Subjective experience of difficulty depends on multiple cues

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Kobe Desender, Filip Van Opstal & Eva Van den Bussche

Desender, K. et al.  (2017) Subjective experience of difficulty depends on multiple cues. Sci. Rep. 7, 44222; doi: 10.1038/srep44222.


Human cognition is characterized by subjective experiences that go along with our actions, but the nature and stability of these experiences remain largely unclear. In the current report, the subjective experience of difficulty is studied and it is proposed that this experience is constructed by integrating information from multiple cues. Such an account can explain the tight relationship between primary task performance and subjective difficulty, while allowing for dissociations between both to occur. Confirming this hypothesis, response conflict, reaction time and response repetition were identified as variables that contribute to the experience of difficulty. Trials that were congruent, fast or required the same response as the previous trial were more frequently rated as easy than trials that were incongruent, slow or required a different response as the previous trial. Furthermore, in line with theoretical accounts that relate metacognition to learning, a three day training procedure showed that the influence of these variables on subjective difficulty judgments can be changed. Results of the current study are discussed in relation to work on meta-memory and to recent theoretical advancements in the understanding of subjective confidence.

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Scientific Reports