Monkeys Know If They’re Right Or Wrong


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

We know how you feel, drill monkey. Rebius/Shutterstock

A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has found that monkeys may possess metacognition, the ability to know if they know or don’t know something.

The research was carried out by the University of Rochester. They were investigating the human ability to decline to answer a question if they know they don’t know the answer. It was based around the idea of fluency, how easy something is to see, hear, or perceive.


In the study, monkeys were shown a symbol on a screen. They were then asked to pick out that symbol from an array of others and bet on how confident they were it was the same image.

They could bet up to three tokens, but if they bet the top amount and were wrong, they lost their betting total. If they bet just one token, they received the token whether they were right or wrong. Totting up tokens earned the monkeys a treat.

It was found that the monkeys were more likely to place a high bet when they were certain the symbol was the same. This happened most often when the repeated symbol had a high contrast. If the contrast was reduced, and the symbol was less clear, then the monkeys made a lower bet, indicating they were less sure of their answer.

“Metacognition is a quick way of making a judgment about whether or not you know an answer,” said Stephen Ferrigno, the study’s lead author, in a statement


“This is the same with the monkeys. If they saw the sample picture well and it was easier for them to encode, they will be more confident in their answer and will bet high.”

It’s thought that the research may help us understand how metacognition develops in young children. This can ultimately lead to good or poor learning, by predicting which circumstances will enable the most metacognition.

“Humans have a variety of these metacognitive illusions – false beliefs about how they learn or remember best,” said Jessica Cantlon, co-author of the study, in the statement. 

“Studying metacognition in non-human primates could give us a foothold for how to study metacognition in young children.”


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