In Know Thyself (2021) cognitive neuroscientist Stephen M. Fleming lays out the basic principles of metacognition – the way we think about what we think. This revealing book shows by understanding of our metacognitive processes, we can turn them to our advantage, to make accurate, informed judgments.
Psychology, Personal Development, Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology, Artificial Intelligence and Semantics, Educational Psychology, Computer Science, Biology, Self Help, Philosophy
Introduction: Start on the path to self-awareness.
In a world where artificial intelligence and neural networks are quickly learning how to think, speak, and act like we do, there’s still one crucial quality that sets humans apart from machines: our capacity for self-awareness. Since the days of the Greek thinker Socrates, philosophers and psychologists alike have been fascinated by our ability not just to think, but to interrogate how and why we think the things we do.
These days, this capacity for self-awareness is a field of neuroscientific study in its own right: the field of metacognition. Understanding metacognitive processes can actually help us think better, make sharper decisions, and avoid critical errors. Luckily, you don’t have to be a trained neuroscientist to apply some of the key principles of metacognition to your own thinking.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why you should teach the skills you want to learn;
- why it’s so difficult to change your mind on big topics; and
- how to make better decisions through collaboration.
Your self-awareness is hardwired into your brain. But you can always sharpen it.
Let me ask you a question: What’s Elton John’s real name?
Now, there are three ways you might respond.
One: “I have absolutely no idea.”
Two: “Reginald Dwight, obviously!”
Three: “I know that I know that! It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t seem to remember it.”
This third reaction is a great example of a process that cognitive neuroscientists call metacognition.
What’s metacognition? Well, cognition is thinking. And that prefix, meta-, comes from the Greek for beyond. So metacognition is thinking that goes beyond thinking. It’s having an awareness of how and why we’re thinking something at the same time that we’re thinking it. Someone who thinks metacognitively is self-aware – someone who doesn’t just think things, but interrogates and reflects on what they think.
In the eighteenth century, a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus set himself a pretty big project. He wrote a book, Systema Naturae, where he began to outline a taxonomy of the natural world – in other words, labeling and categorizing every living thing. He wrote exhaustively long entries for all kinds of birds, insects, and plants. But when it came to humans, Linnaeus felt that three Latin words were enough. Nosce te ipsum. Meaning? Those that know themselves.
It’s been over 250 years since Linnaeus wrote that – but ask any cognitive scientist and they’ll tell you, Linnaeus wasn’t wrong. Our capacity for self-awareness is a key part of what makes us human. It drives our actions to a powerful degree – and, harnessed properly, it can help us achieve extraordinary things. Here’s an example:
Free divers are athletes who try to dive as deep underwater as possible without the use of any additional breathing apparatus, like an oxygen tank. During free diving tournaments, divers compete to reach the lowest depths. It’s a pretty dangerous undertaking. Go too deep, and divers risk passing out, sustaining lung injuries, and even drowning.
Successful free divers don’t just need physical stamina and a talent for diving; they rely on an exquisite level of metacognitive awareness of their abilities and limits. If they underestimate their abilities, they’ll stop before they need to, losing valuable inches from their final score. If they overshoot their limitations, the results can be catastrophic. The difference between a good free diver and a great one? Self-awareness.
We’re all self-aware to some degree. Our aptitude for metacognition is hardwired into our brains and many key metacognitive processes are actually performed automatically. If you’ve ever set a drink down on the table, missed the table by an inch or two, and reflexively caught your glass before it shatters on the floor – well, that was your ingrained metacognition at work. We perform a lot of simple tasks, like drinking a glass of water, automatically. At the same time, we’re constantly self-monitoring. If a task doesn’t progress as predicted, we instinctively self-correct.
We can build on the metacognitive instincts hardwired into our brain by cultivating more explicit metacognitive strategies. Research has shown that some people are more naturally prone to metacognition than others; neuropsychologists call these people “metacognitively gifted.” But we’re all capable of developing and refining our metacognitive skills. And, as the next few chapters will show, boosting metacognition can lead to enhanced learning outcomes, better decision-making, and a more flexible style of thinking.
For better learning outcomes, think about how you learn.
These days, we don’t stop learning the moment we graduate high school or college. In fact, we’re far more likely to be “life-long learners,” changing jobs and even careers multiple times in our lives, all while keeping up-to-date with advancing technologies and research.
TL;DR? We need to learn smarter, not harder. That’s where metacognition can give you the edge.
Compare two law students, Jane and Ibrahim. They’re equally studious and equally proficient in legal theory. But Jane is more metacognitively gifted. One day, their professor announces a pop quiz, scheduled for tomorrow. Ibrahim methodically goes through his notes – but he has a lot of notes, and not a lot of time to prepare. Jane, meanwhile, engages her metacognitive mode. She scans the material, judges which topics she knows well and where she needs to brush up, and focuses her study time accordingly. Jane aces the quiz.
See? Our educational outcomes don’t only have to do with what we learn, but how we learn, and where we apply our knowledge.
In the twentieth century, educators moved away from rote learning and started to pay attention to individuals’ different learning styles. Theorists proposed everyone had a preferred learning style. Some students were pictorial learners who responded best to visual information. Others were kinetic learners, who learned through movement, and so on.
Want to know something interesting? There’s no evidence to show students who identify as pictorial learners actually perform worse at tasks geared toward, say, verbal or kinetic learners. But cognitive psychologists have observed that learners feel more confident learning in the style with which they identify.
When it comes to how we learn, confidence is key. If we feel confident in our ability to perform a task, we’re much more likely to pull it off. The psychologist Albert Bandura came up with a concept that niftily explains this – he calls it “self-efficacy.” Your self-efficacy is your overall belief in your talents and abilities. Learners with high self-efficacy tend to outperform their peers in a classroom context. But it goes further: high self-efficacy correlates with higher persistence as well as higher performance. In addition to performing well, students with high self-efficacy are less likely to give up when a task becomes tricky – which, in turn, enhances their performance.
Then again, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing – an abundance of confidence can create a metacognitive distortion, whereby learners overestimate their knowledge and ability. Luckily, educational psychologists have come up with a surefire strategy to keep confidence in check: the best way for learners to judge their own ability, they say, is to teach someone else.
Explaining a concept or articulating a process to someone else can make your own knowledge and limits explicit. There’s a phenomenon known as the illusion of explanatory depth – basically, we often think we know more than we actually do. So, you might think you know how a lightbulb works but when you try and explain it out loud to someone else, you might quickly realize there are some crucial gaps in your understanding. What’s more, we humans have a weird quirk – we’re much more likely to identify and correct mistakes when other people make them, even when we’ve unknowingly made that exact same mistake ourselves. This is why correcting another student might be the best way for learners to recognize their own mistakes.
To be a successful life-long learner, apply your metacognitive powers to how you learn: evaluate your abilities, cultivate confidence, and strategize to avoid metacognitive distortions.
A decision might feel right. That doesn’t mean it is.
In 2012, Mark Lynas was an environmental campaigner passionately opposed to genetically modified foods – he’d even illegally destroyed GM crops with the help of a machete. In 2013, Mark Lynas stood up in front of the Oxford Farming Conference and stated that, having engaged further with the science, he now believed GM farming was crucial for sustainable agriculture. He was no less a committed environmentalist – but, on this issue, he had done a complete 180.
Why is Mark’s story so remarkable?
Because changing our mind – particularly on an issue we’re passionate about – isn’t an easy thing to do.
Whether we’re taking a stand on GM crops, selecting an ice-cream flavor, or choosing a long-term romantic partner, if we enter into a decision with a high level of confidence, we’re more likely to feel we’ve made the right decision. After the decision is made, we double down with a dose of what’s called confirmation bias. Essentially, once we’ve made a decision our brain easily processes any further evidence that confirms our decision but is reluctant to process information that contradicts it.
Now, that’s not a problem if we really did make the right decision. The catch? We’re adept at convincing ourselves we’ve made the right decision, even when we haven’t. Psychologists conducted a little experiment across supermarkets. A stall offered two jam samples. Shoppers tasted both and were asked to choose their favorite. Then, they were given what they thought was another taste of their preferred jam and asked to explain why they liked it. Those shoppers talked about flavor, texture, and ingredients – without knowing that the second sample was, in fact, a spoonful of their non-preferred jam. Amazingly, they convinced themselves the flavor they initially rejected was superior!
And maybe that’s okay for a low-stakes decision about jam preference. But when it comes to bigger decisions like ending a relationship, changing a job, or adopting a political stance, our tendency to dig our heels in, decision-wise, can lead to painful consequences.
So, how do we find a balance between fixed and flexible thinking?
Once again, it all comes down to confidence. When we approach a decision with a high level of confidence that we’re correct, we tend to be assertive and efficient in our choices. Once they’re made, we’ll likely stick to them. When we approach a decision with a lower level of confidence in our choice, we’re likely to make slower, more judicious decisions and be more open to competing viewpoints and possibilities.
How does metacognition apply? It might come down to being conscious of how confident you are in your choices. Don’t automatically override doubts or misgivings; use them as tools to stress-test your decision.
Of course, tapping into low confidence is a hard feat to pull off in a society like ours that values overconfidence. One interesting study showed video footage of people making decisions to an audience. The audience rated those people who chose quickly and confidently as more appealing and trustworthy than those who “dithered,” talking through their choice and weighing up their options. This was true even when the more confident subjects were clearly making poor choices. No wonder politicians and CEOs are so keen to project decisiveness!
And there’s the paradox: cultivating low confidence can lead to better decision-making, but inspiring others to follow your lead requires an image of highly-confident assertiveness. To strike an optimal balance between projecting competence and making smart choices, try an old trick used by poker players – bluff! Truly successful leaders project outward confidence in their choices in order to inspire and persuade others – but, privately, they exercise caution and listen to their doubts.
What can you do when metacognition goes wrong?
In February 1987, the then eighteen-year-old Donte Booker was brought before a court on sexual-assault charges. His victim confidently picked him out of a line-up and her eyewitness testimony was convincing enough for the jury to find Booker guilty. He was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
The problem? As DNA evidence indisputably proved in 2005, Booker was completely innocent. And it’s not like this was an anomaly. The Innocence Project estimates that faulty eyewitness testimony has contributed to 70 percent of proven wrongful convictions in the US.
The witness whose testimony convicted Booker was almost certainly not giving a deliberately false account. More likely, her metacognition had overcorrected, leading her to ascribe accuracy and certainty to a recollection that was, in fact, faulty and uncertain. When an eyewitness wrongly convinces themselves that their memory of an event is accurate, somewhere along the line a metacognitive breakdown has occurred. As Booker’s case shows, these failures can have drastic consequences.
How, then, can we safeguard against these kinds of metacognitive failings?
Well, to start with, we can try and remember the so-called 2HBT1 effect. What’s 2HBT1? It’s just a fancy psychological term for an expression you’ve probably heard before: two heads are better than one. Turns out, that’s not just a platitude. When we collaborate on decision-making, we’re far likelier to achieve accurate results. A UK study asked individuals to observe pairs of flashes on a computer screen, then decide which flash was brighter. Then, they paired those individuals – any time they couldn’t agree, the pairs had to re-examine the evidence and come to a joint decision. Amazingly enough, even the lowest-scoring pair performed better than the highest scoring individual.
What happens when someone isn’t willing to engage with other people’s viewpoints? Log on to Twitter or Facebook and you’ll likely see for yourself. A skewed sense of self-awareness may be contributing to the increasingly extreme political content, at both ends of the spectrum, that is so prevalent online. Interestingly, it seems that those who are most dogmatic in their political beliefs – whether they identify as right-wing or left-wing – score low on tests for metacognitive aptitude. People with poor metacognition skills are more likely to believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong, less likely to change their minds when presented with information that contradicts their beliefs, and less likely to search out new information on topics where they’ve already formed a strong opinion. If you’ve ever engaged with political discussion online and felt like you were yelling at a brick wall, well, in a metacognitive sense, you kind of were.
The lesson? If you want to be a flexible, adaptive thinker, try and interact with people whose beliefs and opinions differ from yours. You don’t have to agree with everything they say – simply interacting with them will help boost your metacognitive sensitivity.
Metacognitively gifted people are more likely to think flexibly, make informed decisions, and succeed in learning new skills. Luckily, the more self-awareness you bring to your own metacognitive process, the more you boost your metacognitive skills.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Bring self-awareness to new skills . . . up to a point.
Research shows metacognitively gifted students are likely to excel in the beginning stages of learning a new skill, for example, mastering tennis. At a certain point, though, the skill becomes automatic and self-awareness can throw them off course. When a new skill starts to feel fluid and automatic, try to shut down the metacognitive voice in your head and go with the flow.
About the author
Stephen M. Fleming is a Sir Henry Dale Wellcome Trust/Royal Society fellow at the department of experimental psychology and principal investigator at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, University College London, where he leads the Metacognition Group. He lives in London.