Metacognition and the pandemic: how our beliefs influence our choices

In a recent study published in PNAS, researchers performed several empirical tests to evaluate the significance of human metacognition, i.e., the ability to self-reflect upon one's beliefs and behavior, during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Study: Metacognition, public health compliance, and vaccination willingness. Image Credit: Zigres/Shutterstock.comStudy: Metacognition, public health compliance, and vaccination willingness. Image Credit: Zigres/Shutterstock.com

Background

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world witnessed an unprecedented infodemic, which misled the masses with its sheer scale of COVID-19-related misinformation.

There is increasing evidence that susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation hindered people from complying with public health measures, specifically, their willingness to get vaccinated.

Concerning this, prior neuroscientific research shows metacognitive confidence helps humans control and guide their behavior, some examples of which are their ability to learn from mistakes and search and process information.

Contrastingly, if an individual lacks metacognitive confidence, his neural information processing remains skewed. 

In addition, research has shown that individuals exhibiting higher metacognitive sensitivity in distinguishing legit and phishing emails tend to have no malicious files on their computers, suggesting that varying ability to map the accuracy of objective beliefs (confidence) translates to real-world behavior.

Notably, people with higher confidence in true (infallible) beliefs have high metacognitive sensitivity. 

About the study

Based on the current evidence, researchers postulate that metacognition predicted compliance with recommended public health measures and willingness to get vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, above and beyond susceptibility to COVID-19-related misinformation and the beliefs' accuracy.

In the present study, they tested this hypothesis by leveraging Signal Detection Theory (SDT) methods, which uniquely helped assess metacognitive abilities independently, including metacognitive sensitivity (meta-d’ ) and object-level sensitivity (d’).

Meta-d’ is a bias-free measure controlling an individual’s tendency to report high and low confidence in their own beliefs, and the latter, denoted by Mratio, is the sensitivity with which confidence in their own beliefs helps them distinguish between true and false beliefs.

First, they conducted a compliance study (Study 1) among 510 German participants to explore the zero-order relationship of whether the object-level accuracy of 10 COVID-19 beliefs (d’) related to compliance (frequency-weighted) with public health measures, accounting for their political attitude and sociodemographics. 

Next, they performed a higher-powered study to extend the study 1 findings using 33 COVID-19 belief items and 878 participants.

Study 2 assessed the relevance of metacognitive sensitivity for willingness to get COVID-19 vaccinated, an increasingly important aspect to combat during the later stages of the pandemic.

The team adopted Bayesian and frequentist regression as an analytical strategy. All Bayes Factors indicated the evidence strength of the model(s) used relative to the null hypothesis.

They also reported Bayesian model averaging results, which generated more reliable estimates of all assessed parameters and lower false positives.

Results

All study participants were well-informed about COVID-19. Regarding the accuracy of their COVID-19 beliefs, the authors noted that they were 2.7 to 12.5 and 2.8 to 22 times more likely to indicate a false statement as false and a true statement as true, respectively.

Based on their simple and frequency-weighted compliance scores in study 1, citizens with more accurate COVID-19 beliefs tended to comply with recommended public health measures.

Even after controlling for object-level accuracy of COVID-19 beliefs (d’), political attitude, and sociodemographics, Bayesian and frequentist regression results suggested that people with more accurate metacognition—whose confidence matched the accuracy of their underlying beliefs about COVID-19—tended to comply with recommended public health measures during the pandemic.

Study 2 results validated Study 1 results. Consequently, participants with higher object-level accuracy of COVID-19 beliefs (d’) showed more willingness to vaccinate.

However, their metacognitive efficiency was suboptimal (Mratio=0.65), suggesting they were likely confused about the accuracy of their COVID-19 beliefs.

Thus, not the overall accuracy of COVID-19 beliefs (d’) but metacognitive insight (meta-d’) into which were valid and which ones were fallible best-elucidated willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccination.

Conclusions

This study highlights the critical role of metacognitive ability in times of crisis. In normal circumstances, metacognitive confidence guides behavior even when external advice is unavailable.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when external guidance was available but highly unreliable, it was unclear whether or not it guided people’s behavior.

The results evidenced a relation between people’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic and higher metacognitive sensitivity to the varying accuracy of COVID-19 beliefs.

However, the evidence that metacognitive sensitivity predicted compliance, in this case, with recommended public health measures and willingness to get COVID-19 vaccinated, was inadequate when controlling for the absolute confidence participants had in their COVID-19 beliefs. 

Overall, the study results provide mixed evidence for the predictivity of metacognitive insight during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Journal reference:
Neha Mathur

Written by

Neha Mathur

Neha is a digital marketing professional based in Gurugram, India. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Rajasthan with a specialization in Biotechnology in 2008. She has experience in pre-clinical research as part of her research project in The Department of Toxicology at the prestigious Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, India. She also holds a certification in C++ programming.

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