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My aim was to identify a reason for thinking that metacognitive feelings are be important in the development of abilities to track objects and their causal interactions, and minds.

My conjecture is that metacognitive feelings link early-developing, faster processes to the less automatic processes whose development involves a series of significant conceptual changes.

Why does this matter?

If you are building a survival system you want quick and dirty heuristics that are good enough to keep it alive: you don’t necessarily care about the truth. If, by contrast, you are building a thinker, you want her to be able to think things that are true irrespective of their survival value. This cuts two ways. On the one hand, you want the thinker’s thoughts not to be constrained by heuristics that ensure her survival. On the other hand, in allowing the thinker freedom to pursue the truth there is an excellent chance she will end up profoundly mistaken or deeply confused about the nature of objects or minds. So you don’t want thought contaminated by survival heuristics and you don’t want survival heuristics contaminated by thought. Or, even if some contamination is inevitable, you want to limit it.

This combination is beautifully achieved by giving your thinker relatively automatic processes for tracking objects and minds which appear fully-formed early in development, and also a mind which allows her to acquire knowledge of minds gradually over years, taking advantage of social interactions.

As intentional isolators, metacognitive feelings enable distinct kinds of process to operate with fundamentally different ways of modelling a domain throughout life.

So the intentional isolation provided by metacognitive feelings is critical: it allows development to be a process of rediscovery, and so extracts maximum benefit from the operations of distinct processes for tracking objects and minds.


automatic : As we use the term, a process is automatic just if whether or not it occurs is to a significant extent independent of your current task, motivations and intentions. To say that mindreading is automatic is to say that it involves only automatic processes. The term `automatic' has been used in a variety of ways by other authors: see Moors (2014, p. 22) for a one-page overview, Moors & De Houwer (2006) for a detailed theoretical review, or Bargh (1992) for a classic and very readable introduction
cognitively efficient : A process is cognitively efficient to the degree that it does not consume working memory and other scarce cognitive resources.
fast : A fast process is one that is to to some interesting degree cognitively efficient (and therefore likely also some interesting degree automatic). These processes are also sometimes characterised as able to yield rapid responses.
Since automaticity and cognitive efficiency are matters of degree, it is only strictly correct to identify some processes as faster than others.
The fast-slow distinction has been variously characterised in ways that do not entirely overlap (even individual author have offered differing characterisations at different times; e.g. Kahneman, 2013; Morewedge & Kahneman, 2010; Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Kahneman, 2002): as its advocates stress, it is a rough-and-ready tool rather than an element in a rigorous theory.
intentional isolator : An event or state which links representations but either lacks intentional features entirely or else has intentional features that are only very distantly related to those of the two representations it links. Metacognitive Feelings and behaviours are paradigm intentional isolators.
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.


Bargh, J. A. (1992). The Ecology of Automaticity: Toward Establishing the Conditions Needed to Produce Automatic Processing Effects. The American Journal of Psychology, 105(2), 181–199.
Dokic, J. (2012). Seeds of self-knowledge: Noetic feelings and metacognition. In M. J. Beran, J. L. Brandl, J. Perner, & J. Proust (Eds.), Foundations of metacognition (pp. 302–321). Oxford University Press Oxford, England.
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Moors, A. (2014). Examining the mapping problem in dual process models. In Dual process theories of the social mind (pp. 20–34). Guilford.
Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A Theoretical and Conceptual Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 297–326.
Morewedge, C. K., & Kahneman, D. (2010). Associative processes in intuitive judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 435–440.