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The comparative psychology of uncertainty monitoring and metacognition

  • J. David Smith (a1), Wendy E. Shields (a2) and David A. Washburn (a3)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 June 2003

Researchers have begun to explore animals' capacities for uncertainty monitoring and metacognition. This exploration could extend the study of animal self-awareness and establish the relationship of self-awareness to other-awareness. It could sharpen descriptions of metacognition in the human literature and suggest the earliest roots of metacognition in human development. We summarize research on uncertainty monitoring by humans, monkeys, and a dolphin within perceptual and metamemory tasks. We extend phylogenetically the search for metacognitive capacities by considering studies that have tested less cognitively sophisticated species. By using the same uncertainty-monitoring paradigms across species, it should be possible to map the phylogenetic distribution of metacognition and illuminate the emergence of mind. We provide a unifying formal description of animals' performances and examine the optimality of their decisional strategies. Finally, we interpret animals' and humans' nearly identical performances psychologically. Low-level, stimulus-based accounts cannot explain the phenomena. The results suggest granting animals a higher-level decision-making process that involves criterion setting using controlled cognitive processes. This conclusion raises the difficult question of animal consciousness. The results show that animals have functional features of or parallels to human conscious cognition. Remaining questions are whether animals also have the phenomenal features that are the feeling/knowing states of human conscious cognition, and whether the present paradigms can be extended to demonstrate that they do. Thus, the comparative study of metacognition potentially grounds the systematic study of animal consciousness.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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