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Bayesian learning and the psychology of rule induction

Endress, A. (2013). Bayesian learning and the psychology of rule induction. Cognition, 127(2), pp. 159-176. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.014


In recent years, Bayesian learning models have been applied to an increasing variety of domains. While such models have been criticized on theoretical grounds, the underlying assumptions and predictions are rarely made concrete and tested experimentally. Here, I use Frank and Tenenbaum’s (2011) Bayesian model of rule-learning as a case study to spell out the underlying assumptions, and to confront them with the empirical results Frank and Tenenbaum (2011) propose to simulate, as well as with novel experiments. While rule-learning is arguably well suited to rational Bayesian approaches, I show that their models are neither psychologically plausible nor ideal observer models. Further, I show that their central assumption is unfounded: humans do not always preferentially learn more specific rules, but, at least in some situations, those rules that happen to be more salient. Even when granting the unsupported assumptions, I show that all of the experiments modeled by Frank and Tenenbaum (2011) either contradict their models, or have a large number of more plausible interpretations. I provide an alternative account of the experimental data based on simple psychological mechanisms, and show that this account both describes the data better, and is easier to falsify. I conclude that, despite the recent surge in Bayesian models of cognitive phenomena, psychological phenomena are best understood by developing and testing psychological theories rather than models that can be fit to virtually any data.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Cognition. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Cognition, Volume 127, Issue 2, May 2013, Pages 159–176,
Publisher Keywords: Bayesian learning, Process models, Rule learning, Perceptual or memory primitives
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
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