Bounded rationality in structured density estimation

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

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Tianyuan Teng, Kevin Li, Hang Zhang


Learning to accurately represent environmental uncertainty is crucial for adaptive and optimal behaviors in various cognitive tasks. However, it remains unclear how the human brain, constrained by finite cognitive resources, constructs an internal model from an infinite space of probability distributions. In this study, we explore how these learned distributions deviate from the ground truth, resulting in observable inconsistency in a novel structured density estimation task. During each trial, human participants were asked to form and report the latent probability distribution functions underlying sequentially presented independent observations. As the number of observations increased, the reported predictive density became closer to the ground truth. Nevertheless, we observed an intriguing inconsistency in human structure estimation, specifically a large error in the number of reported clusters. Such inconsistency is invariant to the scale of the distribution and persists across stimulus modalities. We modeled uncertainty learning as approximate Bayesian inference in a nonparametric mixture prior of distributions. Human reports were best explained under resource rationality embodied in a decaying tendency towards model expansion. Our study offers insights into human cognitive processes under uncertainty and lays the groundwork for further exploration of resource-rational representations in the brain under more complex tasks.