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As mentioned last time, metacognition is the process of thinking about your own thinking, one best illustrated with an example.

That last piece talked about a process that went on in my own head after learning about an attack on a synagogue in Texas. When I first heard the news, I did what most people do and quickly formed an opinion on what was going on, absent critical details (which were not available when this initial thought process took place).

The process of coming (or, in this case, jumping) to a conclusion represents cognition – thinking. In this instance, I combined a stereotype (of Texas being a place where you can find lots of right-wing, armed radicals) and prior knowledge (of a previous synagogue attack where the attacker was a radicalized American anti-Semite) to come to the conclusion that the attacker was a local.

Once I learned that my initial conclusion was wrong, I had to think about why I was wrong in the process of coming to a different, more informed, conclusion. This contemplation of how my original thinking process led to error represents metacognition.

Now I could have simply replaced my initial suspicion that the attacker was a politically motivated American with the truth that he was a religiously motivated British Muslim and worked that more-informed conclusion into other prior knowledge of religiously motivated attacks on Jewish institutions. But doing so would not have involved analyzing why my original thinking process caused me to (briefly) believe something that was false.

The metacognitive process I went through helped me understand that reaching a conclusion before adequate information was available, while natural, is also a common source of error. A lesson learned from that experience is to avoid coming to any conclusion without adequate data – especially in situations where facts will likely become available in a few hours, or even a few minutes.

Notice that this metacognitive process provided a blueprint for how I should monitor my thinking if similar situations arise in the future. This involves a different set of steps than simply admitting (at least to myself) that I was wrong and then switching to a more informed set of beliefs backed by accurate data.

Changing my mind is obviously healthier than clinging to my original incorrect belief, either to avoid admitting error, or out of partisanship or other form of motivated reasoning. But absent a metacognitive process that identified reasons for my initial mistake, I might simply lump this failure in with instances when I jumped to other uninformed conclusions and ended up being right. Human nature being what it is, memories of successful conclusion-jumping are likely to remain more vivid than failures, providing no roadmap on how to improve my thinking in the future.

Many of the skills you have been learning about on this site -- such as translating everyday language into logical statements that can be worked into an argument which can be checked for validity and soundness -- only become useful when they are internalized, a process that takes lots of practice over a long period of time.

Careful monitoring of what’s going on inside your own head is a vital part of this internalization process. Through such metacognitive processes, you can identify when your thinking might be going astray due to emotional reasoning or the many cognitive biases all of us are vulnerable to.

The process of turning that debate performance or newspaper editorial into structured statements that can be worked into arguments and analyzed is another one you can monitor as it is going on, providing opportunities to check for reasoning errors while strengthening your thinking skills for future application.

While all of this thinking and then thinking about your thinking might stretch out the time it takes to come to a conclusion, the more you practice, the faster these metacognition-sharpened thinking processes are likely to kick in.

As my own example illustrates, taking the time to think things through can save you from both error and the extra time it takes to replace or revise a false belief arrived at in haste.


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