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Thinking About Thinking

Grad student Sara Kvidera goes where few have gone before

Sara Kvidera
“ARE YOU SURE about that?"

This simple question captures a nettlesome mystery in psychology: How does the brain judge its own functioning? Sara Kvidera has broken new ground with her research in “metacognition" — our ability to evaluate the reliability of our own thinking.

Working with Wilma Koutstaal, Kvidera is examining whether the brain uses similar processes to evaluate both perceptual and conceptual decisions. “While thinking about our own thinking is something most of us do every day, it’s not often covered in much depth in psychology coursework," says Kvidera. “It’s a new field. I like going where no one has gone before."

The answers are also long overdue. “This research addresses a question that has been in the literature for more than 50 years," explains Koutstaal, associate professor of psychology and Kvidera’s adviser.

Seeing is believing?

Metacognition has profound implications in everyday life. Can we trust an eyewitness who identifies a criminal suspect? Can we rely on our perceptions of distance when we’re merging into rush hour traffic?

Previous studies showed that people tend to be overconfident about conceptual decisions, such as their answers to history or geography questions, and underconfident about perceptual decisions, such as judgments of an object’s size.

This difference led other researchers to hypothesize that conceptual and perceptual confidence judgments rely on two different brain processes. Yet there is no consensus on this question.

Enter Kvidera and Koutstaal.

Koutstaal’s research focuses on human memory and judgment and examines factors that affect how we gain access to or awareness of what we know and remember, and also how we evaluate those processes.

Kvidera, the first student to join Kout-staal’s lab, began working on a project to examine “confidence calibration," or how well our confidence matches our accuracy in making decisions. Koutstaal entrusted Kvidera with many details of the study, such as creating the stimuli and analyzing data. Meanwhile, Kvidera, now a third-year graduate student and recipient of the Gloria J. Randahl Graduate Fellowship, earned a reputation in the department as an outstanding student and superb teacher.

“She’s very persistent," says Koutstaal. “You have to be to do this kind of work. You also need to be able to move between attention to detail and the big picture, and she can do that."

Kvidera solved one methodological problem by using the same stimuli for both types of decisions. For example, subjects were shown the words India and France and were asked both conceptual questions (Which country is bigger?) and perceptual ones (Which word is bigger?).

The findings were surprising. Kvidera and Koutstaal found overconfidence on perceptual decisions and good calibration on conceptual ones. “We had thought it might go one of two ways, and it went a third way," says Kvidera.

The two are conducting follow-up studies and expect to publish the findings, with Kvidera listed as first author in her first published paper. The Journal of Behavioral Decision Making reviewed an earlier version of the study and invited the researchers to resubmit the paper after performing additional experiments.

Her partnership with Koutstaal in the lab has launched Kvidera into a fertile area of research. She plans to conduct imaging studies of the brain during confidence assessment — especially to explore error processing (what happens in the brain when we realize we have made a mistake). She also hopes to extend her interest in metacognition to study “lucid dreaming," the awareness that one is dreaming. So the next time you say “I must have been dreaming," maybe Kvidera can sort things out.