Gaslighting: Cognitive Sabotage in the Extended Mind
Traditional cognitivist accounts of the mind focus on an individual’s symbolic mental processing. Embodied cognition and extended mind research goes beyond the boundaries of the agent. These newer accounts promote biologically and ecologically situated cognition and endorse external epistemic artifacts as legitimate parts of an agent’s mental repertoire. Some work in decision-theory and collective memory also acknowledge the positive impact of group reasoning on individual cognition. Amongst the enthusiasm for collaborative thinking and collective memory, not much research considers the downsides to sharing cognitive resources. Although psychology warns against accidental groupthink, few write of a more insidious threat to the extended mind: cognitive sabotage. Cognitive sabotage or ‘gaslighting’ is the deliberate creation of false beliefs. Saboteurs lie or distort group information to serve selfish ends. For example, abusive husbands manipulate their wives, mothers enact Munchausen's by Proxy on their children and psychiatrists misdiagnose patients as delusional when in fact they speak the truth (Martha Mitchell Effect). Outsourcing memory and cognition may ease an agent’s informational burden, but it also increases their epistemic threats. By assuming a middle ground between cognitivism and embodied cognition, I defend a model of gaslighting that extends representational explanations of individual decision-making to an account of group cognition. I argue that the unreliable and deceptive aspects of collaborative reasoning are analogous epistemic hazards to the self-deception and flawed reasoning faced by individuals alone.