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Metacognitive Feelings Connect Object Indexes to Looking Behaviours

What links the operations of object indexes to facts about what is novel or strange to an infant? Not beliefs but metacognitive feelings.

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What links the operations of object indexes to patterns in looking duration in violation-of-expectation experiments?

My conjecture: it is metacognitive feelings. Errors in the assignment of object indexes give rise to metacognitive feelings of suprise, and these are what cause infants to look longer.

But what is a metacognitive feeling? Best to start with some examples. Hopefully some of these are familiar to you:

As an example, take the feeling of familiarity. What causes feelings of familiarity? Not familiarity as such, it turns out. Instead they are caused by the ease with which you can process the features of a face relative to difficulty of identifying the person. Roughly, the greater the discrepancy between fluency of processing and difficulty of identification, the stronger the feeling of familiarity (Whittlesea & Williams, 1998).

So what is this feeling of familiarity if it is not caused by familiarity?

First, it is phenomenal. It is an aspect of the phenomenal character of some experience associated with acting. So we can call it a feeling.

Second, it is metacognitive in the sense that it’s normal causes include processes which monitor fluency of processing. This is why the feeling of familiarity counts as a metacognitive feeling.[3]

Third, it does not necessarily give rise to beliefs. The feeling does not lessen even if you believe (or know) that the thing which causes your feeling of familiarity is not one you have ever encountered before.

Fourth, you are not forced to treat feelings of familiarity as being about actual familiarity: instead you can use feeling of familiarity in deciding whether a stimulus is from that grammar (Wan, Dienes, & Fu, 2008). In this respect, metacognitive feelings are unlike perceptual experiences and unlike emotions. As Dokic observes:

‘It is difficult to imagine fear that does not have the function of detecting danger. In contrast, many [metacognitive] feelings seem to be recruited by the organism through some form of learning’ (Dokic, 2012, p. 308).

What, then, are metacognitive feelings? They are aspects of the overall phenomenal character of experiences which their subjects take to be informative about things that are only distantly related (if at all) to the things that those experiences intentionally relate the subject to.[4]

To illustrate, having a feeling of familiarity is not a matter of standing in any intentional relation to the property of familiarity, but it is something that we can interpret as informative about familiarity.[5]


metacognitive feeling : A metacognitive feeling is a feeling which is caused by a metacognitive process. Paradigm examples of metacognitive feelings include the feeling of familiarity, the feeling that something is on the tip of your tongue, the feeling of confidence and the feeling that someone’s eyes are boring into your back. On this course, we assume that one characteristic of metacogntive feelings is that either they lack intentional objects altogether, or else what their subjects take them to be about is typically only very distantly related to their intentional objects. (This is controversial---see Dokic, 2012 for a variety of conflicting theories.)
metacognitive process : A process which monitors another cognitive process. For instance, a process which monitors the fluency of recall, or of action selection, is a metacognitive process.
violation-of-expectation : Violation-of-expectation experiments test hypotheses about what infants expect by comparing their responses to two events. The responses compared are usually looking durations. Looking durations are linked to infants’ expectations by the assumption that, all things being equal, infants will typically look longer at something which violates an expectation of theirs than something which does not. Accordingly, with careful controls, it is sometimes possible to draw conclusions about infants’ expectations from evidence that they generally look longer at one event than another.


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  1. Widner, Otani, & Winkelman (2005) provides evidence that the feeling of knowing is distinct from the feeling that something is on the tip of your tongue. ↩︎

  2. This is not supposed to be an exhaustive list. Dokic (2012) lists several more, and others have postulated novel metacognitive feelings (for example, Velasco & Casati (2020) argue that there is a metacognitive feeling of disorientation). It is also possible that some items on the list do not qualify as metacognitive feelings. ↩︎

  3. Compare Dokic (2012, p. 310): ‘the causal antecedents of [certain] feelings can be said to be metacognitive insofar as they involve implicit monitoring mechanisms that are sensitive to non-intentional properties of first-order cognitive processes.’ ↩︎

  4. This is consistent with, but weaker than, Koriat’s theory: ‘metacognitive feelings are mediated by the implicit application of nonanalytic heuristics ...\ [which] operate below full consciousness, relying on a variety of cues ...\ [and] affect metacognitive judgments by influencing subjective experience itself’ (Koriat, 2000, p. 158; see also Koriat, 2007, pp. 313--5). ↩︎

  5. Why accept this? You cannot perceive familiarity or agency any more than you can perceive electricity. Perceptual processes do not reach far back into your past, nor are they concerned with questions about whether you are the agent of an action. So to think that metacognitive feelings intentionally relate you to facts about familiarity or agency requires postulating a novel kind of sensory process, some kind of inner or bodily sense. ↩︎