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The base-rate fallacy is people's tendency to ignore base rates in favor of, e.g., individuating information (when such is available), rather than integrate the two. This tendency has important implications for understanding judgment phenomena in many clinical, legal, and social-psychological settings. An explanation of this phenomenon is offered, according to which people order information by its perceived degree of relevance, and let high-relevance information dominate low-relevance information. Information is deemed more relevant when it relates more specifically to a judged target case. Specificity is achieved either by providing information on a smaller set than the overall population, of which the target case is a member, or when information can be coded, via causality, as information about the specific members of a given population. The base-rate fallacy is thus the result of pitting what seem to be merely coincidental, therefore low-relevance, base rates against more specific, or causal, information. A series of probabilistic inference problems is presented in which relevance was manipulated with the means described above, and the empirical results confirm the above account. In particular, base rates will be combined with other information when the two kinds of information are perceived as being equally relevant to the judged case.
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Acta Psychologica 44 (1980) 211-233
0 North-Holland Publishing Company
THE BASE-RATE FALLACY IN PROBABILITY JUDGMENTS
Maya BAR-HILLEL*
Hebrew University, Jerusalem and Decision Research, A Branch of Perceptronics,
Inc., Eugene, OR
Revised version received February 1979
The base-rate fallacy is people’s tendency to ignore base rates in favor of, e.g., individ-
uating information (when such is available), rather than integrate the two. This tendency
has important implications for understanding judgment phenomena in many clinical,
legal, and social-psychological settings. An explanation of this phenomenon is offered,
according to which people order information by its perceived degree of relevance, and let
high-relevance information dominate low-relevance information. Information is deemed
more relevant when it relates more specifically to a judged target case. Specificity is
achieved either by providing information on a smaller set than the overall population, of
which the target case is a member, or when information can be coded, via causality, as
information about the specific members of a given population. The base-rate fallacy is
thus the result of pitting what seem to be merely coincidental, therefore low-relevance,
base rates against more specific, or causal, information. A series of probabilistic inference
problems is presented in which relevance was manipulated with the means described
above, and the empirical results confirm the above account. In particular, base rates wiIl
be combined with other information when the two kinds of information are perceived as
being equally relevant to the judged case.
Consider the following problem:
Problem 1: Two cab companies operate in a given city, the Blue and the
Green (according to the color of cab they run). Eighty-five percent of
the cabs in the city are Blue, and the remaining 15% are Green.
A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.
A witness later identified the cab as a Green cab.
The court tested the witness’ ability to distinguish between Blue
* I would like to thank Amos Tversky, teacher and friend, for inspiring this study, and Reid
Hastie, Baruch Fischhoff, and Sarah Lichtenstein for many constructive comments. Partial
support for this research was provided by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the
Department of Defense, and was monitored by the Office of Naval Research under Contract
NOOO14-76CaO74 (ARPA Order No. 3052) under Subcontract 764304714 from Decisions
and Designs, Inc. to Perceptronics, Inc.
212 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
and Green cabs under nighttime visibility conditions. It found that
the witness was able to identify each color correctly about 80% of
the time, but confused it with the other color about 20% of the time.
What do you think are the chances that the errant cab was indeed
Green, as the witness claimed? (Kahneman and Tversky 1972).
This is a paradigmatic Bayesian inference problem. It contains two
kinds of information. One is in the form of background data on the
color distribution of cabs in the city, called base-rate information. The
second, rendered by the witness, relates specifically to the cab in ques-
tion, and is here called indicant or diagnostic information.
The proper, normative way to combine the inferential impacts of
base-rate evidence and diagnostic evidence is given by Bayes’ rule. In
odds form, this rule can be written as C? = Q.R, where C? denotes the
posterior odds in favor of a particular inference, Q denotes the prior
odds in favor of that particular inference, and R denotes the likelihood
ratio for that inference. In the cab example above, we are interested in
the probability, after the witness’ testimony, that the errant cab was
Green. Denote Green cabs and Blue cabs by G and B, respectively, and
denote the testimony that the cab was green by g. Spelling out Bayes’
Theorem in full, we obtain:
P(G/g) &g/G) P(G) 0.8 0.15 12
~ ~
R=P(BIg)=P(g/B)XP(B)=OxX0.85=i?
and thus P(G/g) = l& = 0.4 1. Note that the prior odds are based on
the population base rates, whereas the likelihood ratio is determined by
the indicator.
If the posterior probability of 41% seems counterintuitive to you and
your initial inclination is to be 80% sure that the witness’ testimony of
Green is in fact reliable, then you are exhibiting the base-rate fallacy -
the fallacy of allowing indicators to dominate base rates in your proba-
bility assessments. You are, however, in good company. The base-rate
fallacy has been found in several experimental studies, and it manifests
itself in a multitude of real-world situations.
In a 1955 paper, Meehl and Rosen warned against the insensitivity,
on the part of both the designers and users of diagnostic tests, to base-
M. Bar-llillellBase-rate fallacy 213
rate considerations. They lamented psychologists’ proneness to evaluate
tests by their hit rate (i.e., diagnosticity) alone, rather than by the more
appropriate measure of efficiency, which would take into account base
rates, as well as costs, goals, and other relevant considerations. Clinicians
are apparently unaware that they should feel less confident when a test
returns a rare verdict (such as ‘suicidal’) than when it returns a more
common one.
Such warnings persist to our day. Lykken (1975) laments current
injudicious use of polygraph outputs by commercial companies, while
demonstrating that even a highly accurate polygraph reading is likely
to yield erroneous diagnoses when, say, it is administered to a whole
population of employees, only a fraction of whom are really guilty of
some offense. Dershowitz (1971) Stone (1975) and McGargee (1976)
point out that since violence is a rare form of behavior in the population,
base-rate considerations alone make it more likely than not that an
individual who is preventively detained because he is judged to be
potentially dangerous is really quite harmless, a purely statistical argu-
ment whose significance has only recently gained appreciation among
jurists. Finally, Eddy (1978) has evidence of the base-rate fallacy both
in the judgments of practicing physicians and in the recommendations
of some medical texts.
Base rates play a problematic role in yet another legal context, namely,
the fact-finding process. Though there is no definitive ruling on the
status of base-rate evidence, courts are typically reluctant to allow its
presentation, often ruling it inadmissible on grounds of irrelevancy to
the debated issues. While some of the legal objections reflect sound
reasoning, others are clearly manifestations of the base-rate fallacy. (For
a discussion of base rates in the courts, see Tribe 197 1.)
The counterpart of disregarding the probative impact of base rates
lies in overjudging the probative impact of indicators. To hark to a well-
known children’s riddle, white sheep eat more grass than black sheep
simply because there are more of them. Color is really no indicator of
appetite - the phenomenon is a base-rate one. Similarly, the fact that
in 1957 in Rhode Island more pedestrians were killed when crossing an
intersection with the signal than against it (Huff 1959) does not neces-
sarily imply that it is more dangerous to comply with traffic lights than
to violate them. The indicators in these two cases seem to shoulder the
diagnostic burden only because the base rates do not seem to. An entire
methodology of experimental control has been conceived to guard
214 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
against this prevalent side effect of the base-rate fallacy.
The base-rate fallacy may underlie some phenomena noted in the
domain of interpersonal perception as well. Nisbett and Borgida (1975)
have used this notion to explain the perplexingly minimal role that con-
sensus information typically plays in people’s causal attributions, con-
sensus data being, in effect, base-rate data. The consequences of the base-
rate fallacy to interpersonal perception was also unwittingly demonstrat-
ed by Gage (1952). Gage found that predicting the questionnaire behav-
ior of strangers drawn from a familiar population deteriorated following
an opportunity to observe these strangers engaging in expressive behav-
ior. If we suppose that (a) the indicators gleaned from these observations
suppressed the base-rate information which was previously available
through the familiarity with the source population of these strangers
and (b) these base-rate considerations were more diagnostic (i.e., more
extreme) in themselves than the expressive behavior was, then Gage’s
results are readily understood.
Experimental studies of the base-rate fallacy
Although the existence of the base-rate fallacy has been acknowledged
for quite some time (Meehl and Rosen 1955; Huff 1959; Good 1968),
it was first studied in a controlled laboratory situation by Kahneman
and Tversky (1973a). These investigators presented subjects with a
series of short personality sketches of people randomly drawn from a
population with known composition. On the basis of these sketches,
subjects were to predict to which of the population subclasses the
described. persons were more likely to belong. Subjects were responsive
to the diagnosticity of the descriptions, but they practically disregarded
the fact that the different subclasses of the population were of grossly
different size. Therefore, subjects were as confident when predicting
membership in a small subclass (which correspondingly enjoys a smaller
prior probability) as in a larger one. Kahneman and Tversky interpreted
their results as showing that:
. . people predict by representativeness, that is, they select . . . outcomes by the degree to
which (they) represent the essential features of the evidence. . . However, . . . because there are
factors (e.g., the prior probability of outcomes . . .) which affect the likelihood of outcomes
but not their representativeness, . . . intuitive predictions violate the statistical rules of predic-
tion (1973a: 237-238).
M. Bar-HillelfBase-rate fallacy 215
While the manner in which people derive judgments of diagnosticity
from personality sketches may well proceed via judgments of representa-
tiveness, the base-rate fallacy appears in other contexts, where the repre-
sentativeness argument does not seem to apply. Such, for example, is
Problem 1, in which both the base rate and the indicant information is
presented in numerical form. Thus, “regardless of whether or not prob-
ability is judged by representativeness, base rate information [may] be
dominated” (Tversky and Kahneman 1980).
Another interpretation of Kahneman and Tversky’s results was offered
by Nisbett et d. (1976), who suggested that base-rate information is
ignored in favor of individuating information, since the former is
“remote, pallid and abstract”, whereas the latter is “vivid, salient, and
concrete” (1976: 24). However, Problem 1 presents both items of infor-
mation in highly similar style - instead of being a case description, the
indicant information is also statistical in nature. Thus, the phenomenon
seems more general than Nisbett et cd. may have realized.
Recent investigations have addressed themselves to the stability of
the base-rate phenomenon (Lyon and Slavic 1976; Bar-Hillel 1975). A
wide range of variations of the basic problem was presented to a total
of about 350 subjects, including (a) changing the order of data presen-
tation with the indicator data preceding, rather than following, the base-
rate information; (b) using green rather than blue as majority color; (c)
having subjects assess the probability that the witness erred, rather than
the probability of correct identification; (d) having the witness identify
the errant cab as belonging to the larger, rather than the smaller, of the
two companies; (e) varying the base rate (to 60% and 50%); (f) varying
the witness’ credibility (to 60% and 50% hits); and (g) stating the prob-
lem in a brief verbal description without explicit statistics (e.g., “most
of the cabs in the city are Blue”, and “the witness was sometimes, but
rarely, mistaken in his identifications,” Kahneman and Tversky 1973b).
Through all these variations, the median and modal responses were
consistently based on the indicator alone, demonstrating the robust-
ness of the base-rate fallacy.
Why are base rates ignored?
The genuineness, the robustness, and the generality of the base-rate
fallacy are matters of established fact. What needs now be asked is
216 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
why the phenomenon exists, i.e., what cognitive mechanism leads
people to ignore base-rate information in problems of Bayesian infer-
ence? The cab problem seems to rule out some possible explanations
as too narrow (Nisbett and Borgida’s saliency explanation), or insuf-
ficient (Kahneman and Tversky’s explanation by representativeness).
It is also erroneous to believe that people’s failure to integrate base-
rate information into their judgments reflects either lack of apprecia-
tion for the diagnostic impact of such data, or some inherent inability
to integrate uncertainties from two different sources. Neither possibility
is true. People demonstrate that they do appreciate the implications of
base-rate information when it is the only information they have. Thus,
subjects who receive a cab problem with no witness overwhelmingly
chose 1.5% as their estimate of the probability that the hit-and-run cab
was Green (Lyon and Slavic 1976; Bar-Hillel 1975). People’s ability to
integrate two sources of information will become apparent in their
responses to some of the problems to be presented below.
The most comprehensive attempt yet to account for the base-rate
fallacy is to be found in Ajzen (1977) and in Tversky and Kahneman
(1980). The latter claim that “base-rate data that are given a causal
interpretation affect judgments, while base-rates that do not fit into a
causal schema are dominated by causally relevant data” (Tversky and
Kahneman 1980: 50). They then proceed to demonstrate this claim using
a number of inference problems, some based on Bar-Hillel (1975).
The causality argument, I believe, is incomplete. (a) It is again too
narrow. I shall show that under some conditions, even non-causal base-
rate information will affect judgments. Thus, although “people rely on
information perceived to have a causal relation to the criterion”, it is
not always the case that they “disregard valid but non-causal informa-
tion” (Ajzen 1977: 303). (b) The causality argument accounts for when
rather than why base rates will be ignored. In this paper, I shall attempt
to give a dynamic account for the base-rate fallacy. Causality will be
but one factor in this more general account.
The central notion in the proposed account is the notion of relevance.
I believe that subjects ignore base-rate information, when they do,
because they feel that it should be ignored - put plainly, because the
base rates seem to them irrelevant to the judgment that they are making.
This notion, which will be presently elaborated and supported by data,
was initially based on some introspection and some anecdotal evidence.
M. Bar-HillelfBase-rate fallacy 211
Subjects, when occasionally queried informally about their erroneous
response to the cab problem, vehemently defended their witness-based
judgment, denying that the cab distribution should have “had anything
to do with” their answer. Lyon and Slavic (1976) presented subjects
with a forced-choice question regarding the relevance of the two items
of information in the cab problem. Subjects were offered reasoned
statements in favor of (a) only base rates being relevant; (b) only the
indicator being relevant; and (c) both being relevant. In spite of the
fact that the correct argument was explicitly formulated in (c), 50%
of their subjects chose (b). In another study, Hammerton (1973) gave
his subjects a similar kind of problem, but omitted the base rates alto-
gether. His subjects showed no awareness that a vital ingredient was
missing.
1 propose that people may be ordering information by its perceived
degree of relevance to the problem they are judging. If two items seem
equally relevant, they will both play a role in determining the final esti-
mate. But if one is seen as more relevant than the other, the former may
dominate the latter in people’s judgments. Since less relevant items are
discarded prior to any considerations of diagnosticity, an item of no
diagnostic value, if judged more relevant, may dominate an item of high
diagnosticity. (This is similar to the way ‘relevance’ is used in a court
of law. Evidence considered ‘irrelevant’ by the judge is not admitted -
though clearly the side wishing to introduce it thinks it will have an
impact on the judge or jury - whereas often ‘relevant’ evidence without
any diagnostic impact is admitted.) These levels of relevance are crude,
almost qualitative, categories. And it is only within levels that judged
diagnosticity will affect the weights assigned to different pieces of infor-
mation.
A crucial question is, of course, what determines the ordering of
items by relevance. While I cannot offer a comprehensive answer at this
point, it seems to me that one factor affecting relevance is specificity.
Thus, if you have some information regarding some population, and
other information regarding some subset of that population, then the
latter is more relevant than the former for making judgments about a
member of that subset. Often such more specific information should
normatively supercede the more general information. Clearly, for
example, the base rate of married people among young female adults
should be used in place of the base rate of married people in the entire
adult population when judging the marital status of a young female adult.
218 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
In other cases, some examples of which are the Bayesian inference
problems in which the base rate fallacy is manifest, this is not so. To
see why not, consider for example the cab problem. It contains some
general base rate information (e.g., “85% of the cabs in the city are
Blue”) and some indicant information pertaining more specifically to
the judged case. The indicator in the cab problem, i.e., the witness’
testimony, actually focuses directly on the unique cab involved in the
accident, and identifies it as green. It is, however, not perfectly reliable.
This, then, is one example where more specific information, though it
seems more relevant, should not supercede the base rate. Another
example will be encountered in Problem 3 below. There, the more
specific information does not. concern the same predicate as the more
general one, though it may seem to. Thus, it not only shouldn’t super-
cede the general information, but it should be completely ignored.
Specificity can be brought about in several ways. The most straight-
forward one is to give information about some subset of the popula-
tion. When this subset contains only the judged case, it has been called
“individuating” information (Kahneman and Tversky 1973a). Informa-
tion which testifies directly (if imperfectly) about some member of the
population, such as the witness in the cab problem or Lyon and Slavic’s
mechanical device, will be called identifying information. An indirect
way of achieving specificity is via causality. Causality provides a means
of attaining specific, individual characteristics from population charac-
teristics. If one is told, for example, that “85% of cab accidents in the
city involve [blue] cabs” (Tversky and Kahneman 1980), this popula-
tion base rate is readily interpretable as saying that blue cabs are more
accident-prone than green cabs - an interpretation which makes the
base-rate more specifically related to the accident likelihood of indi-
vidual cabs. Thus, the causality factor identified by Tversky and Kahne-
man (1980) is just one means of enhancing relevance.’ And it is rele-
vance, rather than causality per se, which determines whether or not
base rates will be incorporated into probability judgments. More pre-
cisely, it is relative relevance - i.e., two items of information will be
A graphic example may be in order here: imagine a grid of squares. There are many ways of
coloring it which will turn 80% of the grid’s area red and 20% green. One is to color 80% of
the squares all red, and 20% all green. Another is to color each square 80% red and 20% green.
Yet another is to color some of the squares using one mixture, and others using another mix-
ture. In the second case, but not in the first, the grid color statistics apply to each square.
Causality, I claim, is a way of inferring ‘square’ characteristics from ‘grid’ characteristics.
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 219
integrated if they are perceived as equally relevant. Otherwise, the
more relevant one will dominate the less relevant one.
This study will unfold as follows: first, I shall present a number of
problem prototypes in which the base rate fallacy is manifested: (1)
the paradigmatic Cab Problem, in which a coincidental base rate (i.e.,
one which cannot be causally interpreted) is pitted against identifying,
but not perfectly reliable, information; (2) the Suicide Problem, in
which a coincidental base rate is pitted against information which,
though it is a base rate, can be causally linked to the judged outcome;
(3) the Dream Problem, which gives two base rates in a non-Bayesian
inference problem; and (4) the Urn and Beads Problem, in which a
more general base rate is pitted against seemingly more specific base-
rate information. I shall then show that when base rates are not judged
less relevant than indicant information, they are not ignored. In the
Intercom Problem, coincidental base rates are pitted against coinciden-
tal indicant information. In the Motor Problem, causally-interpreted
base rates are pitted against identifying, but not perfectly reliable,
information. According to the proposed account, the base rates should
not be judged less relevant than the indicant information in both these
problems, and therefore the base rate fallacy should disappear.
The Experiments
Subjects and method
The empirical core of this paper is a collection of inference problems, like Prob-
lem 1, which were presented to a total of about 1500 Ss. Except for a small number
of undergraduate volunteers, the Ss were predominantly Hebrew University appli-
cants who answered the questions in the context of their university entrance exams,
and thus presumably were highly motivated to do their best. Ss usually received only
one problem, but occasionally two or three. When Ss received more than one prob-
lem, these were chosen to be quite different from each other, so as to minimize
interference. The total number of responses analyzed approaches 3000. The Ss
were all high school graduates, mostly 18-25 years old, and of both sexes. The Ss
were not instructed to work quickly, but questionnaires were retrieved after about
four minutes (per question), and those who had not answered by then were simply
discarded. This was ample time for almost all of the Ss.
In all, about 45 problems were employed (see Bar-Hillel 1975), only a small
subset of which will be presented in detail. The rest will be only briefly sketched.
220 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
20
15
10
5
ll
0 20 40 60 60 100
Median
Mode
Fig. 1. Distribution of responses to the Cab Problem. In this figure, as in those to follow, the
arrow indicates the correct Bayesian estimate; the median and modal responses are also shown.
The Cab Problem
Problem I, with which this paper opened, serves as a point of departure for much
of the discussion of the base-rate fallacy. Note that it offers a coincidental base rate
and not-perfectly-reliable identifying information.
Fig. 1 presents the distribution of estimates that 52 Ss gave to this problem.2
Thirty-six percent of these Ss based their estimate on the witness’ credibility alone
(80%), ignoring the base rate altogether. Eighty percent was also the median esti-
mate. Only about 10% of the Ss gave estimates that even roughly approximated the
normative Bayesian estimate of 41%.
The same pattern of results was obtained with the whole spectrum of variations
described in the introductory section. The modal answer, which invariably matched
the witness’ diagnosticity, was given by up to 70% of the Ss.
The Cab Problem results, taken alone, would not necessarily have justified the
name ‘base-rate fallacy’, since another error, unrelated to that of overlooking perti-
nent information, could account for them. Suppose, for instance, that in spite of the
careful wording of the problem, Ss confuse the information that “the witness (was)
able to identify each color correctly about 80% of the time”, formally coded as
P(g/G) = P(b/B) = 80%, with “80% of each of the witness’ color identifications
turn out to be correct”, formally coded as P(G/g) = P(B/b) = 80%. Such an inter-
pretation, to be sure, is unwarranted, not merely by the formulation of the problem,
but also because a very bizarre perceptual mechanism would have to be assumed to
produce P(G/g) = P(B/b) = 80% in arbitrary base-rate conditions, given that we take
2 Ninety-five additional subjects were given this problem by Kahneman and Tversky (1972) and
by Lyon and Slavic (1976), with similar results.
222 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
Problem 2: A study was done on causes of suicide among young adults (aged
25 to 35). It was found that the percentage of suicides is three times larger
among single people than among married people. In this age group, 80% are
married and 20% are single. Of 100 cases of suicide among people aged 25 to
35, how many would you estimate were single?
The distribution of estimates that 37 Ss gave to Problem 2 is shown in fig. 2.
Forty-three percent of the Ss gave a response (75%) based on the indicant informa-
tion alone (ie., 3: l), completely ignoring the fact that more young adults are mar-
ried than single. The median response was also 75%.
A Bayesian estimate based on the given data gives the answer as 43% (i.e.,
L! = O&X 3 = t), but only six responses fell between 30% and 50%.
To test for robustness, Problem 2 was subjected to a host of variations. These
included (a) not mentioning the base rates explicitly within the problem (presum-
ably all our Ss knew that a majority of adults aged 25 to 35 are married); (b) asking
Ss to supply, along with their answers, estimates of the missing, but necessary, base
rate (the results of these estimates confirmed the assumption in [aj4): (c) varying
the base rates (using the values 50%, lo%, and 5%) - this was done, respectively,
by partitioning the population into males VS. females, only children VS. siblings, and
people with a known history of depression VS. ‘normal’ people; (d) varying the like-
lihood ratio (to 9); (e) providing the purported suicide rates themselves (5% and
15% of deaths) rather than just their likelihood ratios; (f) inverting the indicator to
support rather than contradict the base-rate implication;(g) asking about the chances
than an individual suicide was single, rather than for the number of singles among
100 suicides; and (h) changing the contents of the cover story from suicide rates to
dropout rates among male and female students in the Hebrew University Medical
School.
The 14 problems produced by these variations did not form a factorial design,
as different problems incorporated different numbers of the listed variations. In all,
they were presented to some 600 Ss. The modal response was 75% throughout.’ It
was given by between 25% and 80% of the respondents. The median response was
75% in ten of the problems and 70% in three. The Suicide Problem, therefore,
replicated the results obtained in the Cab Problem, without being subject to the
same criticism.
Actually, if the Suicide Problem results were taken alone, they too could be
explained without resort to the base-rate fallacy. Just read “the number of suicides
4 According to the Israel Bureau of Statistics, 85% of the 25-35 age group in Israel (where this
study was run) are married. However, since subjects estimate this proportion as 80% (median
and modal response of 32 Ss, with an interquutile range of 70-80%), I used a proportion con-
forming to their guess.
Except in the one problem where the likelihood ratio was 9. There the median response was
90%, and the mode 80%.
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 221
percepts to be caused by external events and not vice versa3 Nevertheless, Ss may
confuse the two, and if so, their error is not that of overlooking pertinent informa-
tion. If you believe you are told that P(G/g) = 8095, i.e., that when the witness says
“the cab was Green” (or Blue, for that matter), he stands an 80% chance of being
correct, then you are quite right in giving 80% as your answer, irrespective of what
the base-rate conditions are. Many of the contexts in which the base-rate fallacy
has been manifested are candidates for the same criticism, since they resemble the
Cab Problem in offering indicant information which seems to be actually making
your judgment for you, albeit with less than perfect reliability.
We need not concern ourselves overly with this point, however, since the base-
rate fallacy is readily evident in a different type of problem, where no identifying
information exists. Such is the following problem.
The Suicide Problem
Formally, the following problem resembles Problem 1. It is a Bayesian inference
problem, with a prior derived from a base rate. However, the indicant information
here is also presented actuarially, in the form of a likelihood ratio of some property
in two population subclasses.
20
g 15
f
z
I; 10
5
0 20 40 60
,
1
60 100
Fig. 2. Distribution of responses to the Suicide Problem, Problem 2.
Only under conditions of uniform base rates does the claim that each color has an equal chance
of being identified properly entail the claim that each color attribution has an equal chance of
turning out to be correct. It is for this reason, of course, that the diagnosticity of indicators
is typically stated in terms of their Hit and Correct-reject rates, rather than in terms of their
efficiency, as Meehl and Rosen (1955) would have it. It is theformer,but not thelatter,which,
being a constant feature of the indicator, remains invariant under fluctuating base rates, costs,
etc.
224 hf. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
25
0 20 40 60 60 100
Responses
Fig. 3. Distribution of responses to the Dream Problem, Problem 3.
base rate of dreaming alone. Psychologically speaking, the data seem to tell the
converse story. Never mind the individual base rate for dreaming in the overall
population. Mrs. X is married, hence we should look at the statistics of married
couples, which tell us that when people marry, they tend to find similarly classi-
fied mates. For a married target case, therefore, the base rate for matching among
couples should predominate. That the results support this analysis can be seen in
fig. 3.
Why do the matching statistics loom as more relevant to the judgment than the
dreaming statistics? Causality does not seem to be the reason, since one can as readily
derive from the dreaming statistics the implication that people tend to dream, as
from the matching statistics the implication that they tend to match their spouses.
But married people form a subset of the entire adult population. Therefore, statis-
tics about that group are more specifically related to Mr. X than the overall popula-
tion statistics. It is this specificity that enhances the relevance of the matching sta-
tistics over the dreaming statistics.
To demonstrate more firmly that the matching statistics prevail for reasons of
specificity and not of causality, consider Problem 3’:
Problem 3’: Studies of dreaming have shown that 80% of people of both sexes
report that they dream, if only occassionally, whereas 20% claim they do not
remember ever dreaming. Accordingly, people are classified by dream investiga-
tors as ‘Dreamers’ or ‘Nondreamers’. With respect to dreaming, mating is com-
pletely random.
Mrs. X is a Nondreamer.
What do you think are the chances that her husband is also a Nondreamer?
This formulation clearly removes any causal link between the classification of
husband and wife. Some other formulations used in variations on Problem 3’ were:
“The classification of husband and wife was found to be independent” and “the
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 223
is three times larger among single people than among married people” for “the
percentage .“. Note, however, that the same response pattern was obtained when
the suicide percentages were stated explicitly. In general, ‘carelessness’ explanations
of the base-rate fallacy should not be pushed too far unless the same, or highly sim-
ilar, confusions can account for all the results. Finding an ad hoc reformulation
for each type of problem is too much like finding a question to fit the answer. The
base-rate fallacy, I believe, is not a side effect of some other error, but an error
unto itself.
How can the Suicide Problem results be explained using the relevance notion?
What makes one base rate dominate another? The fact that some property (e.g.,
suicide rate) is distributed differently in two population subclasses (e.g., single vs.
married) is a powerful invitation, psychologically, for a causal interpretation. The
differential suicide rates readily suggest that marital status is causally linked to
suicide; via loneliness, perhaps, if the rate is given as higher for singles; via the frus-
trations of married life, perhaps, if it is given as higher for marrieds. Once a causal
link is established between one item of information and the judged outcome, its
relevance is enhanced, and it overrides the base rate seen as merely statistical (vis-ci-
vis the judged outcome).
The Dream Problem
Problem 2 generalized the base rate fallacy from identifying information to
actuarial indicant information. The following problem generalizes it outside a Baye-
sian framework altogether.
Problem 3: Studies of dreaming have shown that 80% of adults of both sexes
report that they dream, if only occassionally, whereas 20% claim they do not
remember ever dreaming. Accordingly, people’are classified by dream investigators
as ‘Dreamers’ or ‘Nondreamers’. In close to 70% of all married couples, husband
and wife share the same classification, i.e., both are Dreamers or both are Non-
dreamers, whereas slightly more than 30% of couples are made up of one Dreamer
and one Nondreamer.
Mrs. X is a Nondreamer.
What do you think are the chances that her husband is also a Nondreamer?
In this problem two base rates are offered, that of dreaming for individuals, and
that of matching for married couples. The target case is a married individual, so both
base rates apply to him. Ostensibly, the two items play analogous roles. Undoubt-
edly, if either were given alone, it would have determined the majority of responses.
In fact, however, there is a marked asymmetry between the two items, from both a
formal and a psychological point of view. Formally speaking, only the rate of dream-
ing is relevant to the judgment requested, since the data tell us that mating is ran-
dom. We expect 64% of couples (0.80X 0.80) to be both Dreamers, and 4% (0.20 X
0.20) to be both Nondreamers, for a total of 68% (i.e., ‘close to 70%‘). Either of
the base rates given is equivalent to random mating, given the other base rate. Thus,
a spouse’s classification is entirely irrelevant - assessments should be based on the
226 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
The appearance of identical modal estimates in the first two rows and in the
last two rows reflects insensitivity to priors, i.e., the base-rate fallacy, since answers
vary with the sample composition, but not with the urn population. These problems
show once more that relevance can be mediated by more than just causality. Here
the sample information overrides the urn-population information. It seems strained,
at least, to say that the sample composition is causally related to the distribution of
beads in the urns, but not to the distribution of the urns themselves. It is, after all,
the result of a two-step sampling procedure. A case can be made, however, for the
greater relevance of within-urn composition over between-urn composition via
specificity. We (the Ss) already know what the sample looks like, so the procedure
that generated it is irrelevant. What needs to be done is to look at the sample com-
position and see what it tells us about its origin (i.e., how well it represents the dif-
ferent possible urns).
In the four problems presented above I have argued that people attended to one
item of information and disregarded the other because the latter seemed less rele-
vant. To test this directly, these four problems were given to Ss who were asked
which of the two items presented in each problem they “think is more relevant for
guessing” the target case class membership: the base rate (e.g., “the proportion of
Blue VS. Green cabs”), the indicant information (e.g., “the suicide rate among single
VS. among married people”), or both equally. Sixty-eight percent of 94 Ss picked
the indicator as more relevant, and only 12% judged both items equally relevant.
A revised Cab Problem
To conclude this set of problems in which the base rate fallacy is manifested, I
now present a modified version of the original Cab Problem. Here the witness is
replaced by actuarial, but more specific, information. As we expect, it dominates
the more general base rate. The novelty here is in the fact that this is the first
problem presented in which the base rate ‘fallacy’ is no fallacy: it is quite appro-
priate to disregard the first base rate.
Problem 5: Two cab companies operate in a given city, the Blue and the Green
(according to the color of cab they run). Eighty-five percent of the cabs in the
city are Blue, and the remaining 15% are Green.
A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.
The police investigation discovered that in the neighborhood in which the
accident occurred, which is nearer to the Green Cab company headquarters than
to the Blue Cab company, 80% of all taxis are Green, and 20% are Blue.
What, do you think, are the chances that the errant cab was green?
Of 37 Ss who received this problem, almost 60% gave an estimate of 80%. The
overall pattern of results resembles that obtained in the different variations of the
previous problems. This may give us some insight into what people are doing in
those problems. The relevance notion accounts only for the responses of the median
and modal S, so some of the variance in the Ss’ responses remains unexplained. The
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 225
spouse’s classification was found to have no predictive validity”. In some cases, the
cover story was also changed, to couples of mother-daughter (rather than husband-
wife). A total of 270 Ss saw some version of Problem 3’. The median response was
always 50%. The modal response was 50% in five questions, and 20% in the two
others. Note that 50% would have been a reasonable answer if no base-rate were
given. But in the presence of the base-rate it means that the Ss were basing their
answers on totally worthless information.
Urn and Beads Problem
The next family of problems was modeled after Edwards (1968). For many
years, researchers working within the Bayesian approach to information integra-
tion were content to conclude that “the subjects’ revision rule is essentially Bayes’
Theorem” (Beach 1966: 6; see also Edwards 1968; Peterson and Beach 1967;
Schum and Martin 1968). The advent of Kahneman and Tversky’s judgmental-
heuristics approach spelled the demise of the Bayesian approach. The following
urn-and-beads problem again shows that people here are not poor Bayesians, but
rather non-Bayesians.
Problem 4: Imagine ten urns full of red and blue beads. Eight of these urns con-
tain a majority of blue beads, and will be referred to hereafter as the Blue urns.
The other two urns contain a majority of red beads, and will be referred to
hereafter as the Red urns. The proportion of the majority color in each urn is
75%. Suppose someone first selects an urn on a random basis, and then blindly
draws four beads from the urn. Three of the beads turn out to be blue, and one
red.
What do you think is the probability that the beads were drawn from a Blue
urn?
In other versions of this question, the number of Blue urns was given as five out
of the total ten, and/or the number of blue beads in the sample was given as one.
Results are presented in table 1.
Table 1
Summary of Urn and Beads Problem.
Number
Problem description
Urns Sample
Normative
Bayesian
assessment
Results
Modal
assessment
Freq. of
modal
assessment No. of
subjects
1 8B 2R 3B 1R 0.97B 0.75B 14 54
2 5B 5R 3B 1R 0.90B 0.75B 20 50
3 8B 2R 1B 3R 0.31B 0.25B 13 53
4 5B 5R 1B 3R O.lOB 0.25B 6 20
228 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
0 20 40 60 60 100
RSSpXlSSS
Fig. 4. Distribution of responses to the Intercom Problem, Problem 7.
by lowering the relevance of the indicant information. Only with great contrivance
can this information be viewed as more causal than the base rate, and it certainly
isn’t more specific.
Problem 7: Two cab companies operate in a given city, the Blue and the Green
(according to the color of cab they run). Eighty-five percent of the cabs in the
city are Blue, and 15% are Green. A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident
at night, in which a pedestrian was run down. The wounded pedestrian later tes-
tified that though he did not see the color of the cab due to the bad visibility
conditions that night, he remembers hearing the sound of an intercom coming
through the cab window. The police investigation discovered that intercoms
are installed in 80% of the Green cabs, and in 20% of the Blue cabs.
What do you think are the chances that the errant cab was Green?
Fig. 4 shows the distribution of 35 S’s’ responses to this problem. The attempt
to lower the relevance of the indicant information was apparently successful, for
the indicant information did not dominate the base rates. The median response is
48%, close to the correct 41%. These results differ from earlier ones not only in
the median response, but in the entire distribution. It is flatter, ‘noisier’, suggesting
that there is no prevailing strategy of integration favored by a large proportion of
the Ss. A similar pattern of results emerged in a second attempt (not reproduced
here) to construct a problem along the same lines as Problem 7, i.e., with indicant
information which could hardly be judged more relevant to the outcome than was
the overall base rate.6 The response distribution of 23 Ss had a median of 42%,
and no unique mode.
A second strategy for eliminating the base rate fallacy lies in enhancing the per-
ceived relevance of base rates to make them seem as relevant as indicant informa-
tion typically is. This was attempted in Problem 8, by making the base rates both
causally related to the judged outcome, and more specific:
Problem 8: A large water-pumping facility is operated simultaneously by two
giant motors. The motors are virtually identical (in terms of model, age, etc.),
6 In this problem a bookstore was described, with 85% English books and 15% Hebrew ones.
Eighty percent of Hebrew books and 20% of English ones are hard cover, the rest soft cover.
hf. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 221
amount of unexplained variance is not, however, much greater there than in Problem
5, where all responses, from both a normative and psychological viewpoint, should
have converged on 80%. I take this as further evidence that people just don’t know
when specific information should replace more general information, and when it
should only modify it.
Integration of equally relevant items
It might seem at this point that people’s failure to integrate base-rate informa-
tion into their judgments reflects some inherent inability to integrate uncertainties
from two different sources. According to the proposed account, however, such
‘inability’ should only be apparent when two items are not equally relevant for
some judgment. Let us see what happens when two pieces of information are
equally relevant.
One obvious way of making two items appear equally relevant lies in letting them
play entirely symmetrical roles in a problem. Such are the roles of the two witnesses
in the following problem.
Problem 6: Two cab companies operate in a given city, the Blue and the Green
(according to the color of cab they run). Eighty-five percent of the cabs in the
city are Blue, and the remaining 15% are Green.
A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.
There were two witnesses to the accident. One claimed that the errant cab
had been Green, and the other claimed that it had been Blue. The court tested
the witnesses’ ability to distinguish between Blue and Green cabs under night-
time visibility conditions. It found the first witness (Green) able to identify the
correct color about 80% of the time, confusing it with the other color 20% of
the time; the second witness (Blue) identified each color correctly 70% of the
time, and erred about 30% of the time.
What do you think are the chances that the errant cab was Green, as the first
witness claimed?
Of 27 Ss responding to Problem 6, 14 gave an assessment of 55% (midway
between the assessments implied by each witness alone, disregarding base rates),
and all but one gave assessments between 50% and 60%.
In another problem (not reproduced here) both witnesses identified the cab as
Green. Twenty-four of the 29 Ss answering that problem gave an assessment of
75% - again, midway between the two witness-based assessments. While these Ss
were still disregarding the base rate, they appear to have been averaging the prob-
abilistic implications of the two testimonies. Averaging probabilities is, of course,
not the proper way to calculate the joint impact of the two independent testi-
monies. But it does clearly indicate that both sources are being considered.
If making two items of information appear equally relevant ensures that they
will both be somehow integrated judgmentally, then all one needs to do to over-
come the base-rate fallacy in a Bayesian inference problem is to find a way of
equating the relevance of base rates and indicant information. Problem 7 does this
230 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
Fig. 5. Distribution of responses to the Motor Problem, Problem 8.
was more relevant for guessing the target case’s class membership. Almost 40% of
50 Ss indicated that they thought both were equally likely, and the rest were just
about equally divided between base rates and indicators. Contrast this with the
12% who thought both items were equally likely in Problems 1 to 4, and 68% who
marked the indicators as more relevant (x2
2df = 15.74, p < 0.001).
Discussion
This study presented evidence for an explanation of the base-rate
fallacy based on a notion of relevance: people integrate two items of
information only if both seem to them equally relevant. Otherwise,
high relevance information renders low relevance information irrelevant.
One item of information is more relevant to a judged case than another
if it somehow pertains to it more specifically. Two means whereby this
can be achieved were pointed out: (1) The dominating information
may refer to a set smaller than the overall population to which the dom-
inated item refers, but of which the judged case is nevertheless a mem-
ber. (2) The dominating information may be causally linked to the
judged outcome, in the absence of such a link on behalf of the domi-
nated information. This enhances relevance because it is an indirect way
of making general information relate more specifically to individual
cases. This proposal goes beyond the “causal schema” offered by
Tversky and Kahneman (1980) by showing causality to be a special case
of a more general notion, that of relevance.
My approach to enhancing relevance has been to manipulate the con-
tents of problems subjects face in ways which I believe affect their judg-
ment of relevance, which I shall call interrd relevance. An alternative
way is to make people aware of the relevance of some item externally,
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 229
except that a long history of breakdowns in the facility has shown that one
motor, call it A, was responsible for 85% of the breakdowns, whereas the other,
B, caused 15% of the breakdowns only.
To mend a motor, it must be idled and taken apart, an expensive and drawn
out affair. Therefore, several tests are usually done to get some prior notion of
which motor to tackle. One of these tests employs a mechanical device which
operates, roughly, by pointing at the motor whose magnetic field is weaker. In
4 cases out of 5, a faulty motor creates a weaker field, but in 1 case out of 5,
this effect may be accidentally caused.
Suppose a breakdown has just occurred. The device is pointed at motor B.
What do you think are the chances that motor B is responsible for this break-
down?
As in the Cab Problem 1 and other instances of imperfect diagnosis, we have here
a device that singles out a specific motor as the likely cause of a mechanical failure,
i.e., identifying information. However, the present base rate is readily interpreted as
an individual attribute of the two motors, implying that one motor, A, is in worse
shape than the other. Thus, both the base rate and the indicator single out, albeit
probabilistically, a specific suspect.
Apparently Ss indeed took both items to be equally relevant, since the pattern
of results given by 39 Ss to this question is similar to that obtained in Problem 7.
Over 60% of the Ss gave assessments interpretable as weighted averages of the two
items of information (i.e., they lie strictly between 15% and SO%, the assessments
corresponding to the individual items), and the median of the distribution is at
40%, remarkably close to the correct Bayesian posterior of 41%.
Problem 8 was one of five problems in which base rates were made more rele-
vant. They all used the same parameters and format of presentation, and differed
in cover story only.’ They, as well as Problem 7 and its one variant, were all charac-
terized by the following results: the median always lay strictly between 15% and
80% (ranging from 38% to 75%, with three of the medians within 3 percentage
points of 41%, the normative answer). The mode, if there was a unique one, was
shared in one case by 40% of the Ss (but it was 15%, not 80%), and otherwise was
shared by less than 30% of the Ss.
A final piece of evidence that shows that Problems 7 and 8 were successful in
making base rates and indicators appear equally relevant lies in the responses given
by Ss who were asked to indicate which of the two items of information in them
7 I have not reproduced them for space considerations, but they are available upon request. In
some of them it seems reasonabie to assert that the base rates were specific, but not causal. In
Kahneman and Tversky’s Problem 10 (1980), the base rate was causal but not specific. In the
present Problem 8 it was probably both. In all of them, the indicant information was of the
identifying kind. Kahneman and Tversky (1980) also report the results of a variant of the
Suicide Problem where both items of information are base rates, and both are causally linked
to the outcome: the overall base rate is the proportion of male vs. female adolescents among
attempted suicides, and the indicant information is the differential rates of successful attempts
in the two sexes (Problem 12).
M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy 231
for example, by letting the same subject make judgments on a series of
problems which differ only in the value of some item of information.
Such a strategy enhances the salience of this information, and thus
possibly makes it more externally relevant. This approach was utilized
with modest success by Fischhoff et al. (1979); I view their results as
additional support for the notion of relevance.
The empirical core of the study consisted of a series of several prob-
lem-types, each representing a larger family of problems that were used
in the course of the study. The problems (a) established the robustness
of the base-rate fallacy, by replicating results over many variations; (b)
provided counter examples to the accuracy or generality of some pos-
sible accounts of the fallacy; and (c) directly confirmed some implica-
tions derived from the account herewith put forth, most significantly
that base rates can be made to influence subjective probability judg-
ments.
The problems studied can be roughly divided into two groups. The
first group contains problem types in which one item was more relevant,
and therefore dominated another (1, 2, 3, 3’, 4, 5, and their variants).
These problems are characterized by a relatively high degree of consen-
sus among subjects, with responses converging on the response implied
by the more relevant item. The problems in the second group, on the
other hand (6, 7, 8), yielded flatter, less elegant distributions, with two
or more modes (Problem 6 is an exception). They are more aptly
described as having no apparent dominance rather than as problems in
which a well-defined integration policy emerged. In this latter group,
both items were designed to appear equally relevant to subjects, and
the base-rate fallacy was no longer in evidence.
Several questions are raised by the problems and their results: what
happens when a general but causal base rate is pitted against more spe-
cific but non-causal information? is it possible to reverse the base-rate
fallacy - i.e., given a causal base rate and a coincidental indicator, will
the base rate systematically dominate the indicant information? when
people are being influenced by both items, how do they go about inte-
grating? how can greater consensus be achieved here? greater validity?
There are some formal challenges that are posed by these problems
as well: how should uncertainties from more than one source be com-
bined? The Bayesian model offers an answer in some cases, but surely
not all. Even the two witness problem cannot be dealt with by Bayes’
Theorem without an assumption of conditional independence of the
232 M. Bar-Hillel/Base-rate fallacy
witnesses. How should, for example, the rates of dreaming in two sets
(say among the elderly, and among females) be combined to assess the
rate of dreaming in their intersection (i.e., an elderly woman)? These
problems, empirical and formal, call for further research.
I believe that this study deepens our understanding of the causes of
the base-rate fallacy, and describes conditions under which it will not
be manifest. It is important to remember, however, that in the typical
Bayesian reasoning contexts which people encounter in daily life, there
is every reason to expect the fallacy to operate. Psychologists are familiar
with the fact that as information is added in a probabilistic inference
task, confidence increases rapidly, whereas accuracy increases only
minimally, if at all (Oskamp 1965). The base-rate fallacy is a demonstra-
tion of how new information may actually lead to a decline in predictive
performance, by suppressing existing information of possibly greater
predictive validity. In the mind of the human judge, more is not always
superior to less.
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Associates.
... Of course, underestimates of personal risk relative to risk assessments waged about others' likely future experiences are not unique to cybersecurity. Individuals disregard diagnostic base rates and rely instead on idiosyncratic personal experiences, motivations, and desires in multiple domains [6]. Why might this be? ...
... American university students reported that their ability to use the internet to download movies, find a job or an apartment, and keep in touch with family and friends was much higher than others' ability [14]. If an individual believes that they are more likely than others to experience positive events in the future, it follows that they simultaneously believe themselves to be invulnerable to future negative life events relative to other people [6]. Across multiple domains, studies have reported that, on average, 80% of the general public displays this form of self-enhancement [15]. ...
... It is the case that personal risk assessments generally underappreciate the severity of possible future threats. For example, individuals underestimate the odds of experiencing asthma, food poisoning, skin cancer, car accidents, or muggings compared to predictions they make about others