One and Done? Optimal Decisions from Very Few Samples


In many situations human behavior approximates that of a Bayesian ideal observer, suggesting that, at some level, cognition can be described as Bayesian inference. However, a number of findings have highlighted an intriguing mismatch between human behavior and that predicted by Bayesian inference: people often appear to make judgments based on a few samples from a probability distribution, rather than the full distribution. Although sample-based approximations are a common implementation of Bayesian inference, the very limited number of samples used by humans seems to be insufficient to approximate the required probability distributions. Here we consider this discrepancy in the broader framework of statistical decision theory, and ask: if people were making decisions based on samples, but samples were costly, how many samples should people use? We find that under reasonable assumptions about how long it takes to produce a sample, locally suboptimal decisions based on few samples are globally optimal. These results reconcile a large body of work showing sampling, or probability-matching, behavior with the hypothesis that human cognition is well described as Bayesian inference, and suggest promising future directions for studies of resource-constrained cognition.

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