“How’s that working out for you?”
This is a question I sometimes ask the people I work with in a therapy setting. Sometimes, this question is challenging the way they think about the things they are doing; other times, I genuinely want to know whether their strategies are helping them. Regardless of why I ask this question, I am promoting their ability to think about their thinking processes, a concept called metacognition. This article will explore what metacognition is and how it can be helpful for promoting our own health and wellness.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition is the general understanding of one’s own cognitive processes including learning, memory, emotions, attention, problem solving, and many more (Flavell, 1979). Often, metacognition gets described as “thinking about thinking,” (Lai, 2011). In other words, when we are thinking about what our mind is doing and why it is doing that, we are thinking metacognitively. For example, in the workplace, I am continually evaluating how difficult tasks are that I need to be doing and how long they will take me because of the difficulty level.
The goal here with metacognitive thinking is to be able to plan and “control” our behaviors moving forward (Livingston, 2003). To continue with the previous example, if I know that one task is very difficult and will therefore take me longer to complete, I know to schedule that task during a time when I know I will have more mental energy and time to complete it.
Metacognition is a very complex skill that facilitates performance in many different domains, like time management, learning new concepts, or managing our health and wellness (Livingston, 2003). It develops as early as age 3 and continues to develop throughout our lives as we have more experiences with the world and reflect upon those experiences (Lai, 2011). Early on in life, caregivers and teachers will often structure metacognitive prompts for children to help them develop these skills. For example, as a college professor, I will have students come to me after performing poorly on an exam asking how they could have done so bad. I will ask them to think about the mental strategies they used to study and how effective those strategies were for the format of the course or exam. Often, they find that they have done the same thing they have always done in high school, but didn’t adjust when that strategy no longer worked for them in college. Over time, we take on the responsibility of asking ourselves these metacognitive reflection prompts.
Components of metacognition
Metacognition can be further broken down into two different (but interacting) components: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation.
Metacognitive knowledge is the amount of knowledge that we have about cognitive processes in general (Flavell, 1979; Lai, 2011; Livingston, 2003). This knowledge can either be about learning in general (i.e., best study strategies) or knowledge about ourselves and our unique cognitive abilities and preferences (e.g., I struggle with math).
Metacognitive regulation, on the other hand, is using that metacognitive knowledge to be able to plan out individualized goals, monitor our progress on those goals, and evaluate the efficacy of our process of acquiring those goals (Livingston, 2003). For instance, when my student realizes that reading through their notes was not an effective study strategy for the first exam, they may use that knowledge to employ different study strategies for future exams to work toward their goal of obtaining a B in the class. They can continually evaluate the efficacy of their study strategies to make adjustments to work toward their goal.
How metacognition can improve health/wellness
The large majority of the research on metacognition has been within the field of education, hence the examples pertaining to learning and studying. However, metacognition can also help support us with any goal we might have, including our health and wellness goals.
A large part of setting wellness goals involves our ability to think about what strategies we are using, why we are using those strategies, how well the plan is working for our unique needs and experiences, and constantly re-evaluating to make sure the plan continues to work based on our ever-changing lives. This is metacognition.
Research shows that amongst triathletes, metacognitive skills going into a competition increase the likelihood that they will experience a flow state during the competition, or being fully immersed and concentrating on their goal (Love et al., 2019). A flow state is linked with an optimal state of performance and increases goal acquisition. While we aren’t all triathletes, these results imply that metacognitive abilities contribute toward performance related goals in the fitness domain.
We also know that low metacognitive awareness increases symptoms of chronic pain, and increasing these skills can help to regulate and manage this condition. More specifically, people with chronic pain have the tendency to engage in certain cognitive appraisals (like catastrophizing) and having metacognitive awareness of this thought process can help to decrease the perception of pain levels (Ziadini et al., 2017). Therefore, metacognition can help with a whole range of health and wellness goals.
Times when metacognition is not ideal
While metacognitive skills are incredibly helpful for improving performance and meeting our personal goals, there are some times when it has been shown that metacognitive processes can actually do more harm than good.
One such instance is when people experience anxiety or other mental health conditions that thrive off of constant self-evaluation and thought monitoring. For someone with generalized anxiety who already has the tendency to constantly worry about the subject of their thoughts, engaging in further metacognitive thought processes can make these symptoms worse (Norman, 2020).
Additionally, metacognition requires us to continually evaluate our own abilities and talents. When we evaluate ourselves as being incapable or bad at something (either correctly or incorrectly), this can hurt our self-esteem or self-efficacy which, in turn, can hinder our motivation levels (Norman, 2020). For example, if my metacognitive evaluation is that I am very bad at a given exercise, that may make me not want to do that exercise ever again even though it is the only one I have ever found myself enjoying. In this case, it is likely not the exercise that should go, but rather the metacognitive evaluation itself.
Examples of metacognitive reflection prompts
So, now that we know how helpful metacognition can be for improving our experience of a given task, how do we go about it? I have offered here several self-reflection prompts that can help you to develop metacognitive skills. Feel free to modify these based on your unique situation or process.
- What are the possible strategies I can use to meet my goal?
- Is this similar to things I have done before?
- What is my goal?
- How do I typically work best?
- What are the steps to meet my goal?
- Am I on track toward meeting my goal(s)?
- Are there patterns in my thought process?
- Did I do an effective job at [insert task here]?
- What are my strengths in this process?
- What are my areas for growth in this process?
- How have I progressed since I started working toward this goal?
- What resources do I have to help me work toward my goal?
- How can I improve my environment to help me meet my goal?
- What strategies and skills did I use in this process?
- What strategies and skills were most useful?
- What strategies and skills did not help me achieve my goal?
- How can I use the knowledge I gained in this process for future situations?
How has metacognition served you (or not) throughout your life? What suggestions do you have for others to improve their metacognitive skills? Share your thoughts and suggestions below!
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906-911.
Lai, E. (2011). Metacognition: A literature review research report. Pearson Research Report, 24, 1-40.
Livingston, J. A. (2003). Metacognition: An overview.
Love, S., Kannis-Dymand, L., & Lovell, G. P. (2019). Metacognitions and mindfulness in athletes: An investigation on the determinants of flow. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 13, 686-703.
Norman, E. (2020). Why metacognition is not always helpful. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1537.
Ziadini, M. S., Sturgeon, J. A., & Darnall, B. D. (2017). The relationship between negative metacognitive thoughts, pain catastrophizing and adjustment to chronic pain. European Journal of Pain, 22, 756-762.