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Adults of all ages often wonder about their memoryhow it works or does not work, why one remembers some things but not others, and whether memory skills will change over the life course. The term "metamemory" refers to such cognitions about memorythinking about how, why, and whether memory works. Specific aspects of metamemory include knowledge of memory functioning, insight into memory changes or impairment, awareness of current memory processes, beliefs about and interpretations of memory skills and demands, and even memory-related affect. This entry features an overview of the concept of metamemory and how it applies to aging. The view of metamemory presented here is useful when considering both basic (e.g., how memory and metamemory change and relate to one another in aging) and applied (e.g., the role metamemory may play in compensating for memory impairments and decline) research questions.

Concept of metamemory

In recent decades the concept of metamemory has been the topic of considerable attention in a variety of neighboring domains of psychological research and practice. The range of both the substantive interests and the theoretical perspectives of the researchers is notable, for they span numerous "disciplines" of the psychological sciences. Five such disciplines are briefly noted here. First, cognitive psychologists have examined metacognition as bridging and reflecting such processes as self-monitoring, decision making, learning and memory, motivation, plans and strategies, and cognitive development (see Metcalfe and Shimamura). Second, neuropsychologists have examined metacognition as it bridges cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and clinical neuropsychology. For example, researchers may be concerned with metacognitive impairment (e.g., anosognosia, or unawareness or denial of memory problems or disease) that has occurred as a function of brain injury, dementia, or normal aging-related neurological changes (e.g., Prigatano and Schacter).

Third, some social and personality psychologists have contributed the perspective that metamemory operates in conjunction with, rather than in isolation from, personality and social cognitive processes. For example, researchers may examine the effects of self-concept, self-regulation, self-efficacy, and sense of mastery or control on cognitive performance in children and also in adults (e.g., Cavanaugh). Fourth, child developmental and educational psychologists have examined metamemory as it relates to the growth or improvement of basic cognitive skills in children (e.g., Kuhn). An important pedagogical concern is when and how children learn and apply strategies that improve their learning performance in school and other settings. Fifth, life span developmental psychologists have examined metamemory development in adulthood. The focus has been on multidimensional views of metamemory, how metamemory per se develops in adulthood, and whether metamemory failures may be related to some aging-related declines in memory performance (Dixon; Hertzog and Hultsch).

Metamemory in adulthood

Overall, research and theory in metamemory in adulthood incorporate many of the issues raised in the neighboring domains of metamemory research. They do so in part through implementation of an inclusive and multidimensional concept of metamemory (e.g., Dixon; Hertzog and Hultsch). Four principal characteristics are the following: (a) metamemory includes a wide variety of behaviors (knowledge, beliefs, evaluations, and estimates), indicating the level, degree, or extent of an individual's metamemory performance or skill; (b) it features a multidimensional concept, in that the multiple facets or behaviors are viewed as separable but linked dimensions of a coherent construct of metamemory; (c) it assumes that multiple operations and dimensions would converge on a higher-order construct of metamemory and that metamemory can be discriminated from related constructs; and (d) metamemory is a construct of intrinsic interest in the study of normal cognitive aging, but one that may also have substantial implications for understanding impairments of memory late in life.

Metamemory represents one's knowledge, awareness, and beliefs about the functioning, development, and capacities of one's own memory and human memory in general. As such, it includes three principal categories. First, declarative knowledge about how memory functions includes knowledge of how the characteristics of memory tasks have an impact on memory performance, whether strategies are required, and which strategies may be usefully applied to particular situations. Second, self-referent beliefs about one's capability to use memory effectively in memory-demanding situations defines memory self-efficacy and controllability (e.g., Cavanaugh). One's beliefs about one's ability to remember may determine (a) the extent to which one places oneself in memory-demanding situations, (b) the degree of effort one applies to perform the memory task, (c) one's expectation regarding level of memory performance, and (d) one's actual memory performance. Certain aspects of affect regarding memory (in general) or one's memory performance and change (in particular) may also play a role (e.g., motivation to do well, fear of memory-demanding situations).

Third, awareness of the current, general, and expected states of one's memory performance includes processes of memory insight and memory monitoring. Effective rememberers are able to actively and accurately monitor their performance vis-á-vis the demands of the memory task. A high degree of accuracy in predictions of performance, evaluations of encoding demands, and on-line judgments of learning may indicate an effective and accomplished rememberer (e.g., Hertzog and Hultsch). In clinical situations, an awareness of a deficit may be an important precursor to memory compensation (e.g., Wilson and Watson).

In aging research, these categories of metamemory have been related to one another both theoretically and empirically (see Hertzog and Hultsch). In principle, for older adults, high performance on given memory tasks should be promoted by the following metamemory profile: (a) a well-structured declarative knowledge base about how memory functions in given tasks, (b) refined knowledge of one's own memory skills, (c) accurate and high memory self-efficacy, and (d) skill at the monitoring and control activities during acquisition, retention, and retrieval. In addition, it could be useful to have (e) stable or low memory-related affect, such that the potential deleterious effects of memory-related anxiety or depression could be avoided. In contrast, some older adults with poorerand perhaps impairedperformance could be experiencing some components of the following profile: (a) and (b) an ill-structured, incomplete, or erroneous knowledge base pertaining to general memory functioning or one's own memory skills, (c) inaccurate or low memory self-efficacy, (d) an inability to monitor and control the requisite activities of effective remembering, and (e) fluctuant, uncontrolled, or excessive memory-related anxiety or depression. These profiles define two hypothetical ends of a continuum.

Two clinical implications of these hypothetical profiles in older adults are evident. First, can some aging-related memory disorders or impairments be remedied through clinical intervention designed to assess and improve selected categories of metamemory? Second, can the diagnosis and remediation of some organic memory disorders (e.g., the result of injuries or disease) be advanced through the use of metamemory or awareness information? Research on these questions is advancing on a variety of fronts, including cognitive neurorehabilitation (e.g., Wilson and Watson), memory compensation in late life (e.g., Dixon et al.), awareness of and insight into neuropsychological conditions (e.g., Lovelace), memory complaints and their origins and implications (e.g., Gilewski and Zelinski et al.), and potential effects of metamemory training on memory.


Metamemory refers to processes also known as cognition about memory, memory complaints, memory control, memory self-efficacy, memory knowledge, memory affect, memory monitoring, and memory insight or awareness. A theoretically coherent concept of metamemory includes several interrelated components: declarative knowledge of memory functioning, awareness of or insight into memory skills or problems, monitoring of current memory processes, beliefs about memory skills and change, and memory-related affect. Research on aging has provided numerous fascinating portrayals of metamemoryits range, development, and influences. The simultaneous measurement of multiple dimensions of metamemory is useful, especially when considering issues pertinent to normal aging (e.g., how memory normally changes grows and declinesacross the life span) and to clinical aging (e.g., how memory disorders are developed, supported, and remedied). Important issues of current and future research include (a) the extent to which dimensions of metamemory interact in determining memory performance, impairment, or decline; (b) the extent to which dimensions of metamemory may serve as early indicators of progressive memory decline, such as that associated with organic diseases; and (c) the extent to which intervention in dimensions of metamemory may have indirect influence on memory performance, maintenance, improvement, or recovery.

Roger A. Dixon

See also Memory.


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Dixon, R. A. "Questionnaire Research on Metamemory and Aging: Issues of Structure and Function." In Everyday Cognition in Adulthood and Old Age. Edited by L. W. Poon, D. C. Rubin, and B. A. Wilson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Pages 394415.

Dixon, R. A.; de Frias, C. M.; and BÄckman, L. "Characteristics of Self-Reported Memory Compensation in Late Life." Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 23 (2001): 650661.

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Kuhn, D. "Metacognitive Development." Current Directions in Psychological Science 9 (2000): 178181.

Lovelace, E. A., ed. Aging and Cognition: Mental Processes, Self Awareness, and Interventions. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1990

Metcalfe, J., and Shimamura, A. P., eds. Metacogniton Knowing About Knowing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Prigatano, G. P., and Schacter, D. L., eds. Awareness of Deficit After Brain Injury: Clinical and Theoretical Issues. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ryan, E. B. "Beliefs About Memory Changes Across Adulthood." Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 47 (1992): P41P46.

Wilson, B. A., and Watson, P. C. "A Practical Framework for Understanding Compensatory Behaviour in People with Organic Memory Impairment." Memory 4: (1996): 456486.