Is it better to select or to receive? Learning via active and passive hypothesis testing

Douglas B. Markant, Todd M. Gureckis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People can test hypotheses through either selection or reception. In a selection task, the learner actively chooses observations to test his or her beliefs, whereas in reception tasks data are passively encountered. People routinely use both forms of testing in everyday life, but the critical psychological differences between selection and reception learning remain poorly understood. One hypothesis is that selection learning improves learning performance by enhancing generic cognitive processes related to motivation, attention, and engagement. Alternatively, we suggest that differences between these 2 learning modes derives from a hypothesis-dependent sampling bias that is introduced when a person collects data to test his or her own individual hypothesis. Drawing on influential models of sequential hypothesis-testing behavior, we show that such a bias (a) can lead to the collection of data that facilitates learning compared with reception learning and (b) can be more effective than observing the selections of another person. We then report a novel experiment based on a popular category learning paradigm that compares reception and selection learning. We additionally compare selection learners to a set of "yoked" participants who viewed the exact same sequence of observations under reception conditions. The results revealed systematic differences in performance that depended on the learner's role in collecting information and the abstract structure of the problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-122
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2014


  • Bayesian modeling
  • Category learning
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Hypothesisdependent sampling bias
  • Self-directed learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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