The interplay between uncertainty monitoring and working memory: Can metacognition become automatic?

Mariana V.C. Coutinho, Joshua S. Redford, Barbara A. Church, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Justin J. Couchman, J. David Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


The uncertainty response has grounded the study of metacognition in nonhuman animals. Recent research has explored the processes supporting uncertainty monitoring in monkeys. It has revealed that uncertainty responding, in contrast to perceptual responding, depends on significant working memory resources. The aim of the present study was to expand this research by examining whether uncertainty monitoring is also working memory demanding in humans. To explore this issue, human participants were tested with or without a cognitive load on a psychophysical discrimination task that included either an uncertainty response (allowing the participant to decline difficult trials) or a middle-perceptual response (labeling the same intermediate trial levels). The results demonstrated that cognitive load reduced uncertainty responding, but increased middle responding. However, this dissociation between uncertainty and middle responding was only observed when participants either lacked training or had very little training with the uncertainty response. If more training was provided, the effect of load was small. These results suggest that uncertainty responding is resource demanding, but with sufficient training, human participants can respond to uncertainty either by using minimal working memory resources or by effectively sharing resources. These results are discussed in relation to the literature on animal and human metacognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)990-1006
Number of pages17
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Oct 14 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive load
  • Comparative psychology
  • Controlled processing
  • Metacognition
  • Uncertainty monitoring
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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