Cognition Is Social

Oddly enough, this stylized fact bears fruit on several different levels.

E pluribus unum

Intelligence emerges non-additively from the interaction of many less-intelligent agents. A group can have intelligence greater than any of its individual parts, or even their sum. Of course, the opposite can be true as well.

This phenomenon has many forms and names:

  1. Brian Eno’s idea of scenius: “an ecology of talent…supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas and contributing ideas.” (see takes from Kevin Kelly and Austin Kleon).
  2. Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind modeled human intelligence as a society of agents competing for resources and power, and collaborating to achieve shared goals.
  3. Hayek’s point that computation is difficult and information scattered, so to solve the social optimization problem, our only hope is to use markets to aggregate many local decisions.
  4. The hive mind of twitter (the cool kids are calling it an “egregore”), the world of memes, of the tyranny of ideas.
  5. Individual minds often work better in a group setting. We respond to rewards, social rewards are powerful, and if you are rewarded for “good” thoughts then you generate more of them.

Counterpoint: “nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

E unibus pluram

The human intelligence explosion can’t be explained by normal processes of natural selection. What new threats or opportunities emerged in the savannah to create such an intense selection pressure? Answer: other humans.

Runaway evolutionary processes are usually explained by an arms race of some sort. Humans are intensely social creatures, and in our evolutionary environment the most interesting thing is other people. Being able to anticipate what other people will do and incorporate it into your actions is an immense edge. All of our social actions (flattery, threats, flirtation, requests, manipulation) rely on having accurate mental models of other people. So success depends on two traits: the ease with which you can simulate other people, and the difficulty of being simulated. The arms race goes exponential because of the “coincidence” that these two are both grounded in “intelligence”.

You can tap into this with a simple technique: Decide who you would ask for help, and imagine what they’d say.

[epistemic status for this section: shakier than I’d like. I didn’t invent this idea, but I haven’t done the work to firmly ground it in the originating research.]


Find a scene, think in public, work with the garage door up, use your social imagination productively.