Belief digitization: Do we treat uncertainty as probabilities or as bits?

Samuel G. B. Johnson, Thomas Merchant, Frank C. Keil

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Humans are often characterized as Bayesian reasoners. Here, we question the core Bayesian assumption that probabilities reflect degrees of belief. Across eight studies, we find that people instead reason in a digital manner, assuming that uncertain information is either true or false when using that information to make further inferences. Participants learned about 2 hypotheses, both consistent with some information but one more plausible than the other. Although people explicitly acknowledged that the less-plausible hypothesis had positive probability, they ignored this hypothesis when using the hypotheses to make predictions. This was true across several ways of manipulating plausibility (simplicity, evidence fit, explicit probabilities) and a diverse array of task variations. Taken together, the evidence suggests that digitization occurs in prediction because it circumvents processing bottlenecks surrounding people's ability to simulate outcomes in hypothetical worlds. These findings have implications for philosophy of science and for the organization of the mind.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1417-1434
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
A subset of these results were presented at the Cognitive Science Society (Johnson, Merchant, & Keil, 2015). We thank the conference attendees for their comments, as well as audiences at MIT, Yale, and the Universities of Bath, Chicago, and Warwick. Frank C. Keil received funding from National Science Foundation Grant DRL 1561143.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Psychological Association.


  • Categorization
  • Causal thinking
  • Prediction
  • Probability judgment
  • Reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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