Distributed Cognition Theory

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Alternate name(s)

Distributed Cognitive System

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

Cognitive Task

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

External Cognitive Resources, Internal Cognitive Resources

Concise description of theory

Distributed Cognitive Theory emerged within the domain of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and challenges the disembodied nature of cognitive science and conventional "plans" in artificial intelligence research. It explores cognition's distribution across individuals, artifacts, and the environment [1]. The theory of distributed cognition provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how thinking and learning occur within a cognitive system, involving both individuals and cognitive artifacts [2]. This concept challenges the notion that cognition is confined to an individual's mind and suggests that it can be distributed across human minds, artifacts, and groups, forming a larger cognitive system [3]. Cognitive processes are observed not only internally within individual minds but also externally, as humans collectively utilize external cognitive resources like symbolic media, artifacts, and the environment [2].

Researchers in distributed cognition focus on social systems, examining interactions between individuals, artifacts, and their environment, while traditional cognition researchers primarily study individual cognitive processes. The theory seeks to understand how learners configure their environment to achieve specific goals within the cognitive system [4].

In this distributed cognitive system, cognition flows across various representations, and individuals effectively use cognitive properties to complete tasks. The utilization of external representations, such as diagrams and graphs, enhances knowledge access and aids information processing. Individuals engage in the coordination of distributed cognition, working together to accomplish cognitive tasks [5].

Importantly, the extension of cognition through external resources doesn't necessitate a complete understanding of how a tool works. Learners can still use tools effectively without fully comprehending their inner workings, as exemplified by modern computer technology [5]. This theory highlights that humanity continually progresses by building upon the knowledge and cognition of those who came before [2].


Diagram/schematic of theory

  • Figure 1: Theory of distributed cognition (Source: Xu & Clarke, 2012)
Theory of distributed cognition (Source: Xu & Clarke, 2012)

Originating author(s)

  • Edwin Hutchins in 1995 [1]

Seminal article(s)

  1. Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 7(2), 174-196.

Originating area

Cognitive Science

Level of analysis

Organization, Firm

Links from this theory to other theories

Situated Cognition Theory (Jenlink, 2013)

IS articles that use the theory

  1. Wright, P. C., Fields, R. E., & Harrison, M. D. (2000). Analyzing human-computer interaction as distributed cognition: the resources model. Human-Computer Interaction, 15(1), 1-41.
  2. Looi, C. K., Seow, P., Zhang, B., So, H. J., Chen, W., & Wong, L. H. (2010). Leveraging mobile technology for sustainable seamless learning: A research agenda. British journal of educational technology, 41(2), 154-169.
  3. Lallemand, C., Gronier, G., & Koenig, V. (2015). User experience: A concept without consensus? Exploring practitioners’ perspectives through an international survey. Computers in human behavior, 43, 35-48.


[1] Beaudouin-Lafon, M., Bødker, S., & Mackay, W. E. (2021). Generative theories of interaction. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 28(6), 1-54.

[2] Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed cognition. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier Science, 138, 1-10.

[3] Zhang, J., & Patel, V. L. (2006). Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance. Pragmatics & Cognition, 14(2), 333-341.

[4] Xu, L., & Clarke, D. (2012). Student difficulties in learning density: A distributed cognition perspective. Research in science education, 42, 769-789.

[5] Belland, B. R. (2011). Distributed cognition as a lens to understand the effects of scaffolds: The role of transfer of responsibility. Educational Psychology Review, 23, 577-600.


Ayushi Agarwal - Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India

Date last updated

21 August, 2023

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