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How Does Metacognition Affect Our Decision-Making?

By: Inas Essa

Making decisions and defining our goals in life are basic processes of our brains. We do them regularly without too much thought about what really happens inside our brains while we do that. We might think our brains’ activities stop at making these decisions; however, the brain also evaluates its own work in a process called metacognition.



What Is Metacognition?

It is the awareness of one's own thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them. In other words, it is how the brain looks at itself, reflecting on its own thinking and evaluating it. This broad concept affects almost all of our behavior, whether it is regarding long-term life goals, judging our own sensations, and more; it is developed through childhood and adolescence.

Metacognition allows us to feel more or less confident in our decisions, acting decisively when we are confident that we are correct and being more cautious when feeling that our decision is not that right. Yet, as some of us fall into the trap of overconfidence, while others feel under-confident, we are not always good at metacognition.


Decision-Making and Confidence

In a recent study, researchers have studied metacognition in its most basic form: the ability to judge our own sensations.

In an experiment, they showed participants an image of an almost vertical line and asked them to make a simple decision about what they saw and whether it is tilted to the left or right. Then, participants were asked to rate how confident they are that they made the correct choice.

By making the correct choice, the participant should feel confident with no need to look back at the line to check; a concept called decision evidence, as the brain decides that it made the right choice. On the other hand, less confidence emerges due to the perception of not making the right choice.




Separating Confidence from Decision Evidence

To study what happens in the brain when people feel less confident, researchers needed to separate the brain activity that is related to the process of judging the tilt of the line from the brain activity related to feeling confident in the judgment.

In the experiment, researchers measured participants’ brain activity as they made decisions about a whole sequence of images shown one after the other to see what happens in the brain as participants viewed the images and made their decision. Sometimes, participants made their decision before all of the images were shown. In this case, researchers noticed the activity related to making the decision stopped; yet, some activity continued. That happened as participants continued to check the remaining images to rate their confidence, even after making their choice.

Results of this experiment indicated that there was still activity related to confidence in the areas of the brain that are also associated with goal-driven behavior. What was more surprising was that the pattern of brain activity related to confidence evolved even before participants made their decisions. That highlights the important role of metacognition in moderating future behavior.

These findings highlight that our actions are influenced by how confident we are in our decisions, thoughts, and feelings in the first place, and low confidence is used to learn and improve.