The effect of sample size and cognitive strategy on probability estimation bias

Hanan Shteingart*, Yonatan Loewenstein

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

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.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)107-117
Number of pages11
JournalDecision
Volume2
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 American Psychological Association.

Keywords

  • Decision making
  • Probability estimation
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Underweighting of rare events

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