Visual statistical learning is facilitated in Zipfian distributions

Ori Lavi-Rotbain*, Inbal Arnon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Humans can extract co-occurrence regularities from their environment, and use them for learning. This statistical learning ability (SL) has been studied extensively as a way to explain how we learn the structure of our environment. These investigations have illustrated the impact of various distributional properties on learning. However, almost all SL studies present the regularities to be learned in uniform frequency distributions where each unit (e.g., image triplet) appears the same number of times: While the regularities themselves are informative, the appearance of the units cannot be predicted. In contrast, real-world learning environments, including the words children hear and the objects they see, are not uniform. Recent research shows that word segmentation is facilitated in a skewed (Zipfian) distribution. Here, we examine the domain-generality of the effect and ask if visual SL is also facilitated in a Zipfian distribution. We use an existing database to show that object combinations have a skewed distribution in children's environment. We then show that children and adults showed better learning in a Zipfian distribution compared to a uniform one, overall, and for low-frequency triplets. These results illustrate the facilitative impact of skewed distributions on learning across modality and age; suggest that the use of uniform distributions may underestimate performance; and point to the possible learnability advantage of such distributions in the real-world.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number104492
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Domain-general
  • Information theory
  • Learning
  • Predictability
  • Visual statistical learning
  • Zipfian distribution


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