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Thinking and Seeing: Visual Metacognition in Adults and Children

Sedgwick, H A.

Book Review

SUNY College of Optometry New York, New York

Thinking and Seeing: Visual Metacognition in Adults and Children

Daniel T. Levin, ed.The MIT Press, 2004. $35.00.

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The hazards of using cell phones while driving have recently been the subject of much public debate.1 This concern has been prompted by many studies, including those showing that, adjusting for other factors, the relative risk of collision is more than twice as high among heavy cell phone users as among nonusers,2 and that when collisions occur, there is an approximately ninefold increased risk for a fatality if the driver is using a cell phone.3 Controlled studies strongly suggest that deficits in visual attention (“inattentional blindness”) produced by the dual tasks of using the cell phone and driving are a principal cause of these increased risks.4 Why do drivers incur such risks? One answer is that they may not be aware of how much their performance is impaired while they are using a cell phone. This is the finding of a recent study5 that compared drivers’ assessments of their performance with objective measures of their actual performance and concluded that “many drivers are relatively unaware of actual performance decrements resulting from concurrent cell-phone use.”

The example of cell phone use while driving shows that what people believe about their visual capabilities can profoundly affect their behavior, and when these beliefs are erroneous, they can lead to very serious, even fatal, consequences. The study of people’s beliefs and expectations about vision is the subject of the newly named field of “visual metacognition.” The first book on this subject is “Thinking and Seeing: Visual Metacognition in Adults and Children,” edited by Daniel Levin. The book contains a dozen papers that originated in a conference Levin organized in 2002, attempting as he says “to start a dialogue about visual metacognition by bringing together researchers from a number of different areas.”

Recent research has shown that people may be quite unaware of the limitations of their own visual abilities. One striking set of limitations, called “change blindness,” was studied by Levin and his colleague Daniel Simons. They found that if vision is interrupted, like it is in a movie during a cut from one shot to the next, then large changes can often be made to the scene without being noticed. For example, if one shot shows a young man getting up to answer the phone and the following shot shows a young man answering the phone, many observers will fail to notice that the second young man is a different person, although his clothes and appearance are not particularly similar to the first young man. What is of interest from the point of view of visual metacognition is that when such changes are pointed out, most people are astonished at their failure to have noticed them. That is, their belief about how much visual information they are taking in and retaining far exceeds their real visual capacities. Levin and Melissa Beck explore the implications of such observations in their chapter, and in another chapter, Brian Scholl, Simons, and Levin present a method for obtaining quantitative measures of this disparity between belief and reality, which they refer to as “’change blindness’ blindness.”

The belief that people see more than they actually do has many practical implications. Jeffrey Rachlinski’s chapter explores some of the legal ramifications of such misunderstanding. As he explains, in tort (i.e., accident) law, “the standard of conduct to…avoid being negligent is that of a reasonable man under like circumstances.” What a “reasonable man” would do, however, is up to the judge and jury to decide. The study of metacognition has shown that in many cases, their beliefs about perceptual and other cognitive capacities may be unrealistically high and so may lead to faulty judgments.

This is not to say that people’s beliefs about vision are always wrong. Adult behaviors reflect many beliefs about vision that often are accurate enough for practical purposes. For example, in social situations, people often have a fairly good idea about what other people are looking at and what they are seeing. The development of such abilities is discussed by John Flavell in his chapter. In one of his paradigms, a young child who has been shown that a candy box actually contains a doll is asked what another child will say is in the box. A typical 5 year old will understand that the other child will be fooled by appearances and will say “candy.” However, a typical 3 year old does not yet understand that there can be a difference between appearance and reality and so says that another child will correctly say that the candy box has a doll in it. Even a 3 year old, however, knows that a researcher sitting opposite and holding up a card between them sees a different face of the card than does the child. This work expands on and refines Piaget’s early observations on the development of “perspective-taking”—the ability to visualize the point of view of another person.

Other chapters in this volume explore the surprisingly prevalent belief that rays exit the eye during vision; the experience of “zoning out” while reading (i.e., not noticing that our attention has wandered and we are no longer comprehending what we are reading); the tendency to believe that we understand a device better than we actually do, especially when a high proportion of the parts of the device are visible to us; parallels between visual and verbal metacognition; individual differences in change blindness and their correlation with other perceptual and cognitive factors; the role of cognitive judgments and misjudgments in size constancy; young children’s understanding of whether they know the meanings of certain words; and how adults and infants segment complex actions. As this list may suggest, the meaning of “visual metacognition” is more broadly construed in some of these chapters than in others. Even allowing for breadth of definition, some chapters’ relation to visual metacognition is rather tangential. This may reflect the newness of this field of study and consequently the thinness of available research.

Although there is much of interest in the individual chapters, it may be that what is most seminal in this book is the idea of visual metacognition as a field of study. Given the concept of visual metacognition and the examples provided in this book, it is not hard to think of other potentially important areas of investigation. For instance, a better understanding of the ways that drivers’ beliefs about their visual capabilities influence their performance, like in the example of cell phone use described earlier, could lead to more effective driver education and could have significant public health benefits.

H. A. Sedgwick

SUNY College of Optometry New York, New York

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1. Hafner K, George J. For drivers, a traffic jam of distractions. The NewYork Times online, March 3, 2005.
2. Laberge-Nadeau C, Maag U, Bellavance F, Lapierre SD, Desjardins D, Messier S, Saidi A. Wireless telephones and the risk of road crashes. Accid Anal Prev 2003;35:649–60.
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4. Strayer DL, Drews FA, Crouch DJ, Johnston WA. Why do cell phone conversations interfere with driving? In: Walker WR, Herrmann DJ, eds. Cognitive Technology: Essays on the Transformation of Thought and Society. Jefferson, NC: McFarland; 2005:51-68.
5. Lesch MF, Hancock PA. Driving performance during concurrent cell-phone use: are drivers aware of their performance decrements? Accid Anal Prev 2004;36:471–80.
© 2005 American Academy of Optometry