Bayesian theories of cognition assume that people can integrate probabilities rationally. However, several empirical findings contradict this proposition: human probabilistic inferences are prone to systematic deviations from optimality. Puzzlingly, these deviations sometimes go in opposite directions. Whereas some studies suggest that people under-react to prior probabilities ( base rate neglect ), other studies find that people under-react to the likelihood of the data ( conservatism ). We argue that these deviations arise because the human brain does not rely solely on a general-purpose mechanism for approximating Bayesian inference that is invariant across queries. Instead, the brain is equipped with a recognition model that maps queries to probability distributions. The parameters of this recognition model are optimized to get the output as close as possible, on average, to the true posterior. Because of our limited computational resources, the recognition model will allocate its resources so as to be more accurate for high probability queries than for low probability queries. By adapting to the query distribution, the recognition model “learns to infer.” We show that this theory can explain why and when people under-react to the data or the prior, and a new experiment demonstrates that these two forms of under-reaction can be systematically controlled by manipulating the query distribution. The theory also explains a range of related phenomena: memory effects, belief bias, and the structure of response variability in probabilistic reasoning. We also discuss how the theory can be integrated with prior sampling-based accounts of approximate inference.
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