How Prior Probability Influences Decision Making: A Unifying Probabilistic Model

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 25 (NIPS 2012)

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Yanping Huang, Timothy Hanks, Mike Shadlen, Abram L. Friesen, Rajesh PN Rao


How does the brain combine prior knowledge with sensory evidence when making decisions under uncertainty? Two competing descriptive models have been proposed based on experimental data. The first posits an additive offset to a decision variable, implying a static effect of the prior. However, this model is inconsistent with recent data from a motion discrimination task involving temporal integration of uncertain sensory evidence. To explain this data, a second model has been proposed which assumes a time-varying influence of the prior. Here we present a normative model of decision making that incorporates prior knowledge in a principled way. We show that the additive offset model and the time-varying prior model emerge naturally when decision making is viewed within the framework of partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs). Decision making in the model reduces to (1) computing beliefs given observations and prior information in a Bayesian manner, and (2) selecting actions based on these beliefs to maximize the expected sum of future rewards. We show that the model can explain both data previously explained using the additive offset model as well as more recent data on the time-varying influence of prior knowledge on decision making.