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“Play it Again”: a new method for testing metacognition in animals

Abstract

Putative metacognition data in animals may be explained by non-metacognition models (e.g., stimulus generalization). The primary objective of the present study was to develop a new method for testing metacognition in animals that may yield data that can be explained by metacognition but not by non-metacognition models. Next, we used the new method with rats. Rats were first presented with a brief noise duration which they would subsequently classify as short or long. Rats were sometimes forced to take an immediate duration test, forced to repeat the same duration, or had the choice to take the test or repeat the duration. Metacognition, but not an alternative non-metacognition model, predicts that accuracy on difficult durations is higher when subjects are forced to repeat the stimulus compared to trials in which the subject chose to repeat the stimulus, a pattern observed in our data. Simulation of a non-metacognition model suggests that this part of the data from rats is consistent with metacognition, but other aspects of the data are not consistent with metacognition. The current results call into question previous findings suggesting that rats have metacognitive abilities. Although a mixed pattern of data does not support metacognition in rats, we believe the introduction of the method may be valuable for testing with other species to help evaluate the comparative case for metacognition.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    An animal could maximize the number of pellets obtained by choosing to repeat the stimulus in every trial (thereby obtaining a pellet for selecting the repeat response followed by pellets for a correct duration-classification response). However, this outcome is unlikely to occur because delay discounting (i.e., the observation that reward value declines as a function of delay to reward) in rats (Cardinal et al. 2001; Mazur 1988, 2007; Richards et al. 1997) argues against the choice of a small, immediate reward followed by a large, delayed reward when a large, immediate reward is currently available.

  2. 2.

    Although we assume that two exposures of the same duration may allow the animal to integrate information from both stimulus presentations and thereby reduce its perceptual error about the stimulus, other possibilities exist. For example, an animal might limit the impact of a second presentation to cases in which it requested a repeat of the stimulus. In our simulations of a response-strength model, we parametrically explore how much weight the animal assigns to first and second stimulus presentations. We consider the full range from all weight assigned to the first stimulus to all weight assigned to the second stimulus and several intermediate weightings between these two extremes. See “Simulation” section.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Tony Snodgrass for help with programing the simulations. We thank the reviewers of a previous version of the manuscript for insightful criticism. This work was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grants R01MH64799 and R01MH080052 (to J.D.C).

Conflict of interest

The experiments complied with the current laws of the country in which they were performed. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Jonathon D. Crystal.

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Foote, A.L., Crystal, J.D. “Play it Again”: a new method for testing metacognition in animals. Anim Cogn 15, 187–199 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-011-0445-y

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Keywords

  • Metacognition
  • Metacognitive control
  • Simulations
  • Rats