Understanding the Role of Goals in Human Cognition

Beckman Institute faculty member Brian Ross believes the goals humans have play a critical role in cognitive processes such as those associated with memory and learning.

The goal may be as ancient and basic as satisfying our need for nourishment or as contemporary as communicating though text on a cell phone but it’s the goal – Beckman Institute researcher Brian Ross believes – that plays an influential, integrative role in cognitive processes.

In his research Ross has used the cognitive relationship humans have with food and how people learned to use early versions of a text editor as part of his studies involving topics such as memory concepts and problem-solving. Those same cognitive psychology issues have been studied by others, but Ross has taken a different tack.

“The thing that distinguishes my work is that I have a little different approach to the field,” Ross said. “I’ve tended to work in a lot of different areas with this goal focus, rather than taking one area and trying to understand it in depth.

“That was an intentional view, though perhaps not wise. My view is cognition needs to be integrated, and I think everyone believes that but you work on particular issues until you feel like they are ready to fit into the overall picture. My focus has been more on thinking about issues across the different domains rather than taking one in detail.”

Some of the topics Ross has explored over the years include concept learning in mathematics, people’s knowledge about food categories, and birds, to name a few. One example involved looking at how people access and use food categories to accomplish a common goal: figuring out what to eat for lunch or dinner.

“People know a ton about food, we interact with it all the time, it affects our emotions, our family relationships and so on,” Ross said. “A simple fact about food is that while many categories have some organization to them, food categories also have an alternative organization, at least one, not just breads and meats and fruits, but also there are categories like breakfast food, dinner food, Jewish foods, Italian foods, and so on.

“We can use these in accomplishing the goals we have. If you want to know what to eat for breakfast or if you go to an Italian restaurant, your organization in other ways allows you to access all sorts of knowledge that might be useful for you. What it forced me to do is to think more about how most items are in many categories and how we switch our organization of categories – again as a function of the goals we have.”

Ross has an undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in mathematics from Brown, master’s degrees in both psychology (Yale) and mathematical statistics (Rutgers), and a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford that had a concentration on memory and the learning of concepts. The doctoral research looked at how people got reminded during the learning of a complex cognitive skill, which in the case of his dissertation involved subjects learning how to use a text editor – something that wasn’t common in the early 1980s.

“It was a way of thinking about learning in these complex domains using memory, about how memory influences learning a complex cognitive skill like learning to use a text editor,” he said.

That was the beginning of his efforts to try to understand not just memory or concepts or problem-solving, but how people use relevant knowledge to accomplish the goals they have.

“Those domains involve memory and concepts and problem-solving and yet I’m much more interested in the integration of cognitive processes rather than focusing on individual ones,” he said. “It began by looking at the way in which goals influence memory research, or people’s remembering. As I delved into it I realized what was critical was how goals were influencing all areas of cognition. And how they influenced it across memory and learning of concepts and problem-solving rather than how it might work separately in each domain.”

I’m interested in how people access and use information that allows them to accomplish their goals. An incredible point about cognition is that much of it has to be either organized around or responsive to the goals we have as people. – Brian Ross

Ross, a member of Beckman’s Cognitive Science group and Professor of Psychology at Illinois, has a research portfolio that includes the topics of memory, problem-solving, analogy, concept learning and more complex learning. The topics are almost always studied through the prism of the human impulse to achieve goals.

“I’m interested in how people access and use information that allows them to accomplish their goals,” Ross said. “An incredible point about cognition is that much of it has to be either organized around or responsive to the goals we have as people.

“In addition, for us to keep surviving, we need to be able to adapt to new goals and new situations as they arise. I’ve just been fascinated by that, even as I was working on memory I was always interested in how we use our memory to accomplish things.”

As an example of how his research takes a different approach, Ross cited the topics of category and concept learning. 

“Most of the research on concepts and category learning focuses on the physical objects. Mine focused on the goals that people have and the influence that had on category learning,” Ross said. “But an important part of the goals and how we interact with objects isn’t just cognitive interactions but physical interactions.”

In order to study those interactions, Ross collaborated with Beckman colleagues Art Kramer, Dan Simons, and Frances Wang on research that used Beckman’s immersive virtual reality environment, the Cube, to study category learning in a completely new way. The researchers used test subject’s interactions with virtual objects to investigate the role human-object interaction plays in learning.

“What this project showed is that the details of physical interactions actually influence how we think about these concepts,” Ross said, using how people interact with a hammer to illustrate the point.

“Our understanding of the hammer isn’t simply the knowledge of what it looks like and how it can be used but actually how it feels to use these things, the way the arm moves and so on,” he said. “What the Cube allowed us to do was take category learning and look at it in cases of where people could make gross actions and those tended to influence the learning of the categories, not just how people thought about the categories.

“What we showed is that the details of those movements got incorporated into their understanding of the categories. So even though the categories were based on the physical objects, the movements they did to interact with those objects is part of what they learned. And it’s very goal-oriented, it’s totally a function of the goals they have in classifying the objects.”

Ross has a current main research line involving the learning of a complex task – mastering physics – that has translational value. He is collaborating with Cognitive Science group colleague and professor of Physics and Educational Psychology Jose Mestre in a project that seeks to promote physics learning.

The project introduced a new learning method into some local physics classrooms that requires students to not only solve a problem using the “hows” of variables and equations but also explain why they solve it in that way.    

“In physics, even in places like Illinois that have excellent students and instructors, the students at the end of the course can solve the problem but often don’t really understand the physics,” Ross said, adding with a laugh, “Professors hate that.”

Ross said their approach is to get students to understand in the same way that a physicist understands a problem. Their method requires a student to write out a strategy for solving a given problem that contains no equations but does have the physics principle being applied, as well as a justification for using that principle and a plan for applying it.

“When a student thinks about a problem, they think of the equations. What we’re trying to do is get them to analyze it more like a physicist would: what’s the principle, the why,” Ross said. “Given that principle, how would you go about solving the problem with a kind of high level plan; apply the theory to the problem and once they write that down, then they are allowed to use that plan to figure out what equations to use. So the equations come about not because the variables are mentioned in the problem but because the strategy is being applied.”

Ross said the approach is based on his research into educational psychology methods and theories supported by years of experimental work on learning, as well as a survey of educational psychology results.

“This is consistent with a huge body of work in cognition about ‘what’s a good way to get people to understand and remember things,’” he said. “People just remember better when it all fits together. What we’re trying to do is get them to look at a problem, see the big picture, and the rest of it kind of follows. Now they’ll know not only what the answer is but why that’s the answer.”

Ross came to Illinois in 1982 for his “first and only” faculty position at one of the top-rated psychology departments in the country. Since that time he has become a tenured Professor in the Department of Psychology, and earned many honors and awards. He serves or has served as Chair of Governing Board of the Psychonomic Society, Journal Editor of Memory & Cognition and as Book Series Editor of The Psychology of Learning and Motivation since 2002.

Ross is an original member of the Beckman Institute, becoming a faculty member here in 1989. As might be expected from a cognitive psychology researcher with a math background, Ross leapt at the chance to join an interdisciplinary research institute like Beckman.

“It was an opportunity to broaden my research,” he said. “I have had grants and collaborated with computer scientists and physicists, plus submitted other grants with engineers.  It’s a really neat place.”