Metacognitions of Flow Experience: Towards an Understanding of the Self-Regulation of Optimal Experience

Wilson, Edith E. (2016) Metacognitions of Flow Experience: Towards an Understanding of the Self-Regulation of Optimal Experience. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Flow has been described as a state of cognitive efficiency and intrinsic enjoyment, whereby a person feels at one with the activity. The existence of an autotelic personality’, an inter-individual difference dimension characterised by the propensity with which a person experiences flow, has been proposed, but the construct has proven to be relatively elusive. The overall aim of this PhD dissertation was to advance flow theory, and in particular enhance the knowledge of individual differences in flow experiences by the investigation of a new construct, flow metacognitions. Flow metacognitions were defined as people’s metacognitive knowledge and beliefs on flow as a state of optimal cognitive functioning. Building upon the concepts of adaptive and maladaptive metacognitions (Beer & Moneta, 2010; Wells, 2000) that were found to impact self-regulation efforts during demanding situations, it was postulated that people would also hold metacognitions on flow, a cognitive state of deep absorption usually elicited by a demanding activity. However, to date, flow metacognitions had not been defined, measured, or tested for their relevance in the context of flow experiences (or in other contexts of optimal experience). This dissertation presents four studies that were conducted to identify flow metacognitions, comprising the development and validation of a self-report questionnaire to measure them validly and reliably, as well as the examination of the scientific relevance of the operationalised constructs.

Preliminary instances of potential flow metacognitions were identified in qualitative analyses, whereby the qualitative content of Flow Questionnaires (FQ, Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988) administered to a sample of 371 workers was analysed. In addition, semi-structured interviews with 12 workers were held about their experiences of flow in work (Study 1, Chapter 2). From these analyses, two broad metacognitions emerged: people’s beliefs in the ‘usefulness’ of being in flow, and individual differences in their beliefs and confidence in the self-regulation of flow experiences. Based on the metacognitive constructs identified in the qualitative analyses, a 53-item pilot Flow Metacognitions Questionnaire (FMQ) was developed and tested on a sample of 204 UK students. Exploratory factor analysis yielded a two-component solution, with item reduction procedures leading to a 12-item scale. Subsequent principal component analysis on the same sample confirmed that the 12 items loaded onto two main components: Beliefs that Flow Fosters Achievement (FMQ-1) and Confidence in Ability to Self-Regulate Flow (FMQ-2). The subscales explained a total of 52.4% of the variance; 28.3% for FMQ-1; and 24.1% for FMQ-2 (Study 2, Chapter 4). Confirmatory factor analysis performed on the data of a sample of 159 workers supported the two subscales of the final 12-item FMQ.

After gathering evidence of the construct validity, the FMQ was used to test the impact of flow metacognitions on the frequency (measured by the FQ), and the intensity of people’s flow experiences, as measured by three well-established flow scales (the Short Dispositional Flow Scale-2, Jackson, Martin, & Eklund, 2008; the Flow Short Scale; Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, & Engeser, 2003; and the Short Flow in Work Scale, Moneta, 2012a). Flow was measured as a general disposition in the context of work. Analyses controlled for maladaptive metacognitions (MetaCognitions Questionnaire, Wells & Cartwright-Hatton, 2004), and adaptive metacognitions (Positive Metacognitions and Meta-Emotions Questionnaire, Beer & Moneta, 2010). Confidence in Ability to Self-Regulate Flow (FMQ-2) was found to be a significant predictor of the intensity and frequency of flow experiences in work, and outperformed established measures of flow, adaptive, and maladaptive metacognition. The results indicated a positive relationship between people’s confidence in self-regulating flow experiences and work-flow. Interestingly, people’s beliefs about the positive consequences of flow in terms of achievement did not predict flow in work (Study 3, Chapter 5). These findings supported the predictive and concurrent validity of the FMQ-2.

Building upon these correlational findings, a longitudinal study was conducted in order to identify potential causal mechanisms between flow metacognitions and flow at work. A sample of 101 professionals took part in a two-wave longitudinal study by completing the FMQ and the three flow scales used in Study 3, measuring the experience of flow as a domain specific trait in the context of work. A series of structural equation models (SEM) supported a longitudinal causal relationship between FMQ-2 and flow. For FMQ-1, this relationship was not found (Study 4, Chapter 6).

Overall, the findings from the four studies conducted in this dissertation indicate that the FMQ-2 could be conceptualised as an antecedent of flow and a marker of the autotelic personality, because it was found to causally influence people’s experience of flow in the work context. The dissertation concludes with an outline of its limitations as well as an outlook for future research. In particular, avenues for gaining a more in-depth understanding of the underlying processes with which flow metacognitions might influence the experience of flow, e.g. by investigating moment-to-moment variations of flow as a state, are given.

It is believed that this PhD dissertation has met its aims by having identified a new and important construct that was found to be positively associated with flow as well as adaptive metacognitions. Furthermore, it has provided a starting point for future programmes of research – both in terms of flow and adaptive metacognitions, as well as applications in achievement contexts, in particular work environments.

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