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A Conjecture about Metacognitive Feelings

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In earlier sections we saw that:

  • different responses reveal different developmental patterns;

  • a dual-process theory aims to explain why this is so; but

  • that theory, by itself, cannot explain looking times.

In this final section I suggest that adding metacognitive feelings to the dual-process theory will solve the problem.


There appears to be a metacognitive feelings of surprise:

‘the intensity of felt surprise is not only influenced by the unexpectedness of the surprising event, but also by the degree of the event’s interference with ongoing mental activity, [...] the effect of unexpectedness on surprise is [...] partly mediated by mental interference’ (Reisenzein, 2000, p. 271).

That is, there is a feeling of surprise which is a sensational consequence of mental interference. (This can be tested by increasing cognitive load: this intensifies feelings of surprise without, of course, making the events themselves more surprising. But see Reisenzein, Horstmann, & Schützwohl (2017) for an alternative interpretation of such findings.)

So whereas the feelings of agency and familiarity are both consequences of unexpected fluency of processing, the feeling of surprise is supposed to be the opposite: it is a consequence of unexpected disfluency.[1]

Surprise Explains Looking Times

Why will an infant observing an occluded object appear to pass through an impenetrable barrier look at the scence much longer than an infant who sees a physically possible event (Spelke, Breinlinger, Macomber, & Jacobson, 1992)? Perhaps because:

  • the impossible event causes a problem for the faster process, which fails to identify a possible trajectory for the object;

  • this interference in the faster process generates a metacognitive feeling of surprise; and

  • that feeling causes the infant to look longer at the impossible event.

And why will such an infant (or even a much older child) fail to manually search in the correct place for the object (Mash, Novak, Berthier, & Keen, 2006)? Because:


What predictions follow from the conjecture that metacognitive feelings connect developmentally unchanging, fast processes for tracking objects and minds to slow processes?

One basic prediction is that manipulations which affect metacognitive feelings of surprise in adults will also have task-irrelevant effects on infants’ performance in violation-of-expectation tasks.

In particular, given that cogntive load can enhance the metacognitive feeling of surprise in adults, we might predict—counterintuitively—that infants’ sensitivity will be better demonstrated by showing them slightly more complex scences.


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.
Foster, M. I., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Why some surprises are more surprising than others: Surprise as a metacognitive sense of explanatory difficulty. Cognitive Psychology, 81, 74–116.
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Morewedge, C. K., & Kahneman, D. (2010). Associative processes in intuitive judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 435–440.
Reisenzein, R. (2000). The subjective experience of surprise. In H. Bless & J. P. Forgas (Eds.), The message within: The role of subjective experience in social cognition and behavior (pp. 262–279). Hove: Psychology Press.
Reisenzein, R., Horstmann, G., & Schützwohl, A. (2017). The Cognitive-Evolutionary Model of Surprise: A Review of the Evidence. Topics in Cognitive Science, n/a-n/a.
Spelke, E. S., Breinlinger, K., Macomber, J., & Jacobson, K. (1992). Origins of knowledge. Psychological Review, 99(4), 605–632.


  1. An alternative is proposed by Foster & Keane (2015, p. 79): ‘the MEB theory of surprise posits that: Experienced surprise is a metacognitive assessment of the cognitive work carried out to explain an outcome. Very surprising events are those that are difficult to explain, while less surprising events are those which are easier to explain.’ Foster & Keane (2015, p. 79) is about reactions to reading about something unexpected, whereas Reisenzein (2000) measures how people experience unexpected events (changes to stimuli while solving a problem). The latter is much closer to our concerns. But the truth of either account of surprise, or of an account combining the two insights, would indicate that there is a metacognitive feeling of surprise. ↩︎