Metacognition: history, definition of concept and theories

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

The concept of metacognition

Although metacognition is a very common concept in scientific circles and in the academic community, today notor it is a term accepted by the Real Spanish Academy of the Language (RAE).

There is, however, a consensus among specialists in cognitive psychology to define metacognition as an innate ability 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 allows us to anticipate our own behavior and that of others through the constant perception of the emotions, attitudes and feelings of others, which allows us to emit assumptions about how they will act in the future.

main surveys

The concept of metacognition has been widely studied by cognitive science, and its importance is rooted in areas such as personality, learning, self-concept, or social psychology. Several researchers excel in this area.

Bateson and metacognition in animals

Among these experts, it is crucial to name the English anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson, who began studies on metacognition in animals. Bateson realized that the dogs were playing with each other simulating harmless little fights and detected that, thanks to different signals, the dogs became aware of being in front of a fictitious fight (A simple game) where they were faced with a real and potentially dangerous fight.

Metacognition in humans

As for humans, metacognition it begins to appear in the early stages of development, during childhood. Between the ages of three and five, children begin to show concrete responses which, in the eyes of researchers, correspond to the activation of their ability to perform metacognition. Experts point out that metacognition is a latent ability in humans from birth, but only manages to “ activate ” when the child’s maturation stage reaches the appropriate conditions, in addition of a good one. Stimulation of their cognitive abilities.

After childhood, humans constantly use metacognition, And this allows us to anticipate the attitudes and behaviors of others. Although, of course, we use metacognition unconsciously.

Psychopathologies related to the absence of metacognition

Under certain circumstances, metacognition does not develop properly. In these cases, the absence or difficulties in activating 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 theory of mind.

Theories that deal with metacognition

Metacognition and theory of mind they have been constantly approached by psychology. In general terms, the concept is often defined as the way in which individuals reason and apply thought to reflect (subconsciously) on the way in which others act. Metacognition therefore allows us to apprehend certain aspects of our environment and allows us to reflect, providing us with better tools to realize our desires and our ideas.

Metacognition is also a skill that allows us to deal with a wide range of cognitive processes, from the simplest to the most complex.

John H. Flavell

One of the most cited authors around the concept of metacognition and theory of mind is American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell. This expert in cognitive psychology, 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 cognitive functions and those of others, advancing the intentions, ideas and attitudes of others.


the constructivist school offers some nuances around the concept of metacognition. He emphasizes, from the outset, that the human brain is not a simple receptor of perceptual inputs, but also an organ which allows us to create psychic structures which end up constituting, for example, our personality, through our memories. and our knowledge. .

According to constructivism, learning is therefore linked to the personal and subjective history of the individual, as well as to his way of approaching and interpreting (giving meaning) to the knowledge he acquires. This knowledge includes that which refers to what we believe others know, what they are looking for, etc. In this way, this or that style of metacognition has implications for the way in which the individual learns to integrate into social spaces.

Metacognition and learning: “learning to learn”

The concept of metacognition is also widely used in the field of educational psychology and teaching. In the processes involved in learning, the education system should try to emphasize the personal abilities of each student related to the way he learns and understands concepts. In this sense, it is interesting to formulate an educational program permeable to the cognitive needs of the pupils and which stimulates this capacity.

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

Thus, theory of mind and metacognition can help us understand and make our learning more effective, by planning and evaluating how we approach it.

Bibliographical references:

  • Albaiges Olivart, JM (2005). The power of memory. Barcelona, ​​El Aleph.
  • Anguera, MT (1993). Observational methodology in psychological research. Flight. 1 Barcelona: PPU.
  • Bruner, J. (2004). Mental reality and possible worlds. Barcelona.
  • Gardner, H. (2004). Flexible Mind: The art and science of knowing how to change our opinion and that of others. Barcelona, ​​Edicions Paidós.
  • Pedhazur, EJ and Schmelkin, LP (1991). Measurement, design and analysis: an integrated approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Leave a Comment