Hypocognition: Beyond Comprehension

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning, ‘Hypocognition: Making Sense of the Landscape Beyond One’s Conceptual Reach’, Review of General Psychology, 22 (2018), 25-25.

When we have to deal with ideas or experiences for which we have no cognitive or linguistic resources, we face the perils of hypocognition, which ‘impoverishes one’s mental world, leaving cognitive deficits in recognition, explanation, and memory while fueling social chauvinism and conflict in political and cultural spheres’. Hypocognition is not usually greeted with self-knowledge, Wu and Dunning say; instead people tend towards ‘hypercognition’, ‘the mistaken overapplication of other available conceptual notions to issues outside their actual relevance’.
      Two of the key stories used to illustrate hypocognition are anthropological in character. They cite Robert Levy’s work on grief in Tahiti: with no word for that emotion, it is restated as a strange feeling or a pain. Levy, they say, sees this as a coping strategy. They also tell the story of Frederic Tudor, who sailed to Martinique in 1806 planning to sell ice to the locals. This failed: ‘never having experienced a cold drink, the islanders could not fathom why ice held any value’. I’m not sure I get this, in that cold drinks are a matter of taste rather than cognitive capacity, aren’t they? Ice does have many uses, though. Wu and Dunning also cite the hypothetical 2-dimensional inhabitants of ‘Flatland’ who cannot conceive ‘up’ or ‘sphere’, and this seems to be a different kind of thing altogether, an ontological prohibition rather than something unlearned.
      The key concept comes across, then, as somewhat loose, but there is a reason for this, I suppose, in that this article deals with thought in the world, at the point where brain and body and culture and politics interact. It draws together evidence from behavioural experiments to enrich what the anthropologists are describing, those situations where for one reason or another people fall short of dealing with the truth. This is what I found interesting, although it doesn’t have the wow-factor of some of the articles featured in this blog.


How does literature expose the hypocognitive and the hypercognitive? I think these terms restate some common features of character and plot, where we see figures taken outside their cognitive comfort zones and faced with situations beyond their comprehension. Shakespeare’s tortured monarchs (Richard II or Lear) confronting the evaporation of their royal selves; his tragic heroes (Othello and Macbeth) incapable of disentangling their predicaments; his cross-dressed heroines encountering angles on life that they had not bargained for.
      It seems like an interesting satirical strategy. The Roman poet Horace has a satirical voice that often wonders why people behave so strangely — why they value the wrong things, why they persist in vices despite apparently knowing better. It has its own quality of hypocognition, in that it professes an inability to comprehend the follies of others. It also observes a kind of hypocognition among those who are unable to free themselves from bad behaviour. Perhaps it shows readers their own potential for hypocognition, confronting them with the paradigm shift required to reform society, a shift they may find hard to fathom.
      It might also make an interesting terminology for thinking through some aspects of science fiction (which themselves may at times have a satirical turn). Depicting strange minds from strange places gives us the chance to replay the cognitive problem suffered by Swift’s Houyhnhnms (the intelligent horses of Gulliver’s Travels) when they try to understand lying. Routine, inevitable things become incomprehensible. I am thinking a bit here of Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, which portrayed hypocognition-filled interactions between a world dominated by women and one dominated by men.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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