Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Interplay between Uncertainty Monitoring and Working Memory: Can Metacognition Become Automatic?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Interplay between Uncertainty Monitoring and Working Memory: Can Metacognition Become Automatic?

Article excerpt

Published online: 14 May 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract The uncertainty response has grounded the study of metacognition in nonhuman animals. Recent research has explored the processes supporting uncertainty monitoring in monkeys. It has revealed that uncertainty responding, in contrast to perceptual responding, depends on significant working memory resources. The aim of the present study was to expand this research by examining whether uncertainty monitoring is also working memory demanding in humans. To explore this issue, human participants were tested with or without a cognitive load on a psychophysical discrimination task that included either an uncertainty response (allowing the participant to decline difficult trials) or a middle-perceptual response (labeling the same intermediate trial levels). The results demonstrated that cognitive load reduced uncertainty responding, but increased middle responding. However, this dissociation between uncertainty and middle responding was only observed when participants either lacked training or had very little training with the uncertainty response. If more training was provided, the effect of load was small. These results suggest that uncertainty responding is resource demanding, but with sufficient training, human participants can respond to uncertainty either by using minimal working memory resources or by effectively sharing resources. These results are discussed in relation to the literature on animal and human metacognition.

Keywords Metacognition . Uncertainty monitoring . Cognitiveload .Workingmemory.Comparativepsychology . Controlled processing

Humans have feelings of knowing and not knowing, of confidence and doubt. Their abilities to accurately identify these feelings and to respond to them adaptively are the focus of the research literature on metacognition (e.g., Benjamin, Bjork, & Schwartz 1998; Flavell, 1979; Koriat & Goldsmith, 1994; Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Nelson, 1992; Scheck & Nelson, 2005;Schwartz,1994). Metacognition refers to the ability to monitor and control one's own perceptual and cognitive processes (Nelson & Narens, 1990, 1994). This ability plays an important role in learning and memory.

The monitoring component of metacognition has been widely investigated in humans (e.g., Begg, Martin, & Needham, 1992; Dunlosky & Nelson, 1992;Hart,1967; Koriat, 1993; Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996; Lovelace, 1984; Metcalfe, 1986) and nonhuman animals (e.g., Beran, Smith, Coutinho, Couchman, & Boomer, 2009; Beran, Smith, Redford, & Washburn, 2006; Call & Carpenter, 2001;Fujita, 2009;Hampton,2001;Kornell,2009; Smith, Beran, Redford, & Washburn, 2006; Smith et al. 1995; Smith, Shields, Allendoerfer, & Washburn, 1998;Smithetal.1997). In humans, metacognitive monitoring is normally assessed by asking participants to make judgments of learning (JOLs), feeling-of-knowing (FOK) judgments, or confidence ratings (for a review, see Koriat, 2007). In animals, the most common method of assessment is the uncertainty-monitoring paradigm, because it does not rely on verbal reports or verbal knowledge. This method involves presenting subjects with stimulus trials that vary in objective difficulty and providing them with a response (the uncertainty response) that allows them to decline any trial they choose. The idea behind this test is that subjects that have access to their mental states of uncertainty-knowing when they do not know-will complete trials for which they know the answer (easy trials) and skip the ones for which they do not know the answer (difficult trials). Those that do not have access to such states will not show this pattern. Thus, it is expected that the frequency of uncertainty responses for the subjects that are capable of monitoring their mental states will be higher for the objectively difficult items.

In the uncertainty-monitoring paradigm, it is adaptive for subjects to decline trials that they are unsure of, because errors can result in timeouts, unpleasant sounds, and (in humans) a point loss. …

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