variables.

While the results of the present study are valid and methodologically sound, they are flawed as I explained in some detail. The changes I would make to the study would serve to determine the validity of the research hypothesis outside of a virtual social network environment. The alternate variables would be used in a series of studies rather than one alone, because it would be too challenging and overarching a question to ask that included all of the variables and universal validity would be difficult to prove.

As a research question, I would like to ask to what extent is sexism responsible for the way that media propaganda and personal propaganda impact the language referents, views, and treatment of women and political minorities in daily encounters? Given that these variables and the first proposed question may be too broad, I would test, rather, whether people in a select group are sensitive enough to change the sexist language in their vocabulary if a majority of group members use alternative non-sexist language during a collaborative common knowledge exercise.

 

Sources:

Thomas Pinker et al. (2014). The Psychology of Coordination and Common Knowledge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107 (4) 657–676

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