Comparing Bayesian and non-Bayesian accounts of human confidence reports

William T. Adler, Wei Ji Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans can meaningfully report their confidence in a perceptual or cognitive decision. It is widely believed that these reports reflect the Bayesian probability that the decision is correct, but this hypothesis has not been rigorously tested against non-Bayesian alternatives. We use two perceptual categorization tasks in which Bayesian confidence reporting requires subjects to take sensory uncertainty into account in a specific way. We find that subjects do take sensory uncertainty into account when reporting confidence, suggesting that brain areas involved in reporting confidence can access low-level representations of sensory uncertainty, a prerequisite of Bayesian inference. However, behavior is not fully consistent with the Bayesian hypothesis and is better described by simple heuristic models that use uncertainty in a non-Bayesian way. Both conclusions are robust to changes in the uncertainty manipulation, task, response modality, model comparison metric, and additional flexibility in the Bayesian model. Our results suggest that adhering to a rational account of confidence behavior may require incorporating implementational constraints.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1006572
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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