Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Decision Deadlines and Uncertainty Monitoring: The Effect of Time Constraints on Uncertainty and Perceptual Responses

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Decision Deadlines and Uncertainty Monitoring: The Effect of Time Constraints on Uncertainty and Perceptual Responses

Article excerpt

Published online: 26 September 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract The behavioral uncertainty response has grounded the study of animal metacognition and influenced the study of human psychophysics. However, the interpretation of this response is debated-especially whether it is a behavioral index of metacognition. The authors advanced this interpretation using the dissociative technique of response deadlines. Uncertainty responding, if it is higher level or metacognitive, should depend on a slower, more controlled decisional process and be more vulnerable to time constraints. Humans performed sparse-uncertain-dense or sparse-middle-dense discriminations in which, respectively, they could decline difficult trials or positively identify middle stimuli. Uncertainty responses were sharply and selectively reduced under a decision deadline, as compared to primary perceptual responses (i.e., "sparse," "middle," and "dense" responses). This dissociation suggests that the uncertainty response does reflect a higher-level, decisional response. It grants the uncertainty response a distinctive psychological role in its task and encourages an interpretation of this response as an elemental behavioral index of uncertainty that deserves continuing research.

Keywords Metacognition . Uncertainty monitoring . Decision making . Response deadlines . Controlled processing

Humans' metacognitive responses-uncertainty judgments, feelings of knowing, and so forth-ground the metacognition literature (e.g., Dunlosky & Bjork, 2008; Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996; Schwartz, 1994). Achieving a theoretical understanding of metacognition is important because metacognition is important to humans' learning, thinking, and comprehension.

Toward achieving that understanding, researchers have begun to measure basic, behavioral forms of metacognition. For example, in the influential perceptual uncertainty- monitoring task, participants use categorization responses to place stimuli into perceptual categories. But they also have a response that lets them decline to complete any trials they choose, on the basis of the trial's difficulty or of their uncer- tainty. Participants use this uncertainty response (UR) to de- cline difficult, potentially error-producing trials.

Illustrating this task, Balcomb and Gerken (2008)gave3.5- year-old children paired-associate tests and the UR. These children would fail traditional metacognitive assessments, but they made URs to cope with uncertainty. They also performed poorly in later tests of items that they declined, indicating their responses to be a valid, internal cue of faint memory. Balcomb and Gerken concluded that young children have implicit access to internal knowledge states and that behavioral paradigms best reveal that access. Research like this could reveal the earliest developmental roots of human metacognition.

Similarly, comparative psychologists have asked whether other species have a functional analogue to human metacog- nition (reviewed in Smith, Beran, & Couchman, 2012). Macaques make URs to decline difficult memory trials (e.g., Hampton, 2001) and perceptual-classification trials (e.g.,Smith, Coutinho, Church & Beran, 2013b). Thus, some primate species may share with humans a metacognitive ca- pacity. Research like this could reveal the earliest evolutionary roots of human metacognition. It could also provide animal models for metacognition and suggest behavioral approaches to foster metacognitive capacities in child populations that are developmentally or language delayed (e.g., Ruffman, 2000). Thus, these behavioral paradigms have applications for meta- cognition research and practice broadly, depending on wheth- er the UR can be considered an elemental, behavioral index of metacognitive functioning.

This issue has been controversial, given comparative psychology's interpretative conservatism. Animals' URs, al- though seeming metacognitive, could nonetheless be stimulus- and reinforcement-based reactions to middling, inde- terminate stimuli along a continuum. …

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