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Impact of stress on decision and metacognition: an applied perspective for aeronautics – MetaStress

Submission summary

MetaStress is a study of the impact of stress on metacognition. Metacognition, or second order cognition, collectively designates the processes through which agents access and control their own cognitive processes. Confidence judgments are typical instances of metacognition. It is now acknowledged that metacognition is critical both for the regulation of cognition by the subject him- or herself, and also that it is critical when agents cooperate in an uncertain environment. Metacognition is now viewed as one of the executive functions, which make what human cognition is: flexible and adaptive. Now, it is nowadays clear that executive functions are fragile and easily disrupted by contextual perturbations. We know that stress provokes a sharp deterioration of executive functions. The stress response re-orient metabolic resources for flight or fight. Attentional resources are re-oriented towards the external world, at the expense of endogenous attention. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that stress should negatively impact metacognition. However, the impact of stress on metacognition, over and above its impact on cognition has never been systematically studied.

That stress has a detrimental effect on performance is well known, and it has been in particular extensively documented in aeronautics. The intuition behind MetaStress is the following : one of the mechanisms through which stress causes errors, even accidents, is by dampening metacognition. Thus perseverations in erroneous routines, which are often found at the root of human errors could be due to the relative blindness that an agent under stress has with respect to his or her own performance – a typical metacognitive deficit. This relative blindness would preclude the agent from adopting a critical stance on his or her performance, which would precisely be necessary in order to stop the perseverating attitude.

The goal of MetaStress will be first, to study at a fundamental level the links between stress and metacognition ; Second to evaluate the consequences of stress on metacognition in aeronautics ; And third, to devise cognitive counter-measures. We will use laboratory stressors, so as to determine the modulation of metacognitive access that stress induces. Thanks to cognitive modeling, we shall isolate the influence of stress on first order cognition and on metacognition. Within metacognition, we shall separately assess the potential biasing effects of stress (over- or under-confidence) and the effects on metacognitive sensitivity. By means of a full array of physiological, hormonal, behavioral and psychological measures, we shall unravel the specific mechanisms of stress that have an impact on metacognition. We shall study the impact of stress on metacognitive access and control separately. Furthermore, as metacognition is critical when two or more agents cooperate, since if agents can exchange their confidence levels they can weigh their respective contribution to a common task, we shall study the dysfunctions that stress instills between two cooperating agents. We shall try to identify at which level does stress block the exchange of information on a common task.

MetaStress is a research program in cognitive sciences, with applications to aeronautics. We think that our results should generalize to other domains, such as the piloting of nuclear plants. Our intention is not only to unravel the fine mechanisms of elementary decision and metacognition under stress. We wish to identify cognitive remediation strategies that can counteract the negative impact of stress on metacognition. First, we shall investigate the potential benefits of cognitive training; and second, we shall examine whether some modifications in decisional systems (organizations and Human – Machine interfaces) could foster the retrieval and use of metacognition.

Project coordination

Jerome Sackur (Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


LSCP Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique
CES UMR8174 (CNRS/UP1) Centre d'économie de la Sorbonne
ONERA Office Nationale d'Études et de Recherches Aérospatiales

Help of the ANR 271,116 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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