In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Metacognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Rise of Metacognition as a Scientific Endeavor
  • Metacognitive Monitoring Illusions
  • Development in Children
  • Metacognition in Older Adults
  • Metacognition in Animals

Psychology Metacognition
Lisa K. Son
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0102


Metacognition, generally defined as cognition about one’s cognition, has been linked and compared in the past with a variety of terms: consciousness, self-reflection, self-awareness, language, frontal lobe function, agency, and theory of mind. Over the past half-decade, its definition has been continuously refined and formalized, paralleling a growing number of experimental paradigms, results, and applications. While undeniably related to memory, metacognition entails higher-order thinking, a kind of thinking that focuses on the role of the active learner. The process of metacognition is thought to develop gradually in young children, and, although with controversy, is often touted as the ability that sets human animals apart from nonhuman animals.

General Overviews

Metacognition can be described anecdotally as the self-reflective process that gives an individual privileged access into her own mind. See Metcalfe and Shimamura 1994 and Koriat 2007 for extended definitions of metacognition. Psychologists make an analogy with a homunculus, an inner self that is able to observe everything that occurs inside the mind. In the ideal, this metacognitive self would provide an exact reflection of the mind’s contents, the way a mirror does, allowing individuals to examine and report the contents of their minds perfectly. However, as research such as Dunlosky and Metcalfe 2009 has summarized, our metacognitive reflections are often far from this ideal. Thus, while metacognitive research was first criticized as being too introspective and investigating mere epi-phenomena consisting of illusions and fallible judgments, the growing scientific field of metacognition has recognized the importance of examining those fallacies. Today, metacognition has become a buzzword, and most acknowledge the importance of understanding the metacognitive process, where mistakes and illusions can and do occur, and how these errors affect one’s ability to learn. At the same time, the definition of metacognition has broadened, allowing for new categorical sub-divisions. A recent example of one possible division strategy is proposed in Metcalfe and Son 2012.

  • Dunlosky, J., and J. Metcalfe. 2009. Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Perhaps the most recent review of the fundamental concepts of metacognition, beginning with its history and ending with its applications to education.

  • Koriat, A. 2007. Metacognition and consciousness. In Cambridge handbook of consciousness. Edited by P. D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson, 289–325. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816789

    Attempts to compare and contrast metacognitive processes with consciousness.

  • Metcalfe, J., and A. Shimamura. 1994. Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    One of the original most comprehensive reviews of the field of metacognition, it summarizes the most important early theories and data addressing monitoring and control processes, as well as breakdown in special populations.

  • Metcalfe, J., and L. K. Son. 2012. Anoetic, noetic, and autonoetic metacognition. In Foundations of metacognition. Edited by M. J. Beran, J. Brandl, J. Perner, and J. Proust, 289–301. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An up-to-date commentary review on how the term “metacognition” has been defined and used. It categorizes some classic and recent data into three levels of metacognition.

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