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Metacognitive Feelings: How Do Fast and Slow Processes Interact?



How, if at all, do fast and slow processes influence each other?

We have seen that fast and slow processes can yield incompatible responses to a single scenario (in both mindreading and physical cognition; see Mindreading: Signature Limits, and Development and Speed-Accuracy Trade-Offs (in Physical Cognition)). This suggests that the representations fast and slow processes operate over are not inferentially integrated.

Because of how we characterised what it is for systems to be distinct, there is a tension between postulating two (or more) systems and postulating interactions between them. We suggested that the distinctness of systems consists in there being processes which differ in conditions which influence whether they occur, and which outputs they generate (in The Core Idea). As the scope for interaction increases, the grounds for distinguishing systems weaken.

Earlier, in Speed-Accuracy Trade-Offs (in Physical Cognition), we saw that it is possible for a fast process to influence a slow one indirectly and asynchronously if the fast system can modify the overall phenomenal character of experiences. This provides one model for understanding interactions between fast and slow systems.

But is it also possible for a fast process to influence a slow one synchronously?

Metacognitive Feelings as a Bridge

According to Koriat,

metacognitive feelings … allow a transition from the implicit-automatic mode to the explicit-controlled mode of operation’ (Koriat, 2000, p. 150).

Koriat’s focus is not two-systems theories, but his claim hints that metacognitive feelings might be relevant to understanding how fast processes could influence slow processes.

What Are Metacognitive Feelings?

Metacognitive feelings include:

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.

What makes something a metacognitive feeling? We adapt an idea from Dokic:

‘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’ (Dokic, 2012, p. 310).

We propose that a metacognitive feeling is a feeling which is caused by a metacognitive process, that is, a process which monitors another cognitive process. For example, a process which monitors the fluency of recall, or of action selection, is a metacognitive process.

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?

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.

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).

The Sense of Agency

Feelings of agency, seem to arise from a number of cues including comparison between outcomes represented motorically and outcomes detected sensorily and the fluency of an action selection process (that is, the ease or difficulty involved in selecting one among several possible actions to perform motorically; this can be manipulated by, for example, providing helpful or misleading cues to action (Wenke, Fleming, & Haggard, 2010; Sidarus, Chambon, & Haggard, 2013; Sidarus, Vuorre, & Haggard, 2017)).

The sense of agency is relevant to us because it serves to link two largely independent processes concerned with evaluating whether you are the agent of an event. One involves detecting the cues just mentioned; the other involves thinking about how likely it is that you are the agent of an event, perhaps in the light of your background knowledge.


Are there 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.2

Metacognitive Feelings as Sensations

Metacognitive feelings 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.3

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.4

We might think of metacognitive feelings as lacking intentional objects altogether; this would make them like sensations in Reid (1785)’s sense. Not everyone accepts that such things could exist, of course (because they aim to explicate phenomenology in terms of intentional content or whatever). We can be agnostic by noting that nothing is lost by treating metacognitive feelings as if they were sensations.

Sensations are:

  • monadic properties of events, specifically perceptual experiences,
  • individuated by their normal causes—in the case of feelings of familiarity, its normal cause is ease of processing
  • which alter the overall phenomenal character of those experiences
  • in ways not determined by the experiences’ contents (so two experiences can have the same content while one has a sensational property which the other lacks).

If this is right, why do metacognitive feelings invite judgements? Why does the feeling of familiarity (say) even so much as nudge you to judge that the face photographed here is familiar to you? (This is roughly Dokic (2012)’s question.)

The feeling of familiarity is reliably caused by things which are familiar. This is because in a limited, but useful, range of cases, things which you can process fluently are things which are familiar to you. After all, familiarity is one (of several) causes of ease of processing.

Over time you learn, perhaps implicitly, to associate the feeling of familiarity with things being familiar. (Although you can unlearn this association in a carefully controlled experimental setting; Wan et al., 2008.)

So a fast processes causes a feeling, which triggers a learned association, which in turn biases a slow process to determine that the likely cause of the feeling is familiar.

Could this be a model for how fast processes influence slow processes generally?


automatic : On this course, 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.
inaccessible : An attribute is inaccessible in a context just if it is difficult or impossible, in that context, to discern substantive truths about that attribute. For example, in ordinary life and for most people the attribute being further from Kilmery (in Wales) than Steve’s brother Matt is would be inaccessible.
See Kahneman & Frederick (2005, p. 271): ‘We adopt the term accessibility to refer to the ease (or effort) with which particular mental contents come to mind.’
inferential integration : For states to be inferentially integrated means that: (a) they can come to be nonaccidentally related in ways that are approximately rational thanks to processes of inference and practical reasoning; and (b) in the absence of obstacles such as time pressure, distraction, motivations to be irrational, self-deception or exhaustion, approximately rational harmony will characteristically be maintained among those states that are currently active.
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.
slow : converse of fast.


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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. 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. 

  3. 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). 

  4. 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.