Is social reality real?

The world is full of social facts. Paying the bill, getting married or owning a house: these actions don't belong strictly to the universe of natural facts, but we cannot say they do not exist. What is then the nature of social reality? At ISTC the Goal-Oriented Agents Lab (GOAL) is trying to find an answer starting from the approach of cognitive science. 

How do things like money, marriage or property exist? How are they related to physical things? These questions have been widely explored in philosophy and sociology, but when we move from collective to individual behavior the problem of the nature of institutions seem to be underestimated. Psychology has only recently started to consider this limitation, but there is still insufficient attention to the quintessential human social ability: the capacity to act within social institutions and to construct social reality.

At ISTC, The Goal-Oriented Agents Lab (GOAL) is walking this path. It focuses on the conventional arrangements arising between individuals during the constructions of social reality. What are social institutions? How do we construct social reality? GOAL researchers try to answer these questions from a cognitive point of view: institutions are mental conventions shared (also unintentionally) by all the people involved. These conventions are also social means for the sake of common ends and are sources of tacit agreements.

For example, it is a general interest to respect the institution of ownership and property: if you recognize that something I own is mine, I will do exactly the same. This happens because we share a common representation of the concepts like "yours", "mine", "owner", "property", "stealing", and so on. Beliefs employing these concepts predispose people to behave in a certain way: respecting private ownership, paying the rent, leaving the parking space to the driver who finds it first. At the same time, they confer reality to the underlying concepts – property, rent, priority – leading to a particular social behavior. 

Contact: Luca Tummolini

ISTC Group: Goal-Oriented Agents Lab

Relevant Publications

Tummolini L. Convention: an interdisciplinary study. In: TOPOI-AN INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY, vol. 27 pp. 1 - 3. 2008.

Tummolini L., Castelfranchi C. The cognitive and behavioral mediation of institutions: Towards an account of institutional actions. In: Journal of Cognitive Systems Research, vol. 7 pp. 307 - 323. 2006.

  • cognitive modelling;
  • ownership