Metacognition in Comparative Perspective

Metacognition in Comparative Perspective: This research program focuses on metacognition (“thinking about thinking”) in nonhuman animals. Here, the question is whether animals may experience some sense of knowing what they do or do not know when faced with a decision. This is a difficult thing to assess in animals given the role of verbal reports in our understanding of human metacognition. However, certain experimental procedures have provided some insight into the metacognitive skills of nonhuman animals.  This research is a collaboration between Dr. Michael Beran and Dr. J. David Smith.  In these tasks, monkeys are presented with various psychophysical and memory tasks for which stimuli can be categorized objectively as more difficult or less difficult for the animals based on task performance. Animals also are given an additional response option, called the uncertainty response, that acts in various ways to remove the contingencies of the primary response to the stimulus (e.g., to remove a trial from the screen rather than force the animal to classify a quantity of dots as large or small). In many cases, the animals use that response on exactly those trials for which the primary response (e.g., “large” or “small”) is made least efficiently. This suggests that the monkeys may monitor their own knowledge states when faced with decisions about how to respond to stimuli. However, alternate explanations also remain, and we are currently working to separate associative and cognitive explanations for these patterns of results (for example, to determine whether the uncertainty response is used as a result of uncertainty that is felt by the animal, or if it is used because the animal is tracking the reinforcement history of its primary responses in the presence of different kinds of stimuli). We also are examining the extent to which the use of the uncertainty response generalizes to new tasks. This also will provide an indication of the extent to which these responses reflect metacognition.  Other projects, with chimpanzees, have shown that these animals seek-information based on what they know that they know, and they also provide measures of confidence in their own memory abilities. They do this by anticipating food reward for correct responses even before any feedback is given to them. 
This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS – 0956993 and BCS – 0634662), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (RO1-HD061455) and the European Science Foundation (as part of a Eurocore Programme entitled Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context).