Metacognition: Ability to 'think about thinking' not limited to humans

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Humans' closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, have the ability to "think about thinking" – what is called "metacognition," according to new research by scientists at Georgia State University and the University at Buffalo.

Michael J. Beran and Bonnie M. Perdue of the Georgia State Language Research Center (LRC) and J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo conducted the research, published in the journal Psychological Science of the Association for .

"The demonstration of in has important implications regarding the emergence of self- during humans' cognitive evolution," the research team noted.

Metacognition is the ability to recognize one's own . For example, a game show contestant must make the decision to "phone a friend" or risk it all, dependent on how confident he or she is in knowing the answer.

"There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans," Beran said.

Chimpanzees at Georgia State's LRC have been trained to use a language-like system of symbols to name things, giving researchers a unique way to query animals about their states of knowing or not knowing.

In the experiment, researchers tested the chimpanzees on a task that required them to use symbols to name what food was hidden in a location. If a piece of banana was hidden, the chimpanzees would report that fact and gain the food by touching the symbol for banana on their symbol keyboards.

But then, the researchers provided chimpanzees either with complete or incomplete information about the identity of the food rewards.

In some cases, the chimpanzees had already seen what item was available in the hidden location and could immediately name it by touching the correct symbol without going to look at the item in the hidden location to see what it was.

In other cases, the chimpanzees could not know what food item was in the hidden location, because either they had not seen any food yet on that trial, or because even if they had seen a food item, it may not have been the one moved to the hidden location.

In those cases, they should have first gone to look in the hidden location before trying to name any food.

In the end, named items immediately and directly when they knew what was there, but they sought out more information before naming when they did not already know.

The research team said, "This pattern of behavior reflects a controlled information-seeking capacity that serves to support intelligent responding, and it strongly suggests that our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans."

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Journal information: Psychological Science

Citation: Metacognition: Ability to 'think about thinking' not limited to humans (2013, April 3) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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Apr 03, 2013
My Jack Russell Terrier shows meta-cognition, and a hell of a lot more than chimps too.

Apr 03, 2013
Because they lack the ability to "pre-meta-cognate", most people can't tell you what their next thought is going to be.

Apr 03, 2013
Actually, my next thought was thinking about typing this, but then I had to make some corrections because thinking about thinking about thinking gets me thinking.

Apr 03, 2013
"Metacognition" is a pretty fancy word for simply checking out if you don't know, and not checking out if you know.

For example, a bird doesn't go and check whether its nest still is there. But it does go and check if the human has put out seeds on the bird feeder.

Any species with a brain memorizes things. That is, it knows some facts. And if it doesn't know what it needs to know, it goes looking. Bu it doesn't go looking for things that it already knows are there. Such would only expose it needlessly to predators, and hence, if there ever was such a species, it's long gone.

WARNING: As a scientist, if you find that your specific animal goes looking each time even if it already knows, then your first priority should be to test if the animal assumes that actually checking out the item is part of "its job". For example, dogs are eager to please, and there is an actual risk of this with them.

Apr 04, 2013
So these "scientists" did not know what the outcome of their experiment would be before checking the chimps responses? Aha! Proof of recursive metacognition across species barriers. Thus it would seem they are truly proven to be real life monkeys' uncles.

Apr 04, 2013

Anticipation of a person's actions, such as when an owner is playing with their dog and a toy, is metacognition.

The dog fetches the toy, but doesn't want to give it up. If you pull on the toy the dog pulls back harder. If you release the toy, the dog stops struggling. You quickly grab the toy and throw it again.

next time the same thing happens, but instead, the dog anticipates the fact that you will grab the toy after she releases it, so she protects it and grabs it back before you can. This time you try to deceive the dog by distracting it with your other hand. It works.

Next time the same thing happens, except the distraction doesn't work anymore, because the dog has learned that you are being deceptive, and it is anticipating your behavior; therefore thinking about thinking...

Apr 09, 2013
@Lurker: Exactly. And I think dogs are well capable of metacognition.

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