Suboptimal human inference inverts the bias-variance trade-off for decisions with asymmetric evidence Journal Article uri icon



  • AbstractSolutions to challenging inference problems are often subject to a fundamental trade-off between bias (being systematically wrong) that is minimized with complex inference strategies and variance (being oversensitive to uncertain observations) that is minimized with simple inference strategies. However, this trade-off is based on the assumption that the strategies being considered are optimal for their given complexity and thus has unclear relevance to the frequently suboptimal inference strategies used by humans. We examined inference problems involving rare, asymmetrically available evidence, which a large population of human subjects solved using a diverse set of strategies that were suboptimal relative to the Bayesian ideal observer. These suboptimal strategies reflected an inversion of the classic bias-variance trade-off: subjects who used more complex, but imperfect, Bayesian-like strategies tended to have lower variance but high bias because of incorrect tuning to latent task features, whereas subjects who used simpler heuristic strategies tended to have higher variance because they operated more directly on the observed samples but displayed weaker, near-normative bias. Our results yield new insights into the principles that govern individual differences in behavior that depends on rare-event inference, and, more generally, about the information-processing trade-offs that are sensitive to not just the complexity, but also the optimality of the inference process.

publication date

  • December 7, 2020

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • December 12, 2020 12:18 PM

Full Author List

  • Eissa TL; Gold JI; Josić K; Kilpatrick ZP

author count

  • 4

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