Feature inference with uncertain categorization: Re-assessing Anderson’s rational model

Authors: Elizaveta Konovalova and Gaël Le Mens

Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Vol. 25, 1666-1681, December, 2018

A key function of categories is to help predictions about unobserved features of objects. At the same time, humans are often in situations where the categories of the objects they perceive are uncertain. In an influential paper, Anderson (Psychological Review, 98(3), 409–429, 1991) proposed a rational model for feature inferences with uncertain categorization. A crucial feature of this model is the conditional independence assumption—it assumes that the within category feature correlation is zero. In prior research, this model has been found to provide a poor fit to participants’ inferences. This evidence is restricted to task environments inconsistent with the conditional independence assumption. Currently available evidence thus provides little information about how this model would fit participants’ inferences in a setting with conditional independence. In four experiments based on a novel paradigm and one experiment based on an existing paradigm, we assess the performance of Anderson’s model under conditional independence. We find that this model predicts participants’ inferences better than competing models. One model assumes that inferences are based on just the most likely category. The second model is insensitive to categories but sensitive to overall feature correlation. The performance of Anderson’s model is evidence that inferences were influenced not only by the more likely category but also by the other candidate category. Our findings suggest that a version of Anderson’s model which relaxes the conditional independence assumption will likely perform well in environments characterized by within-category feature correlation.