Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Representing the absence of objects is psychologically demanding. People are slower, less confident and show lower metacognitive sensitivity (the alignment between subjective confidence and objective accuracy) when reporting the absence compared with presence of visual stimuli. However, what counts as a stimulus absence remains only loosely defined. In this Registered Report, we ask whether such processing asymmetries extend beyond the absence of whole objects to absences defined by stimulus features or expectation violations. Our pre-registered prediction was that differences in the processing of presence and absence reflect a default mode of reasoning: we assume an absence unless evidence is available to the contrary. We predicted asymmetries in response time, confidence, and metacognitive sensitivity in discriminating between stimulus categories that vary in the presence or absence of a distinguishing feature, or in their compliance with an expected default state. Using six pairs of stimuli in six experiments, we find evidence that the absence of local and global stimulus features gives rise to slower, less confident responses, similar to absences of entire stimuli. Contrary to our hypothesis, however, the presence or absence of a local feature has no effect on metacognitive sensitivity. Our results weigh against a proposal of a link between the detection metacognitive asymmetry and default reasoning, and are instead consistent with a low-level visual origin of metacognitive asymmetries for presence and absence.

Original publication




Journal article


Neurosci Conscious

Publication Date





absence, metacognition, presence