The Effect of Sample Size and Cognitive Strategy on Probability Estimation Bias

[Correction Notice: An Erratum for this article was reported in Vol 2(2) of Decision (see record 2015-14395-002). There was an error in the second paragraph of page 4, in the equation for the case of n = 2. The correct sentence is provided.] Probability estimation is an essential cognitive function in perception, motor control, and decision making. Many studies have shown that when making decisions in a stochastic operant conditioning task, people and animals behave as if they underestimate the probability of rare events. It is commonly assumed that this behavior is a natural consequence of estimating a probability from a small sample, also known as sampling bias. The objective of this article is to challenge this common lore. We show that, in fact, probabilities estimated from a small sample can lead to behaviors that will be interpreted as underestimating or as overestimating the probability of rare events, depending on the cognitive strategy used. Moreover, this sampling bias hypothesis makes an implausible prediction that minute differences in the values of the sample size or the underlying probability will determine whether rare events will be underweighted or overweighed. We discuss the implications of this sensitivity for the design and interpretation of experiments. Finally, we propose an alternative sequential learning model with a resetting of initial conditions for probability estimation and show that this model predicts the experimentally observed robust underweighting of rare events. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)

Authors: Shteingart H., Loewenstein Y.
Year of publication: 2015
Journal: Decison, 04/2015, Volume 2, Issue 2, p.107-117

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“Working memory”