Formal models in animal-metacognition research: the problem of interpreting animals' behavior.Psychon Bull Rev. 2016 10; 23(5):1341-1353.PB
Ongoing research explores whether animals have precursors to metacognition-that is, the capacity to monitor mental states or cognitive processes. Comparative psychologists have tested apes, monkeys, rats, pigeons, and a dolphin using perceptual, memory, foraging, and information-seeking paradigms. The consensus is that some species have a functional analog to human metacognition. Recently, though, associative modelers have used formal-mathematical models hoping to describe animals' "metacognitive" performances in associative-behaviorist ways. We evaluate these attempts to reify formal models as proof of particular explanations of animal cognition. These attempts misunderstand the content and proper application of models. They embody mistakes of scientific reasoning. They blur fundamental distinctions in understanding animal cognition. They impede theoretical development. In contrast, an energetic empirical enterprise is achieving strong success in describing the psychology underlying animals' metacognitive performances. We argue that this careful empirical work is the clear path to useful theoretical development. The issues raised here about formal modeling-in the domain of animal metacognition-potentially extend to biobehavioral research more broadly.