Avoiding the Conflict: Metacognitive Awareness Drives the Selection of Low-Demand Contexts

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Abstract

Previous research attempted to explain how humans strategically adapt behavior in order to achieve successful task performance. Recently, it has been suggested that 1 potential strategy is to avoid tasks that are too demanding. Here, we report 3 experiments that investigate the empirically neglected role of metacognitive awareness in this process. In these experiments, participants could freely choose between performing a task in either a high-demand or a low-demand context. Using subliminal priming, we ensured that participants were not aware of the visual stimuli creating these different demand contexts. Our results showed that participants who noticed a difference in task difficulty (i.e., metacognitive aware participants) developed a clear preference for the low-demand context. In contrast, participants who experienced no difference in task difficulty (i.e., metacognitive unaware participants) based their choices on variables unrelated to cognitive demand (e.g., the color or location associated with a context), and did not develop a preference for the low-demand context. Crucially, this pattern was found despite identical task performance in both metacognitive awareness groups. A multiple regression approach confirmed that metacognitive awareness was the main factor driving the preference for low-demand contexts. These results argue for an important role of metacognitive awareness in the strategic avoidance of demanding tasks.

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