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J Comp Psychol. 2010 Nov;124(4):356-68. doi: 10.1037/a0020129.

Beyond stimulus cues and reinforcement signals: a new approach to animal metacognition.

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Department of Psychology, University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA.


Some metacognition paradigms for nonhuman animals encourage the alternative explanation that animals avoid difficult trials based only on reinforcement history and stimulus aversion. To explore this possibility, we placed humans and monkeys in successive uncertainty-monitoring tasks that were qualitatively different, eliminating many associative cues that might support transfer across tasks. In addition, task transfer occurred under conditions of deferred and rearranged feedback-both species completed blocks of trials followed by summary feedback. This ensured that animals received no trial-by-trial reinforcement. Despite distancing performance from associative cues, humans and monkeys still made adaptive uncertainty responses by declining the most difficult trials. These findings suggest that monkeys' uncertainty responses could represent a higher-level, decisional process of cognitive monitoring, though that process need not involve full self-awareness or consciousness. The dissociation of performance from reinforcement has theoretical implications concerning the status of reinforcement as the critical binding force in animal learning.

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