Photograph: Al Gore explaining data findings on global warming for his documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (Picture Credit: The Hollywood Reporter)

Reason in a creature is a faculty of widening the rules and purposes of the use of all its powers far beyond natural instinct; it acknowledges no limits to its projects. Reason itself does not work instinctively but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order to progress gradually from one level of insight to another.

Immanuel Kant

In contemporary social and cognitive psychology, the problem of human empowerment remains one of the overarching topics of debate. Discourse encompasses the question to which extent human cognition and behaviour is regulated heteronomous, based on an external locus of control, or autonomously, based on an internal locus of control (Rotter, 1966). Applied psychology attempts to foster and develop what Bandura (2006) has identified as the core properties of human agency, which are intentionality, forethought, self-regulation, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. According to Bandura, people are not merely ‘onlookers of their behaviour’ (Bandura, p. 164), but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.

Similar to Bandura’s recent call for an ‘Agentic Psychology’ which is advocating self-directed human agency, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposes a related model of human empowerment based on a theory of motivation, differentiating between various forms of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971, 1975; Ryan et al., 2012). The underlying assumption of SDT states that motivations are driven by the intrinsic human needs for social relations, the development of competence and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2012).

Historically, the concept of heteronomy versus autonomy and regarding people as autonomous, responsible and rational agents leads back to the Age of Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant advocated in his famous paper titled ’What is Enlightenment?’ from 1784, to not only use one’s own private understanding but also to make public use of one’s reasoning to free ourselves from self-incurred immaturity (Kant & Beck, 1959).

The Overarching Structure of Metacognition

Analogously in psychology, the reflected private and public use of reason (cognition) are known as metacognition. Individual metacognition is broadly defined as one’s ‘thinking about thinking’ (Flavell, 1979), the ability to reflect critically about one’s own reasoning, due to oneself, while social metacognition is defined to reflect about one’s own cognition as it is motivated by others (Kim, Park, Moore & Varma, 2013).

For example, the statement ‘I think of my options first before I start making plans’ is perceived ‘due to myself’, representing individual metacognition. By comparison, the proposition ‘I first think about the consequences for others before I make a decision’ is set causally implied ‘due to others’ as a social object, subsequently representing social metacognition.

Metacognition comprises of cognitive knowledge (knowledge about knowledge) as well as cognitive regulation (Brown, 1987; Flavell, 1976, 1979; Martinez, 2006; Paris & Winograd, 1990; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006).

Cognitive regulation is further segmented into (a) cognitive monitoring, referring to making self-aware judgments about one’s learning. This entails metacognitive experiences, such as the awareness of task complexity (Efklides, 2006) and self-enhancement motivation (Jiang & Kleitman, 2015), (b) cognitive planning, referring to the evaluation and employment of most efficient resources and strategies (Cross & Paris, 1988; Li et al., 2015; Schraw et al., 2006; Whitebread et al., 2009) and (c) cognitive evaluation, referring to the ability of making metacognitive judgments and formulating monitored interpretations (Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2009; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Wang, 2014).

Several authors (Beran, 2013, Carruthers, 2012; Chambon et al., 2014; Peña-Ayala, 2015; Proust, 2014; Kloo, & Rohwer, 2012; Metcalfe et al., 2013; Schraw and Moshman; 1995) have emphasized the role of metacognition for human agency. For the authors, agency emerges not only on the level of efficient mental information processing such as information storage and retrieval (Nelson & Nahrens, 1990) but on the level of regulation, monitoring, interpretation and evaluation of thoughts.

Metacognition is often described in research as being part of a dual system that complements automated and habitual cognition. Daniel Kahneman (2013), citing Stanowich and West (2000), conceptualizes a dual blueprint of human cognition. He proposed an efficient first-order system that facilitates intuitive decision-making, driven by impulses and conditioned responses, while a second-order system operates self-aware, deliberate and effortful. The latter is enabled by executive functions (Banich, 2009; Chan et al., 2008; Miller & Cohen, 2001). Most importantly, self-regulation enables the second-order system to correct for cognitive bias (Kahneman et al., 1982; Kahneman, 2011; Martin & Staple, 1998; Petty et al., 2007). A limitation of the individual-based dual system conceptualization is that it does not take into consideration external heteronomous factors that influence people, such as folk theories, group pressure or social norms.

In conclusion, metacognitive regulation is a reliable indicator of autonomous regulation. It is only when individuals are able to defer habitual, automated judgment, to critically reflect upon their thoughts and to be able to analyse and correct internalized mental content and strategies that they assume independent, autonomous agency. Vierkant (2013) argued in support of this notion that our self-reflective abilities enable the human mind to go offline, directing it away from environmental stimuli and towards itself, unlike routinized minds.

The Social Efficacy of Metacognition

The dichotomy of heteronomous versus autonomous regulation exists, to illustrate its dimensionality with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), on various social levels as follows:

(a) On an individual level, a lack of reflected cognitive regulation is correlated with numerous mental disorders, which is why metacognitive approaches play a central role in counselling and psychotherapy (Dimaggio et al., 2015; Thakur & Roy, 2015; Van Donkergoed et al., 2014; Wells, 2000). Approaches to psychotherapy, such as REBT (Ellis & MacLaren, 2005) or CBT (Feltham & Horton, 2012), are based on self-aware cognitive restructuring. Metacognitive skills are also positively related to mastering difficult life transitions and relationship issues (Varmecky, 2012). Regarding education, a great number of empirical studies on individual metacognition focus on the effectiveness of students’ learning (Aydin, 2016; Cornoldi et al., 2015; Hudesman et al., 2013; Leopold & Leutner, 2015; Zepeda et al., 2015).

(b) On the level of small groups, metacognition is a prerequisite for collaborative, evidence-based problem-solving and teamwork (Frith, 2012; Nansubuga et al., 2015; Nonose et al., 2014; Wismath, & Orr, 2015). A good example would be the constructivist pedagogy of Problem-based Learning (PBL) which started in medical education (Barrows, 1992) and has since then extended to numerous academic faculties (Amador et al., 2006; Duch et al., 2001). PBL is explicitly encouraging metacognitive reasoning (Barrows & Wee, 2007; Downing et al., 2009) within tutor-based groups to research, evaluate and develop competing interpretations and multiple solutions to a problem. By contrast, a lack of metacognitive competence can lead to social effects such as groupthink (Janis, 1982), blind conformity and compliance (Asch, 1956; Levitan & Verhulst, 2015; Mugny, 1984), compromising both democratic decision-making as well as individual critical reasoning (Comstock, 2015; Kuhn, 1991).

(c) On the level of large groups, group conflicts in collective and individualist cultures are intensely debated in cross-cultural psychology. The role of metacognition within social conflicts has however not yet been deeply investigated. Boroş and colleagues (2010), confirming similar findings by Earley &Mosakowski (2000), for example, concluded that horizontal collectivism and individualism (groups where members regard themselves as equal) are more likely to adopt cooperative conflict resolution styles. Examples for heteronomous social regulation in this light are conflicts evoked by outgroup-avoidant and socially exclusive cognitive beliefs, such as traditional belief systems and ideologies (De Juan, 2015; Hahn et al., 2015; Thagard, 2015).

The examples suggest that although individual- and social metacognition (ISM) may originate as higher order thinking skills neurologically and functionally in the same mid frontal brain regions (Shimamura, 2009), the plethora of issues that ISM involves extend over the entire continuum of social spheres. On an (a) individual level, metacognition supports, maintains and develops personal and occupational functioning. On the level of (b) small groups, metacognition advances the ability to collaborate successfully with others, while on the level of (c) large groups, metacognition relates to the regulation of argument-based societal discourse and behavioral changes in the face of global challenges.

Metacognition and Culture

Culture is another Terra Incognita from a metacognitive point of view. Despite intense research such as in the educational sector, little is known about cultural differences in individual and social metacognition (ISM) across social contexts, in particular, contrasted against non-metacognitive, heteronomous modes of regulation. Most studies that compare, for example, differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures have focussed on comparing psychological concepts such as, e.g., self-esteem, well-being and emotion, attribution styles, social obligations, communication styles or negotiation and conflict resolution styles, as outlined in the meta-analyses by Oyserman and colleagues (2002), but not explicitly ISM.

Since collectivist cultures, unlike individualist cultures, are defined in contemporary research by group identities regulating individual cognition (Hofstede 1984, 2001; Triandis 1995, 2004), the question arises how cognitive and metacognitive regulation in collectivist cultures is structured differently from individualist cultures. The knowledge of such structure or pattern would e.g., not only allow for a more unbiased cross-cultural psychological perspective in terms of fully recognizing individual as well as collective agency, insights would be furthermore beneficial to inform the design of educational strategies to promote more efficient learner-centered education systems across cultures (Händel, Artelt & Weinert, 2013).

Last but not least, a very neglected area of scientific research is art. As artists continuously evaluate, assess and experiment with their works, the question arises if and how self-guided intuition and playful self-development prestructure metacognition. The importance of art, theatre and music education for the early scaffolding of ISM in this respect cannot be underestimated. Creativity is the watchword, such as involving children in higher order thinking skills, fostering self-worth and self-esteem, encouraging them to experiment and express new ideas and offering children mentors when it comes to developing creative approaches (Craft, 2001).

Scientific Prospects and Dangers of Technological Misuse

As a prerequisite to promote ISM, researchers will need to be able to measure the prevalence of its various forms and subtypes, contrasted against heteronomous modes of regulation in order to derive a causal motivational model. Besides improving systems for human development there is always the possibility of abuse as well. Once we can measure reliably the most relevant heteronomous motivations within individuals and groups, we can predict fairly accurately the types of attitudes, perspective-taking preferences and problem-solving strategies that social players bring into their negotiations and planning scenarios. The more decision-making is based on heteronomous motivations, the more accurately we can make predictions. This is a fascinating as much as a scary scenario. Given the recent capacity of Big Data Analysis and its integration into machine learning (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014; Siegel, 2016), continuing commercialization favours the management of predictable consumer and voter behavior within the logical prospect of conditioning large and more homogeneously motivated populations.

The opposite analysis can be made too. The stability of democratic consensus could, e.g., be measured by the growing or declining influence of heteronomous motivations on evidence-based strategies and reason-based agreements.

Truly free from prediction are only those who can reflect openly and critically upon their own and others’ thinking and can suspend judgment. Given that heteronomous types of motivation usually evolve convergently, suggesting quick, intuitive and simple answers, rational agents qualify, in the face of contradicting and overwhelming impulses, through their ability to self-correct their thinking while not losing account of the balance of arguments at hand (Kuhn, 1991).



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2 thoughts on “Metacognition (Part1): What or How We Think is Not Quite as Important as How We Can Govern Our Reasoning
  1. Thanks, your site is very importan for my class.

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