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Metacognition: history, definition of the concept and theories

Metacognition: history, definition of the concept and theories

June 12, 2024

The concept of metacognition it is usually used in the field of psychology and the behavioral and cognitive sciences to refer to the ability, possibly only found in humans, to attribute own thought, ideas and judgments to other people.

The concept of metacognition

Despite the fact that metacognition is a very common concept in scientific circles and among the academic community, currently n or is a term accepted by the Royal Spanish Academy of Language (RAE).

There is however a consensus among academics of cognitive psychology when defining metacognition as an innate capacity in humans . This ability allows us to understand and be aware of our own thoughts, but also of the ability of others to think and judge reality.

Metacognition, related to the concept of theory of mind, also enables us to anticipate our own and others' behavior through the constant perception of the emotions, attitudes and feelings of others, which allows us to formulate hypotheses about how they will act in the future.

Main investigations

The concept of metacognition has been widely studied by the cognitive sciences, and its importance is rooted in areas such as personality, learning, self-concept or social psychology. Several academics stand out in this field.

Bateson and metacognition in animals

Among these experts, it is essential to name the English anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson, who initiated studies on metacognition in animals. Bateson realized that dogs used to play with each other simulating small and harmless fights and detected that, through different signals, the dogs were aware of being in a fictitious fight (a simple game) or they were facing a real and potentially dangerous fight.

Metacognition in humans

As for humans, metacognition begins to appear already in early stages of development, during childhood . Between three and five years of age, children begin to show concrete answers that, in the eyes of researchers, correspond to the activation of their ability to perform metacognition. Experts point out that metacognition is a capacity that is latent in the human being from birth, but only manages to 'activate' when the maturational stage of the child reaches the appropriate conditions, in addition to a correct stimulation of their cognitive abilities.

After the infant stage, humans constantly use metacognition , and this allows us to anticipate the attitudes and behaviors of other people. Although, of course, we use metacognition unconsciously.

Psychopathologies related to the absence of metacognition

In some circumstances, metacognition does not develop properly . In these cases, the absence or difficulties to activate metacognition are due to the presence of certain psychopathologies. This diagnosis can be made through certain evaluation criteria designed for this purpose.

When children do not develop metacognition in a normative way, it can be due to different causes. There are experts who point out that autism could be caused by dysfunctions in the theory of the mind.

Theories that deal with metacognition

Metacognition and the theory of the mind have been addressed constantly by psychology . In general terms, the concept is usually defined as the way in which individuals reason and apply thought to reflect (unconsciously) on the way others act. Metacognition, therefore, allows us to grasp some aspects of our environment and allows us to reflect, providing us with better tools to carry out our desires and ideas.

Metacognition is also a skill that allows us to manage a wide range of cognitive processes, from the simplest to truly complex ones.

John H. Flavell

One of the most cited authors about the concept of metacognition and theory of mind is the American development psychologist John H. Flavell. This expert in cognitive psychology, who was a disciple of Jean Piaget, is considered one of the pioneers in the study of metacognition . According to Flavell, metacognition is the way in which human beings understand their own and others' cognitive functions, anticipating the intentions, ideas and attitudes of others.


The constructivist school proposes certain nuances around the concept of metacognition. He points out, from the outset, that the human brain is not a simple receptor of inputs perceptive, but also is an organ that allows us to create psychic structures that end up constituting, for example, our personality, through our memories and knowledge.

According to constructivism, then, learning is linked to the personal and subjective history of the individual, as well as his way of approaching and interpreting (giving meaning) to the knowledge he is acquiring. This knowledge includes those that refer to what oneself believes others know, what they intend, etc. In this way, one or another metacognition style has implications in the way in which the individual learns to integrate in social spaces.

Metacognition and learning: "learning to learn"

The concept of metacognition is also commonly used in the field of psycho-pedagogy and teaching. In the processes involved in learning, the educational system should try to emphasize the personal abilities of each student that are related to the way he learns and understands the concepts. In this sense, it is interesting to formulate an educational curriculum that is permeable to the cognitive needs of the students and that stimulates this capacity.

One of the ways to enhance metacognition in the classroom is to develop a teaching style that takes cognitive skills, abilities and competencies into account, as well as the emotional management of students. so that a better connection between the student and the object of study is achieved , encouraging meaningful learning. This style of learning has to go hand in hand with a personalized treatment to the students.

Thus, the theory of mind and metacognition can help us understand and make our learning more efficient, through planning and evaluating our way of approaching it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Albaiges Olivart, J. M. (2005). The power of memory. Barcelona, ​​The Aleph.
  • Anguera, M. T. (1993). Observational methodology in psychological research. Vol. 1 Barcelona: PPU.
  • Bruner, J. (2004). Mental reality and possible worlds. Barcelona.
  • Gardner, H. (2004). Flexible minds: The art and science of knowing how to change our opinion and that of others. Barcelona, ​​Paidós Editions.
  • Pedhazur, E. J. and Schmelkin, L. P. (1991). Measurement, design and analysis: an integrated approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You - Crash Course Psychology #15 (June 2024).

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