Participants in cognitive psychology experiments on reasoning and problem solving are commonly sequestered: Efforts are made to impoverish the physical context in which the problem is presented, decoupling people from the richer and modifiable environment that naturally instantiates it outside the lab. Sense-making activities are constrained, but this conforms to the strong internalist and individualist commitments implicit to these research efforts: Cognition reflects internal computations and the scientists’ toils must focus on the individual and what she is thinking, decoupled from the world. We contrast this position with one that identifies cognition as the product of a cognitive system that is configured and enacted by, minimally, an agent and the world in which she is embedded. We review work on the psychology of hypothesis testing and problem solving and argue that refocusing research efforts on the dynamic agent-environment couplings that generate cognitive products — such as a problem representation, a hypothesis or a problem solution — offers a much richer set of methodological opportunities to unveil how people actually think outside the cognitive psychologist’s laboratory. We conclude by exploring the ontological implications of a systemic perspective on cognition.
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