Challenge to “Cognitive” Models of Behavior


Traditional assumptions of cognitive psychology are increasingly questioned by neurophysiology, casting doubt on the classic framework of serial information processing…

  • The brain’s ability to predict the consequences of actions
  • enables it to link across levels of abstraction
  • and to bias immediate actions by the predicted long- term opportunities they make possible
  • hence supporting intentional action.The organization of the brain, including the cerebral cortex, is increasingly viewed in terms of the species-typical activities that it evolved to support, as opposed to the hypothetical modules of cognitive psychology theory.


“Cognitive science is defined as the study of the human mind, and its fundamental tenet is that ‘thinking can be understood in terms of the representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures’. This definition places cognition between the perceptual processes that provide its input and the motor processes that execute its output – sketching the shape of the serial sense–think–act model of behavior that has dominated psychological theories for more than 50 years.”

However, throughout that time, an alternative view has existed, proposing that the brain is a feedback control system whose primary goal is not to understand the world, but to guide interaction with the world. A feedback control system is one in which outputs are generated so as to control some variable whose value is measured via input.  In the case of behavior, actions are performed to keep the animal in a desirable state (satiated, safe, etc.) and perceptions are used to evaluate that state…

Similar to other biological processes (e.g., thermoregulation), behavior is a feedback control process – we take actions so as to influence our state in the world.  Although overt behavior extends beyond the skin, it is nevertheless functionally organized like other biological feedback processes: it relies on predictable causal relationships between actions and outcomes (approach food ! make food obtainable) and is self-regulating (eat food ! satiate hunger/ deplete food).

The basic framework of feedback control is widely recognized in studies of autonomic physiology, sensorimotor control, and natural animal behavior, but largely absent from theories of how human cognition operates.  Here, we argue that this is an oversight and that even human cognition is best understood within the context of the feedback control theoretical principles that govern all biological systems.

In this perspective, we take adaptive action control – and the problems faced by situated agents who pursue their goals in dynamic (yet structured) environments – as a central paradigm to understand human cognition.  Some biologically grounded models of embodied action and cognition, such as the ‘affordance competition hypothesis’, ‘active inference’, and others, incorporate control theoretical principles. However, these proposals have been mostly applied to simple scenarios and cognitive tasks that do not fully engage higher cognitive processes. Here, we discuss how these models can be extended beyond simple sensorimotor behavior to address the domain of intentional action and higher cognitive skills, while retaining important principles of feedback control at their core.

Source: “Navigating the Affordance Landscape: Feedback Control as a Process Model of Behavior and Cognition” Pezzulo and Cisek 2016

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