A new study in Ambio points out how misunderstandings in transdisciplinary research happen when there is not a joint understanding of important terms. The individuals in the photo are not associated with the subject of the study. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote

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miscommunication in science

Dealing with ‘false friends’

The perception of cognition and other related terms easily get misunderstood in scientific processes, leading to frustration, communication breakdown and a collaboration impasse

Story highlights

  • New study in Ambio looks at human cognition in terms of Social-Ecological Systems (SES) research from different ontological and epistemological perspectives
  • Clear definitions and understandings in each specific context are key to addressing cognition in SES research
  • Understanding how, why, and what role cognition is playing in SES research, or research in general, will contribute to more fruitful collaborations

Misunderstandings happen all the time and fortunately, the consequences are usually manageable. The same goes for misinterpretations, though history is rife with examples of the opposite. Within science, where jargons abound, the risk of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of frequently used terms can happen. Researchers may think they agree on something but in reality they don’t because their understanding or knowledge of a terms is not the same.

Take cognition for example, which is the ability to take on, process and understand new knowledge. The use of the term can be found across a variety of scientific disciplines, including a transdisciplinary research area in itself, social-ecological systems (SES) research.

In a study recently published in Ambio, centre researcher Nanda Wijermans, and Anna Lena Bercht, from Kiel University, highlights the importance of effective, mindful, and clear communication in research, but specifically around human cognition.

They demonstrate how cognition and other related terms easily become “false friends” in conversations, soundingalike, but used with different meanings or scope of usage. The meaning of cognition is interpreted differently by the listener(s) from what the speaker intended. Ultimately, this can lead to frustration, communication breakdown and a halt in important collaborations.

Failure to communicate across disciplines results not only from the complexity and ambiguity of the concepts of cognition, but also—and especially—from what is left unsaid in the communication about cognition, exacerbating the challenges for those teaming up to tackle social-ecological problems

co-authors Nanda Wijermans and Anna Lena Bercht

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A neuroscientist, psychologist, and philosopher’s false friends

To set the scene, Wijermans and Bercht use, amongst others, a fictitious yet symbolic and case regarding the trickiness of false. They explain an incident where a neuroscientist, psychologist, and philosopher set out to discuss cognition in SES research.

In their first meeting, all three agree that they can contribute based on their expertise. By the second meeting, it became clear that they all had a different definition of what “cognition” actually is: the neuroscientist believes the brain is where all the answers lie, the psychologist notes the environment’s importance, and the philosopher focuses on human emotions.

While they were all talking about cognition, they failed to define what that actually meant for them, creating an intellectual conflict.

The mind: least understood and most complex

In an era where humans have become the driving force behind planetary change, scientists and policymakers need to understand human behaviour much better. And to do so, say Wijermans and Bercht, one must look to cognition. Cognitive processes are considered to play a crucial role in shaping human behavior.

As Wijermans and Bercht explain, “Despite its important role in scientific research, the mind is one of the least understood parts of human beings and one of the most complex issues in today’s SES research on global challenges, like climate change, shrinking biodiversity, food insecurity and poverty.”

The authors explore cognition as a concept that can refer to many different things depending on someone’s point of departure. This ranges from an extended cognition perspective, which states that cognition extends beyond the body to the environment; to social cognition, which emphasizes humans in their social environment. There is also brain-bound cognition, embodied cognition, and emotional cognition. All of these schools of thought have their own take on what cognition really means.

Second, the authors explore philosopher Daniel Dennet’s approach to cognition. While one of many theories, Dennett explains cognition at three levels, from least to most abstract: physical, design, and intentional. An example of the physical level could be natural sciences, design level could be neuroscience, and the intentional level could be philosophy. The authors suggest that confusion epistemological confusion in transdisciplinary research could arise from these different perspectives, and that clear communication around starting points could help avoid misunderstandings.

Finally, the authors take a look at rationality in cognition and the need for more mindful communication in SES. The authors explore the concept of rationality through differences in scientific assumption and the object under examination.

Communicating cognition

To help minimize the risk of having ‘false friends’ within (social ecological) research, the authors call for more clarity around concepts such as cognition, rationality, or perception.

The authors stress that universal understandings or definitions are not the answer, but rather that “clear, precise, explicit and direct communication of all relevant conceptual, ontological and epistemological assumptions, including knowledge gaps and uncertainties, which accompany this integrative journey”.

In other words, in order to better understand human behavior and environmental challenges, ‘false friends’ must be replaced by clear communication within sustainability research.


For this paper, the method was largely focused on a literature review. However, the authors also drew on personal experiences to exemplify the challenges around communicating SES research, a transdisciplinary topic by nature.

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Published: 2018-11-09


Bercht, A.L. and Wijermans, N., 2018. Mind the mind: How to effectively communicate about cognition in social–ecological systems research. Ambio, pp. 1-15, doi: 10.1007/s13280-018-1099-7 (online first)

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Nanda Wijermans’ research focuses on understanding and formalizing of human behaviour in and on social-ecological systems. She is currently working with GRAID, a Sida funded programme bridging resilience research and development issues.


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