Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking

One of the most interesting qualities we humans share is that of metacognition—the ability to think about thinking, analyze our thoughts, and make decisions based on what we learn through exploring our inner processes.  Interestingly, we may not be alone in our ability to “metacognate,” though the level at which we do so may be unique.  According to one source:

… a decade of research suggests that, like humans, other animals can differentiate between what they know and what they do not know. They opt out of difficult trials; they avoid tests they are unlikely to answer correctly; and they make riskier “bets” when their memories are accurate than they do when their memories are inaccurate. … [and]animals can generalize metacognitive judgments to new contexts and seek more information when they are unsure.

So…  how far do we go in our metacognition?  Do we go further than other animals? The answer seems to be absolutely YES.  Not only do we use our self-understanding to make day to day choices, but we also use it to plan long-term goals, make decisions about relationships, explore our psyches, communicate ideas, and – perhaps most importantly – make ourselves miserable through over-analysis and unfettered imagination.

A horse might refuse a difficult jump because it understands its own limitations (an example of metacognition or self-awareness). But a human might actually take the jump on the basis that they SHOULD be able to make it…  or that others might ridicule them for their decision – despite their knowledge that they simply don’t have the physical strength to succeed.  A human being might even attempt an impossible leap on the basis that they have always shied away from challenges, and this is an opportunity to break that negative pattern.  In the long run there’s an excellent chance that the horse will walk away safely. There’s a good chance, however, that too much metacognition will lead the human to make the wrong choice and injure themselves.

Think about a situation in which metacognition plays a role—making a choice, managing a relationship, digging into your own motivations or spirituality.  Does metacognition help you in your endeavors?  Or do you have a tendency to “spin your wheels” by going over and over the same thoughts without finding a way forward? 

Overuse of metacognition has been found to cause a range of issues in human beings, from stress to anxiety and depression. And, not surprisingly, it can even reduce our ability to complete tasks quickly and efficiently.  How many times a day do we start out to complete a task only to rethink our strategy, replan our schedule, or otherwise get in our own way?

Metacognition may be a basic quality of human nature. But does it get in your way?  Comment in the Forum!

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