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Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Manuscript Draft

Manuscript Number: BBS-D-10-00265R2

Title: Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment? On the explanatory status and theoretical

contributions of Bayesian models of cognition

Article Type: Target Article

Keywords: Bayesian modeling; cognitive processing; levels of analysis; rational analysis;

representation

Abstract: The prominence of Bayesian modeling of cognition has increased recently largely because of

mathematical advances in specifying and deriving predictions from complex probabilistic models.

Much of this research aims to demonstrate that cognitive behavior can be explained from rational

principles alone, without recourse to psychological or neurological processes and representations. We

note commonalities between this rational approach and other movements in psychology -namely,

behaviorism and evolutionary psychology- that set aside mechanistic explanations or make use of

optimality assumptions. Through these comparisons, we identify a number of challenges that limit the

rational program's potential contribution to psychological theory. Specifically, rational Bayesian

models are significantly unconstrained, both because they are uninformed by a wide range of process-

level data and because their assumptions about the environment are generally not grounded in

empirical measurement. The psychological implications of most Bayesian models are also unclear.

Bayesian inference itself is conceptually trivial, but strong assumptions are often embedded in the

hypothesis sets and the approximation algorithms used to derive model predictions, without a clear

delineation between psychological commitments and implementational details. Comparing multiple

Bayesian models of the same task is rare, as is the realization that many Bayesian models recapitulate

existing (mechanistic level) theories. Despite the expressive power of current Bayesian models, we

argue they must be developed in conjunction with mechanistic considerations to offer substantive

explanations of cognition. We lay out several means for such an integration that take into account the

representations on which Bayesian inference operates, as well as the algorithms and heuristics that

carry it out. We argue this unification will better facilitate lasting contributions to psychological theory,

avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued previous theoretical movements.

1

To be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press)

© Cambridge University Press 2011

Below is the copyedited final draft of a BBS target article that has been accepted for publication.

This updated preprint has been prepared for formally invited commentators. Please DO NOT

write a commentary unless you have been formally invited.

Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment? On the explanatory

status and theoretical contributions of Bayesian models of cognition

Matt Jones

Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309

mcj@colorado.edu

http://matt.colorado.edu

Bradley C. Love

Dept. of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712

brad_love@mail.utexas.edu

http://love.psy.utexas.edu

Abstract: The prominence of Bayesian modeling of cognition has increased recently largely

because of mathematical advances in specifying and deriving predictions from complex

probabilistic models. Much of this research aims to demonstrate that cognitive behavior can

be explained from rational principles alone, without recourse to psychological or neurological

processes and representations. We note commonalities between this rational approach and

other movements in psychology – namely, behaviorism and evolutionary psychology – that

set aside mechanistic explanations or make use of optimality assumptions. Through these

comparisons, we identify a number of challenges that limit the rational program’s potential

contribution to psychological theory. Specifically, rational Bayesian models are significantly

unconstrained, both because they are uninformed by a wide range of process-level data and

because their assumptions about the environment are generally not grounded in empirical

measurement. The psychological implications of most Bayesian models are also unclear.

Bayesian inference itself is conceptually trivial, but strong assumptions are often embedded

in the hypothesis sets and the approximation algorithms used to derive model predictions,

without a clear delineation between psychological commitments and implementational

details. Comparing multiple Bayesian models of the same task is rare, as is the realization

that many Bayesian models recapitulate existing (mechanistic level) theories. Despite the

expressive power of current Bayesian models, we argue they must be developed in

conjunction with mechanistic considerations to offer substantive explanations of cognition.

We lay out several means for such an integration that take into account the representations on

which Bayesian inference operates, as well as the algorithms and heuristics that carry it out.

We argue this unification will better facilitate lasting contributions to psychological theory,

avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued previous theoretical movements.

Keywords: Bayesian modeling; cognitive processing; levels of analysis; rational analysis;

representation

*Target Article

Click here to download Target Article: M_Jones-BBS-D-10-00265_Copyedited_Final_Version.pdf

2

Advances in science are due not only to empirical discoveries and theoretical progress,

but also to development of new formal frameworks. Innovations in mathematics or

related fields can lead to a new class of models that enables researchers to articulate more

sophisticated theories and to address more complex empirical problems than previously

possible. This often leads to a rush of new research and a general excitement in the field.

For example in physics, the development of tensor calculus on differential

manifolds (Ricci & Levi-Civita 1900) provided the mathematical foundation for

formalizing the general theory of relativity (Einstein 1916). This formalism led to

quantitative predictions that enabled experimental verification of the theory (e.g., Dyson

et al. 1920). More recent mathematical advances have played key roles in the

development of string theory (a potential unification of general relativity and quantum

mechanics), but in this case the mathematical framework, although elegant, has yet to

make new testable predictions (Smolin 2006; Woit 2006). Therefore, it is difficult to

evaluate whether string theory represents true theoretical progress.

In the behavioral sciences, we are generally in the more fortunate position of

being able to conduct the key experiments. However, there is still a danger of confusing

technical advances with theoretical progress, and the allure of the former can lead to the

neglect of the latter. As the new framework develops, it is critical to keep the research

tied to certain basic questions such as, What theoretical issues are at stake? What are the

core assumptions of the approach? What general predictions does it make? What is being

explained and what is the explanation? How do the explanations it provides relate,

logically, to those of existing approaches? What is the domain of inquiry, and what

questions are outside its scope? This grounding is necessary for disciplined growth of the

field. Otherwise, there is a tendency to focus primarily on generating existence proofs of

what the computational framework can achieve. This comes at the expense of real

theoretical progress, in terms of deciding among competing explanations for empirical

phenomena or relating those explanations to existing proposals. By overemphasizing

computational power, we run the risk of producing a poorly grounded body of work that

is prone to collapse under more careful scrutiny.

This article explores these issues in connection with Bayesian modeling of

cognition. Bayesian methods have progressed tremendously in recent years, due largely

3

to mathematical advances in probability and estimation theory (Chater et al. 2006). These

advances have enabled theorists to express and derive predictions from far more

sophisticated models than previously possible. These models have generated excitement

for at least three reasons: First, they offer a new interpretation of the goals of cognitive

systems, in terms of inductive probabilistic inference, which has revived attempts at

rational explanation of human behavior (Oaksford & Chater 2007). Second, this rational

framing can make the assumptions of Bayesian models more transparent than in

mechanistically oriented models. Third, Bayesian models may have the potential to

explain some of the most complex aspects of human cognition, such as language

acquisition or reasoning under uncertainty, where structured information and incomplete

knowledge combine in a way that has defied previous approaches (e.g., Kemp &

Tenenbaum 2008).

Despite this promise, there is a danger that much of the research within the

Bayesian program is getting ahead of itself by placing too much emphasis on

mathematical and computational power at the expense of theoretical development. In

particular, the primary goal of much Bayesian cognitive modeling has been to

demonstrate that human behavior in some task is rational with respect to a particular

choice of Bayesian model. We refer to this school of thought as Bayesian

Fundamentalism, because it strictly adheres to the tenet that human behavior can be

explained through rational analysis – once the correct probabilistic interpretation of the

task environment has been identified – without recourse to process, representation,

resource limitations, or physiological or developmental data. Although a strong case has

been made that probabilistic inference is the appropriate framework for normative

accounts of cognition (Oaksford & Chater 2007), the fundamentalist approach primarily

aims to reinforce this position, without moving on to more substantive theoretical

development or integration with other branches of cognitive science.

We see two significant disadvantages to the fundamentalist approach. First, the

restriction to computation-level accounts (cf. Marr 1982) severely limits contact with

process-level theory and data. Rational approaches attempt to explain why cognition

produces the patterns of behavior that is does, but they offer no insight into how

cognition is carried out. Our argument is not merely that rational theories are limited in

4

what they can explain (this applies to all modes of explanation), but that a complete

theory of cognition must consider both rational and mechanistic explanations as well as

their interdependencies, rather than treating them as competitors. Second, the focus on

existence proofs obfuscates that there are generally multiple rational theories of any given

task that correspond to different assumptions about the environment and the learner’s

goals. Consequently, there is insufficient acknowledgement of these assumptions and

their critical roles in determining model predictions. It is extremely rare to find a

comparison among alternative Bayesian models of the same task to determine which is

most consistent with empirical data (for a related analysis of the philosophical literature,

see Fitelson 1999). Likewise, there is little recognition when the critical assumptions of a

Bayesian model logically overlap closely with those of other theories, so that the

Bayesian model is expressing essentially the same explanation, just couched in a different

framework.

The primary aim of this article is to contrast Bayesian Fundamentalism with other

Bayesian research that explicitly compares competing rational accounts and that

considers seriously the interplay between rational and mechanistic levels of explanation.

We call this the Enlightened Bayesian approach because it goes beyond the dogma of

pure rational analysis and actively attempts to integrate with other avenues of inquiry in

cognitive science. A critical distinction between Bayesian Fundamentalism and Bayesian

Enlightenment is that the latter considers the elements of a Bayesian model as claims

regarding psychological process and representation, rather than mathematical

conveniences made by the modeler for the purpose of deriving computational-level

predictions. Bayesian Enlightenment thus treats Bayesian models as making both rational

and mechanistic commitments, and it takes as a goal the joint evaluation of both. Our aim

is to initiate a discussion of the distinctions and relative merits of Bayesian

Fundamentalism and Bayesian Enlightenment so that future research can focus effort in

the directions most likely to lead to real theoretical progress.

Before commencing, we must distinguish a third use of Bayesian methods in the

cognitive and other sciences, which we refer to as Agnostic Bayes. Agnostic Bayesian

research is concerned with inferential methods for deciding among scientific models

based on empirical data (e.g., Pitt et al. 2002; Schwarz 1978). This line of research has

5

developed powerful tools for data analysis, but as with other such tools (e.g., analysis of

variance, factor analysis), they are not intended as models of cognition itself. Because it

has no position on whether the Bayesian framework is useful for describing cognition,

Agnostic Bayes is not a topic of the present article. Likewise, research in pure artificial

intelligence that uses Bayesian methods without regard for potential correspondence with

biological systems is beyond the scope of this article. There is no question that the

Bayesian framework, as a formal system, is a powerful scientific tool. The question is

how well that framework parallels the workings of human cognition, and how best to

exploit those parallels to advance cognitive science.

The remainder of this article offers what we believe is an overdue assessment of

the Bayesian approach to cognitive science, including evaluation of its theoretical

content, explanatory status, scope of inquiry, and relationship to other methods. We begin

with a discussion of the role that new metaphors play in science, and cognitive science in

particular, using connectionism as an historical example to illustrate both the potential

and the danger of rapid technical advances within a theoretical framework. An overview

of Bayesian modeling of cognition is then presented that attempts to clarify what is and is

not part of a Bayesian psychological theory. Following this, we offer a critical appraisal

of the Fundamentalist Bayesian movement. We focus on concerns arising from the

limitation to strictly computational-level accounts, by noting commonalities between the

Bayesian program and other movements – namely, Behaviorism and evolutionary

psychology – that have minimized reliance on mechanistic explanations in favor of

explaining behavior directly from the environment. Finally, we outline the Enlightened

Bayesian perspective, give examples of research in this line, and explain how this

approach leads to a more productive use of the Bayesian framework and better

integration with other methods in cognitive science. Like many others, we believe that

Bayes’s mathematical formalism has great potential to aid our understanding of

cognition. Our aim is not to undermine that potential, but to focus it by directing attention

to the important questions that will allow disciplined, principled growth and integration

with existing knowledge. Above all, our hope is that by the time the excitement has faded

over their newfound expressive power, Bayesian theories will be seen to have something

important to say.

6

1. Metaphor in science

Throughout the history of science, metaphor and analogy use has helped researchers gain

insight into difficult problems and make theoretical progress (Gentner et al. 1997;

Nersessian 1986; Thagard 1989). In addition to this evidence gleaned from the personal

journals of prominent scientists, direct field observation of modern molecular biologists

finds that analogies are commonly used in laboratory discussions (Dunbar 1995).

Metaphors and analogies provide powerful means for structuring an abstract or poorly

understood domain in terms of a more familiar domain, such as understanding the atom

in terms of the solar system (Gentner 1983). Drawing these parallels can lead to insights

and be a source of new ideas and hypotheses.

Daugman (2001) reviews historical use of metaphor for describing brain function

and concludes that current technology has consistently determined the dominant choice

of metaphor, from water technology to clocks to engines to computers. Whatever society

at large views as its most powerful device tends to become our means for thinking about

the brain, even in formal scientific settings. Despite the recurring tendency to take the

current metaphor literally, it is important to recognize that any metaphor will eventually

be supplanted. Thus, researchers should be aware of what the current metaphor

contributes to their theories, as well as what the theories’ logical content is once the

metaphor is stripped away.

One danger is mistaking metaphors for theories in themselves. In such cases,

scientific debate shifts focus from comparisons of theories within established frameworks

to comparisons among metaphors. Such debates are certainly useful in guiding future

research efforts, but it must be recognized that questions of metaphor are not scientific

questions (at best, they are metascientific). Metaphors should be viewed as tools or

languages, not theories in themselves. Conflating debates over scientific metaphors with

scientific debates per se can impede theoretical progress in a number of ways. By shifting

focus to the level of competing metaphors, the logical content of specific theories can

become neglected. Research that emphasizes existence proofs, demonstrating that a given

set of phenomena can be explained within a given framework, tends to ignore critical

comparisons among multiple, competing explanations. Likewise, the emphasis on

7

differences in metaphorical frameworks can obscure that theories cast within different

frameworks can have substantial logical overlap. In both ways, basic theory loses out

because too much effort is spent debating the best way to analyze or understand the

scientific subject, at the expense of actually doing the analysis. Only by identifying

competing explanations, and distilling their differences to logical differences in

assumptions and empirically testable contrasting predictions, can true theoretical progress

be made.

1.1. The case of connectionism

One illustration of this process within cognitive science comes from the history of

connectionism. Connectionism was originally founded on a metaphor with telegraph

networks (Daugman 2001) and later on a metaphor between information-processing units

and physical neurons (in reaction to the dominant computer metaphor of the 1970s and

1980s). At multiple points in its development, research in connectionism has been

marked by technical breakthroughs that significantly advanced the computational and

representational power of existing models. These breakthroughs led to excitement that

connectionism was the best framework within which to understand the brain. However,

the initial rushes of research that followed focused primarily on demonstrations of what

could be accomplished within this framework, with little attention to the theoretical

commitments behind the models or whether their operation captured something

fundamental to human or animal cognition. Consequently, when challenges arose to

connectionism’s computational power, the field suffered major setbacks because there

was insufficient theoretical or empirical grounding to fall back on. Only after researchers

began to take connectionism seriously as a mechanistic model, to address what it could

and could not predict, and to consider what constraints it placed on psychological theory,

did the field mature to the point that it was able to make a lasting contribution. This shift

in perspective also helped to clarify the models’ scope, in terms of what questions they

should be expected to answer, and identified shortcomings that in turn spurred further

research.

There are of course numerous perspectives on the historical and current

contributions of connectionism, and it is not the purpose of the present article to debate

8

these views. Instead, we merely summarize two points in the history of connectionism

that illustrate how overemphasis on computational power at the expense of theoretical

development can delay scientific progress.

Early work on artificial neurons by McCulloch and Pitts (1943) and synaptic

learning rules by Hebb (1949) showed how simple, neuronlike units could automatically

learn various prediction tasks. This new framework seemed very promising as a source of

explanations for autonomous, intelligent behavior. A rush of research followed,

culminated by Rosenblatt’s (1962) perceptron model, for which he boldly claimed,

“Given an elementary -perceptron, a stimulus world W, and any classification C(W) for

which a solution exists, . . . an error correction procedure will always yield a solution to

C(W) in finite time.” However, Minsky and Papert (1969) pointed out a fatal flaw:

Perceptrons are provably unable to solve problems requiring nonlinear solutions. This

straightforward, yet unanticipated, critique devastated the connectionist movement such

that there was little research under that framework for the ensuing 15 years.

Connectionism underwent a revival in the mid-1980s, primarily triggered by the

development of back-propagation, a learning algorithm that could be used in multilayer

networks (Rumelhart et al. 1986). This advance dramatically expanded the

representational capacity of connectionist models to the point where they were capable of

approximating any function to arbitrary precision, bolstering hopes that paired with

powerful learning rules any task could be learnable (Hornik et al. 1989). This technical

advance led to a flood of new work as researchers sought to show that neural networks

could reproduce the gamut of psychological phenomena, from perception to decision

making to language processing (e.g., McClelland et al. 1986; Rumelhart et al. 1986).

Unfortunately, the bubble was to burst, once again, following a series of attacks on

connectionism’s representational capabilities and lack of grounding. Connectionist

models were criticized for being incapable of capturing the compositionality and

productivity characteristic of language processing and other cognitive representations

(Fodor & Pylyshyn 1988); for being too opaque (e.g., in the distribution and dynamics of

their weights) to offer insight into their own operation, much less that of the brain

(Smolensky 1988); and for using learning rules that are biologically implausible and

amount to little more than a generalized regression (Crick 1989). The theoretical position

9

underlying connectionism was thus reduced to the vague claim that that the brain can

learn through feedback to predict its environment, without a psychological explanation

being offered of how it does so. As before, once the excitement over computational

power was tempered, the shortage of theoretical substance was exposed.

One reason that research in connectionism suffered such setbacks is that, although

there were undeniably important theoretical contributions made during this time, overall

there was insufficient critical evaluation of the nature and validity of the psychological

claims underlying the approach. During the initial explosions of connectionist research,

not enough effort was spent asking what it would mean for the brain to be fundamentally

governed by distributed representations and tuning of association strengths, or which

possible specific assumptions within this framework were most consistent with the data.

Consequently, when the limitations of the metaphor were brought to light, the field was

not prepared with an adequate answer. On the other hand, pointing out the shortcomings

of the approach (e.g., Marcus 1998; Pinker & Prince 1988) was productive in the long run

because it focused research on the hard problems. Over the last two decades, attempts to

answer these criticisms have led to numerous innovative approaches to computational

problems such as object binding (Hummel & Biederman 1992), structured representation

(Pollack 1990), recurrent dynamics (Elman 1990), and executive control (e.g., Miller &

Cohen 2001; Rougier et al. 2005). At the same time, integration with knowledge of

anatomy and physiology has led to much more biologically realistic networks capable of

predicting neurological, pharmacological, and lesion data (e.g., Boucher et al. 2007;

Frank et al. 2004). As a result, connectionist modeling of cognition has a much firmer

grounding than before.

1.2. Lessons for the Bayesian program?

This brief historical review serves to illustrate the dangers that can arise when a new line

of research is driven primarily by technical advances and is not subjected to the same

theoretical scrutiny as more mature approaches. We believe such a danger currently

exists in regard to Bayesian models of cognition. Principles of probabilistic inference

have been prevalent in cognitive science at least since the advent of signal detection

theory (Green & Swets 1966). However, Bayesian models have become much more

10

sophisticated in recent years, largely due to mathematical advances in specifying

hierarchical and structured probability distributions (e.g., Engelfriet & Rozenberg 1997;

Griffiths & Ghahramani 2006) and in efficient algorithms for approximate inference over

complex hypothesis spaces (e.g., Doucet et al. 2000; Hastings 1970). Some of the ideas

developed by psychologists have been sufficiently sophisticated that they have fed back

to significantly impact computer science and machine learning (e.g., Thibaux & Jordan

2007). In psychology, these technical developments have enabled application of the

Bayesian approach to a wide range of complex cognitive tasks, including language

processing and acquisition (Chater & Manning 2006), word learning (Xu & Tenenbaum

2007), concept learning (Anderson 1991), causal inference (Griffiths & Tenenbaum

2009), and deductive reasoning (Chater & Oaksford 1999a). There is a growing belief in

the field that the Bayesian framework has the potential to solve many of our most

important open questions, as evidenced by the rapid increase in the number of articles

published on Bayesian models and by optimistic assessments such as, “In the [last]

decade, probabilistic models have flourished . . . [The current wave of researchers] have

considerably extended both the technical possibilities of probabilistic models and their

range of applications in cognitive science” (Chater & Oaksford 2008, p. 25).

One attraction of the Bayesian framework is that it is part of a larger class of

models that make inferences in terms of probabilities. Like connectionist models,

probabilistic models avoid many of the challenges of symbolic models founded on

Boolean logic and classical artificial intelligence (e.g., Newell & Simon 1972). For

example, probabilistic models offer a natural account of non-monotonic reasoning,

avoiding the technical challenges that arise in the development of nonmonotonic logics

(see Gabbay et al. 1994). Oaksford and Chater (2007) make a strong case that

probabilistic models have greater computational power than propositional models, and

that the Bayesian framework is the more appropriate standard for normative analysis of

human behavior than is that of classical logic (but, for an important counterargument, see

Binmore 2009). Unfortunately, most of the literature on Bayesian modeling of cognition

has not moved past these general observations. Much current research falls into what we

have labeled Bayesian Fundamentalism, which emphasizes promotion of the Bayesian

metaphor over tackling genuine theoretical questions. As with early incarnations of

11

connectionism, the Bayesian Fundamentalist movement is primarily driven by the

expressive power – both computational and representational – of its mathematical

framework. Most applications to date have been existence proofs, in that they

demonstrate a Bayesian account is possible without attempting to adjudicate among (or

even acknowledge) the multiple Bayesian models that are generally possible, or to

translate the models into psychological assumptions that can be compared with existing

approaches. Furthermore, amidst the proliferation of Bayesian models for various

psychological phenomena, there has been surprisingly little critical examination of the

theoretical tenets of the Bayesian program as a whole.

Taken as a psychological theory, the Bayesian framework does not have much to

say. Its most unambiguous claim is that much of human behavior can be explained by

appeal to what is rational or optimal. This is an old idea that has been debated for

centuries (e.g., Kant 1787/1961). More importantly, rational explanations for behavior

offer no guidance as to how that behavior is accomplished. As already mentioned, early

connectionist learning rules were subject to the same criticism, but connectionism is

naturally suited for grounding in physical brain mechanisms. The Bayesian framework is

more radical in that, unlike previous brain metaphors grounded in technology and

machines, the Bayesian metaphor is tied to a mathematical ideal and thus eschews

mechanism altogether. This makes Bayesian models more difficult to evaluate. By

locating explanations firmly at the computational level, the Bayesian Fundamentalist

program renders irrelevant many major modes of scientific inquiry, including physiology,

neuroimaging, reaction time, heuristics and biases, and much of cognitive development

(although, as we show in sect. 5, this is not a necessary consequence of the Bayesian

framework itself). All of these considerations suggest it is critical to pin Bayes down, to

bring the Bayesian movement past the demonstration phase and get to the real work of

using Bayesian models in integration with other approaches, to understand the detailed

workings of the mind and brain.

2. Bayesian inference as a psychological model

Bayesian modeling can seem complex to the outsider. The basic claims of Bayesian

modeling can be completely opaque to the non–mathematically inclined. In reality, the

12

presuppositions of Bayesian modeling are fairly simple. In fact, one might wonder what

all the excitement is about once the mystery is removed. Here, by way of toy example,

we shed light on the basic components at the heart of every Bayesian model. The hope is

that this illustration will clarify what the basic claims of the Bayesian program are.

Constructing a Bayesian model involves two steps. The first step is to specify the

set of possibilities for the state of the world, which is referred to as the hypothesis space.

Each hypothesis can be thought of as a candidate prediction by the subject about what

future sensory information will be encountered. However, the term hypothesis should not

be confused with its more traditional use in psychology, connoting explicit testing of

rules or other symbolically represented propositions. In the context of Bayesian

modeling, hypotheses need have nothing to do with explicit reasoning, and indeed the

Bayesian framework makes no commitment whatsoever on this issue. For example, in

Bayesian models of visual processing, hypotheses can correspond to extremely low-level

information, such as the presence of elementary visual features (contours, etc.) at various

locations in the visual field (Geisler et al. 2001). There is also no commitment regarding

where the hypotheses come from. Hypotheses could represent innate biases or

knowledge, or they could have been learned previously by the individual. Thus the

framework has no position on nativist-empiricist debates. Furthermore, hypotheses

representing very different types of information (e.g., a contour in a particular location,

whether or not the image reminds you of your mother, whether the image is symmetrical,

whether it spells a particular word, etc.) are all lumped together in a common hypothesis

space and treated equally by the model. Thus there is no distinction between different

types of representations or knowledge systems within the brain. In general, a hypothesis

is nothing more than a probability distribution. This distribution, referred to as the

likelihood function, simply specifies how likely each possible pattern of observations is

according to the hypothesis in question.

The second step in constructing a Bayesian model is to specify how strongly the

subject believes in each hypothesis before observing data. This initial belief is expressed

as a probability distribution over the hypothesis space and is referred to as the prior

distribution (or prior). The prior can be thought of as an initial bias in favor of some

hypotheses over others, in that it contributes extra votes (as elaborated below) that are

13

independent of any actual data. This decisional bias allows the model’s predictions to be

shifted in any direction the modeler chooses regardless of the subject’s observations. As

we discuss in section 4, the prior can be a strong point of the model if it is derived from

empirical statistics of real environments. However, more commonly the prior is chosen

ad hoc, providing substantial unconstrained flexibility to models that are advocated as

rational and assumption-free.

Together, the hypotheses and the prior fully determine a Bayesian model. The

model’s goal is to decide how strongly to believe in each hypothesis after data have been

observed. This final belief is again expressed as a probability distribution over the

hypothesis space and is referred to as the posterior distribution (or posterior). The

mathematical identity known as Bayes’s Rule is used to combine the prior with the

observed data to compute the posterior. Bayes’s Rule can be expressed in many ways, but

here we explain how it can be viewed as a simple vote-counting model. Specifically,

Bayesian inference is equivalent to tracking evidence for each hypothesis, or votes for

how strongly to believe in each hypothesis. The prior provides the initial evidence counts,

Eprior, which are essentially made-up votes that give some hypotheses a head start over

others before any actual data are observed. When data are observed, each observation

adds to the existing evidence according to how consistent it is with each hypothesis. The

evidence contributed for a hypothesis that predicted the observation will be greater than

the evidence for a hypothesis under which the observation was unlikely. The evidence

contributed by the ith observation, is simply added to the existing evidence to

update each hypothesis’s count. Therefore the final evidence, Eposterior, is nothing more

than a sum of the votes from all of the observations, plus the initial votes from the prior:1

(1)

This sum is computed for every hypothesis, H, in the hypothesis space. The vote totals

determine how strongly the model believes in each hypothesis in the end. Thus any

Bayesian model can be viewed as summing evidence for each hypothesis, with initial

evidence coming from the prior and with additional evidence coming from each new

observation. The final evidence counts are then used in whatever decision procedure is

appropriate for the task, such as determining the most likely hypothesis, predicting the

14

value of some unobserved variable (by weighting each hypothesis by its posterior

probability and averaging their predictions), or choosing an action that maximizes the

expected value of some outcome (again by weighted average over hypotheses). At its

core, this is all there is to Bayesian modeling.

To illustrate these two steps and how inference proceeds in a Bayesian model,

consider the problem of determining whether a fan entering a football stadium is rooting

for the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans or the University of Texas (UT)

Longhorns, based on three simple questions: (1) Do you live by the ocean? (2) Do you

own a cowboy hat? (3) Do you like Mexican food? The first step is to specify the space

of possibilities (i.e., hypothesis space). In this case the hypothesis space consists of two

possibilities: being a fan of either USC or UT. Both of these hypotheses entail

probabilities for the data we could observe, for example, P(ocean | USC) = .8 and

P(ocean | UT) = .3. Once these probabilities are given, the two hypotheses are fully

specified. The second step is to specify the prior. In many applications, there is no

principled way of doing this, but in this example the prior corresponds to the probability

that a randomly selected person will be a USC fan or a UT fan; that is, one’s best guess as

to the overall proportion of USC and UT fans in attendance.

With the model now specified, inference proceeds by starting with the prior and

accumulating evidence as new data are observed. For example, if the football game is

being played in Los Angeles, one might expect that most people are USC fans, and hence

the prior would provide an initial evidence count in favor of USC. If our target person

responded that he lives near the ocean, this observation would add further evidence for

USC relative to UT. The magnitudes of these evidence values will depend on the specific

numbers assumed for the prior and for the likelihood function for each hypothesis, but all

that the model does is take the evidence values and add them up. Each new observation

adds to the balance of evidence among the hypotheses, strengthening those that predicted

it relative to those under which it was unlikely.

There are several ways in which real applications of Bayesian modeling become

more complex than the foregoing simple example. However, these all have to do with the

complexity of the hypothesis space rather than the Bayesian framework itself. For

example, many models have a hierarchical structure in which hypotheses are essentially

15

grouped into higher-level overhypotheses. Overhypotheses are generally more abstract

and require more observations to discriminate among them; thus hierarchical models are

useful for modeling learning (e.g., Kemp et al. 2007). However, each overhypothesis is

just a weighted sum of elementary hypotheses, and inference among overhypotheses

comes down to exactly the same vote-counting scheme as described earlier. As a second

example, many models assume special mathematical functions for the prior, such as

conjugate priors (discussed further in sect. 5), that simplify the computations involved in

updating evidence. However, such assumptions are generally made solely for the

convenience of the modeler rather than for any psychological reason related to the likely

initial beliefs of a human subject. Finally, for models with especially complex hypothesis

spaces, computing exact predictions often becomes computationally intractable. In these

cases, sophisticated approximation schemes are used, such as Markov-chain Monte Carlo

(MCMC) or particle filtering (i.e., sequential Monte Carlo). These algorithms yield good

estimates of the model’s true predictions while requiring far less computational effort.

However, once again they are used for the convenience of the modeler and are not meant

as proposals for how human subjects might solve the same computational problems. As

we argue in section 5, all three of these issues are points where Bayesian modeling makes

potential contact with psychological theory in terms of how information is represented

and processed. Unfortunately, most of the focus to date has been on the Bayesian

framework itself, setting aside where the hypotheses and priors come from and how the

computations are performed or approximated.

The aim of this section was to clear up confusion about the nature and theoretical

claims of Bayesian models. To summarize: Hypotheses are merely probability

distributions and have no necessary connection to explicit reasoning. The model’s

predictions depend on the initial biases on the hypotheses (i.e., the prior), but the choice

of the prior does not always have a principled basis. The heart of Bayesian inference –

combining the prior with observed data to reach a final prediction – is formally

equivalent to a simple vote-counting scheme. Learning and one-off decision making both

follow this scheme and are treated identically except for timescale and specificity of

hypotheses. The elaborate mathematics that often arises in Bayesian models comes from

the complexity of their hypothesis sets or the tricks used to derive tractable predictions,

16

which generally have little to do with the psychological claims of the researchers.

Bayesian inference itself, aside from its assumption of optimality and close relation to

vote-counting models, is surprisingly devoid of psychological substance. It involves no

representations to be updated; no encoding, storage, retrieval, or search; no attention or

control; no reasoning or complex decision processes; and actually no mechanism at all,

except for a simple counting rule.

3. Bayes as the new Behaviorism

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Bayesian Fundamentalism is its rejection of

mechanism. The core assumption is that one can predict behavior by calculating what is

optimal in any given situation. Thus, the theory is cast entirely at the computational level

(in the sense of Marr 1982), without recourse to mechanistic (i.e., algorithmic or

implementational) levels of explanation. As a metascientific stance, this is a very strong

position. It asserts that a wide range of modes of inquiry and explanation are essentially

irrelevant to understanding cognition. In this regard, the Bayesian program has much in

common with Behaviorism. This section explores the parallels between these two schools

of thought in order to draw out some of the limitations of Bayesian Fundamentalism.

During much of the first half of the 20th century, American psychology was

dominated by the Behaviorist belief that one cannot draw conclusions about unobservable

mental entities (Skinner 1938; Watson 1913). Under this philosophy, theories and

experiments were limited to examination of the schedule of sensory stimuli directly

presented to the subject and the patterns of observed responses. This approach conferred

an important degree of rigor that the field previously lacked, by abolishing Dualism,

advocating rigorous Empiricism, and eliminating poorly controlled and objectively

unverifiable methods such as introspection. The strict Empiricist focus also led to

discovery of important and insightful phenomena, such as shaping (Skinner 1958) and

generalization (Guttman & Kalish 1956).

One consequence of the Behaviorist framework was that researchers limited

themselves to a very constrained set of explanatory tools, such as conditioning and

reinforcement. These tools have had an important lasting impact, for example, in

organizational behavior management (Dickinson 2000) and behavioral therapy for a wide

17

variety of psychiatric disorders (Rachman 1997). However, cognitive constructs, such as

representation and information processing (e.g., processes associated with inference and

decision making), were not considered legitimate elements of a psychological theory.

Consequently, Behaviorism eventually came under heavy criticism for its inability to

account for many aspects of cognition, especially language and other higher-level

functions (Chomsky 1959). After the so-called Cognitive Revolution, when researchers

began to focus on the mechanisms by which the brain stores and processes information,

the depth and extent of psychological theories were dramatically expanded (Miller 2003).

Relative to the state of current cognitive psychology, Behaviorist research was extremely

limited in the scientific questions that it addressed, the range of explanations it could

offer, and the empirical phenomena it could explain.

The comparison of Bayesian modeling to Behaviorism may seem surprising

considering that Bayesian models appear to contain unobservable cognitive constructs,

such as hypotheses and their subjective probabilities. However, these constructs rarely

have the status of actual psychological assumptions. Psychological theories of

representation concern more than just what information is tracked by the brain; they

include how that information is encoded, processed, and transformed. The

Fundamentalist Bayesian view takes no stance on whether or how the brain actually

computes and represents probabilities of hypotheses. All that matters is whether behavior

is consistent with optimal action with respect to such probabilities (Anderson 1990;

1991). This means of sidestepping questions of representation can be viewed as a strength

of the rational approach, but it also means that Bayesian probabilities are not necessarily

psychological beliefs. Instead, they are better thought of as tools used by the researcher to

derive behavioral predictions. The hypotheses themselves are not psychological

constructs either, but instead reflect characteristics of the environment. The set of

hypotheses, together with their prior probabilities, constitute a description of the

environment by specifying the likelihood of all possible patterns of empirical

observations (e.g., sense data). According to Bayesian Fundamentalism, this description

is an accurate one, and by virtue of its accuracy it is determined solely by the

environment. There is no room for psychological theorizing about the nature of the

hypothesis set, because such theories logically could only take the form of explaining

18

how people’s models of the environment are incorrect. According to Bayesian

Fundamentalism, by grounding the hypotheses and prior in the environment (Anderson

1990), Bayesian models make predictions directly from the environment to behavior,

with no need for psychological assumptions of any sort.

In many Bayesian models, the hypotheses are not expressed as an unstructured

set, but instead emerge from a generative model of the environment. The generative

model (which is a component of the Bayesian model) often takes the form of a causal

network in which the probabilities of observable variables depend on the values of

unobservable, latent variables. Hypotheses about observable variables correspond to

values of the latent variables. For example, in the topic model of text comprehension, the

words in a passage (the observables) are assumed to be generated by a stochastic process

parameterized by the weights of various semantic topics within the passage (Griffiths et

al. 2007). However, the model makes no claim about the psychological status of the

latent variables (i.e., the topic weights). These variables serve only to define the joint

distribution over all possible word sequences, and the model is evaluated only with

respect to whether human behavior is consistent with that distribution. Whether people

explicitly represent topic weights (or their posterior distributions) or whether they arrive

at equivalent inferences based on entirely different representations is outside the scope of

the model (Griffiths et al. 2007, p. 212). Therefore, generative models and the latent

variables they posit do not constitute psychological constructs, at least according to the

fundamentalist viewpoint. Instead, they serve as descriptions of the environment and

mathematical tools that allow the modeler to make behavioral predictions. Just as in

Behaviorist theories, the path from environmental input to behavioral prediction bypasses

any consideration of cognitive processing.

To take a simpler example, Figure 1 shows a causal graphical model

corresponding to a simplified version of Anderson’s (1991) rational model of

categorization. The subject’s task in this example is to classify animals as birds or

mammals. The rational model assumes that these two categories are each partitioned into

subcategories, which are termed clusters. The psychological prediction is that

classification behavior corresponds (at a computational level) to Bayesian inference over

this generative model. If a subject were told that a particular animal can fly, the optimal

19

probability that it is a bird would equal the sum of the posterior probabilities of all the

clusters within the bird category (and likewise for mammal). Critically, however, the

clusters do not necessarily correspond to actual psychological representations. All that

matters for predicting behavior is the joint probability distribution over the observable

variables (i.e., the features and category labels). The clusters help the modeler to

determine this distribution, but the brain may perfom the computations in a completely

different manner. In the discussion of Bayesian Enlightenment below (sect. 5), we return

to the possibility of treating latent variables and generative models as psychological

assumptions about knowledge representation. However, the important point here is that,

according to the Fundamentalist Bayesian view, they are not. Generative models, the

hypotheses they specify, and probability distributions over those hypotheses are all

merely tools for deriving predictions from a Bayesian model. The model itself exists at a

computational level, where its predictions are defined only based on optimal inference

and decision making. The mechanisms by which those decisions are determined are

outside the model’s scope.

Figure 1.

20

3.1. Consequences of the denial of mechanism

By eschewing mechanism and aiming to explain behavior purely in terms of rational

analysis, the Fundamentalist Bayesian program raises the danger of pushing the field of

psychology back toward the sort of restrictive state experienced during the strict

Behaviorist era. Optimality and probabilistic inference are certainly powerful tools for

explaining behavior, but taken alone they are insufficient. A complete science of

cognition must draw on the myriad theoretical frameworks and sources of evidence

bearing on how cognition is carried out, as opposed to just its end product. These include

theories of knowledge representation, decision making, mental models, dynamic-system

approaches, attention, executive control, heuristics and biases, reaction time,

embodiment, development, and the entire field of cognitive neuroscience, just to name

some. Many of these lines of research would be considered meaningless within the

Behaviorist framework, and likewise they are all rendered irrelevant by the strict rational

view. Importantly, the limitation is not just on what types of explanations are considered

meaningful, but also on what is considered worthy of explanation – that is, what scientific

questions are worth pursuing and what types of evidence are viewed as informative.

An important argument in favor of rational over mechanistic modeling is that the

proliferation of mechanistic modeling approaches over the past several decades has led to

a state of disorganization, wherein models’ substantive theoretical content cannot be

disentangled from idiosyncrasies of their implementations. Distillation of models down to

their computational principles would certainly aid in making certain comparisons across

modeling frameworks. For example, both neural network (Burgess & Hitch 1999) and

production system (Anderson et al. 1998) models of serial recall have explained primacy

effects by using the same assumptions about rehearsal strategies, despite the significant

architectural differences in which this common explanation is implemented. The rational

approach is useful in this regard in that it eases comparison by emphasizing the

computational problems that models aim to solve.

However, it would be a serious overreaction simply to discard everything below

the computational level. As in nearly every other science, understanding how the subject

of study (i.e., the brain) operates is critical to explaining and predicting its behavior. As

we argue in section 4, mechanistic explanations tend to be better suited for prediction of

21

new phenomena, as opposed to post hoc explanation. Furthermore, algorithmic

explanations and neural implementations are an important focus of research in their own

right. Much can be learned from consideration of how the brain handles the

computational challenge of guiding behavior efficiently and rapidly in a complex world,

when optimal decision making (to the extent that it is even well defined) is not possible.

These mechanistic issues are at the heart of most of the questions of theoretical or

practical importance within cognitive science, including questions of representation,

timing, capacity, anatomy, and pathology.

For example, connectionist models have proven valuable in reconceptualizing

category-specific deficits in semantic memory as arising from damage to distributed

representations in the brain (for a review, see Rogers & Plaut 2002), as opposed to being

indicative of damage to localized representations (e.g., Caramazza & Shelton 1998).

Although these insights rely on statistical analyses of how semantic features are

distributed (e.g., Cree & McRae 2003), and, thus, could in principle be characterized by a

Bayesian model, the connectionist models were tremendously useful in motivating this

line of inquiry. Additionally, follow-on studies have helped characterize impaired

populations and have suggested interventions, including studies involving Alzheimer’s

patients (Devlin et al. 1998) and related work exploring reading difficulties resulting

from developmental disorders and brain injury (Joanisse & Seidenberg 1999; 2003; Plaut

et al. 1996).

Even when the goal is only to explain inference or choice behavior (setting aside

reaction time), optimal probabilistic inference is not always sufficient. This is because the

psychological mechanisms that give rise to behavior often at best only approximate the

optimal solution. These mechanisms produce signature deviations from optimality that

rational analysis has no way of anticipating. Importantly, considering how representations

are updated in these mechanisms can suggest informative experiments.

For example, Sakamoto et al. (2008) investigated learning of simple perceptual

categories that differed in the variation among items within each category. To classify

new stimuli accurately, subjects had to estimate both the means and variances of the

categories (stimuli varied along a single continuous dimension). Sakamoto et al.

considered a Bayesian model that updates its estimates optimally, given all past instances

22

of each category, and a mechanistic (cluster) model that learns incrementally in response

to prediction error. The incremental model naturally produces recency effects, whereby

more recent observations have a greater influence on its current state of knowledge (Estes

1957), in line with empirical findings in this type of task (e.g., Jones & Sieck 2003).

Simple recency effects are no challenge to Bayesian models, because one can assume

nonstationarity in the environment (e.g., Yu & Cohen 2008). However, the incremental

model predicts a more complex recency effect whereby, under certain presentation

sequences, the recency effect in the estimate of a category’s mean induces a bias in the

estimate of its variance. This bias arises purely as a by-product of the updating algorithm

and has no connection to rational, computational-level analyses of the task. Human

subjects exhibited the same estimation bias predicted by the incremental model,

illustrating the utility of mechanistic models in directing empirical investigations and

explaining behavior.

Departures from strict rational orthodoxy can lead to robust and surprising

predictions, such as in work considering the forces that mechanistic elements exert on

one another in learning and decision making (Busemeyer & Johnson 2008; Davis & Love

2010; Spencer et al. 2009). Such work often serves to identify relevant variables that

would not be deemed theoretically relevant under a Fundamentalist Bayesian view

(Clearfield et al. 2009). Even minimal departures from purely environmental

considerations, such as manipulating whether information plays the role of cue or

outcome within a learning trial, can yield surprising and robust results (Love 2002;

Markman & Ross 2003; Ramscar et al. 2010; Yamauchi & Markman 1998). The effects

of this manipulation can be seen in a common transfer task, implying that it is the

learners’ knowledge that differs and not just their present goals.

Focusing solely on computational explanations also eliminates many of the

implications of cognitive science for other disciplines. For example, without a theory of

the functional elements of cognition, little can be said about cognitive factors involved in

psychological disorders. Likewise, without a theory of the physiology of cognition, little

can be said about brain disease, trauma, or psychopharmacology. (Here the situation is

even more restrictive than in Behaviorism, which would accept neurological data as valid

and useful.) Applications of cognitive theory also tend to depend strongly on mechanistic

23

descriptions of the mind. For example, research in human factors relies on models of

timing and processing capacity, and applications to real-world decision making depend

on the heuristics underlying human judgment. Understanding these heuristics can also

lead to powerful new computational algorithms that improve the performance of

artificially intelligent systems in complex tasks (even systems built on Bayesian

architectures). Rational analysis provides essentially no insight into any of these issues.

3.2. Integration and constraints on models

One advantage of Behaviorism is that its limited range of explanatory principles led to

strong cohesion among theories of diverse phenomena. For example, Skinner (1957)

attempted to explain human verbal behavior by using the same principles previously used

in theories of elementary conditioning. It might be expected that the Bayesian program

would enjoy similar integration because of its reliance on the common principles of

rational analysis and probabilistic inference. Unfortunately, this is not the case in practice

because the process of rational analysis is not sufficiently constrained, especially as

applied to higher-level cognition.

Just as mechanistic modeling allows for alternative assumptions about process

and representation, rational modeling allows for alternative assumptions about the

environment in which the cognitive system is situated (Anderson 1990). In both cases, a

principal scientific goal is to decide which assumptions provide the best explanation.

With Bayesian models, the natural approach dictated by rational analysis is to make the

generative model faithful to empirical measurements of the environment. However, as we

observe in section 4, this empirical grounding is rarely carried out in practice.

Consequently, the rational program loses much of its principled nature, and models of

different tasks become fractionated because there is nothing but the math of Bayesian

inference to bind them together.

At the heart of every Bayesian model is a set of assumptions about the task

environment, embodied by the hypothesis space and prior distribution, or equivalently by

the generative model and prior distributions for its latent variables. The prior distribution

is the well-known and oft-criticized lack of constraint in most Bayesian models. As

explained in section 2, the prior provides the starting points for the vote-counting process

24

of Bayesian inference, thereby allowing the model to be initially biased toward some

hypotheses over others. Methods have been developed for using uninformative priors that

minimize influence on model predictions, such as Jeffreys priors (Jeffreys 1946) or

maximum-entropy priors (Jaynes 1968). However, a much more serious source of

indeterminacy comes from the choice of the hypothesis set itself or equivalently from the

choice of the generative model.

The choice of generative model often embodies a rich set of assumptions about

the causal and dynamic structure of the environment. In most interesting cases, many

alternative assumptions could be made, but only one is considered. For example, the

CrossCat model of how people learn multiple overlapping systems of categories (Shafto

et al., in press) assumes that category systems constitute different partitions of a stimulus

space, that each category belongs to exactly one system, and that each stimulus feature or

dimension is relevant to exactly one category system and is irrelevant to all others. These

assumptions are all embodied by the generative model on which CrossCat is based. There

are clearly alternatives to these assumptions, for which intuitive arguments can be made

(e.g., for clothing, the color dimension is relevant for manufacturing, laundering, and

considerations of appearance), but there is no discussion of these alternatives,

justification of the particular version of the model that was evaluated, or consideration of

the implications for model predictions. Other than the assumption of optimal inference,

all there is to a Bayesian model is the choice of generative model (or hypothesis set plus

prior), so it is a serious shortcoming when a model is developed or presented without

careful consideration of that choice. The neglected multiplicity of models is especially

striking considering the rational theorist’s goal of determining the – presumably unique –

optimal pattern of behavior.

Another consequence of insufficient scrutiny of generative models (or hypothesis

sets more generally) is a failure to recognize the psychological commitments they entail.

These assumptions often play a central role in the explanation provided by the Bayesian

model as a whole, although that role often goes unacknowledged. Furthermore, the

psychological assumptions implicitly built into a generative model can be logically

equivalent to preexisting theories of the same phenomena. For example, Kemp et al.

(2007) propose a Bayesian model of the shape bias in early word learning, whereby

25

children come to expect a novel noun to be defined by the shape of the objects it denotes

rather than other features such as color or texture. The model learns the shape bias

through observation of many other words with shape-based definitions, which shifts

evidence to an overhypothesis that most nouns in the language are shape-based. The

exposition of the model is a mathematically elegant formalization of abstract induction.

However, it is not Bayes’s Rule or even the notion of overhypotheses that drives the

prediction; rather it is the particular overhypotheses that were built into the model. In

other words, the model was endowed with the capability to recognize a particular pattern

(viz., regularity across words in which perceptual dimensions are relevant to meaning), so

the fact that it indeed recognizes that pattern when presented with it is not surprising or

theoretically informative. Furthermore, the inference made by the model is logically the

same as the notion of second-order generalization proposed previously by Smith et al.

(2002). Detailed mechanistic modeling has shown how second-order generalization can

emerge from the interplay between attentional and associative processes (Colunga &

Smith 2005), in contrast to the more tautological explanation offered by the Bayesian

model. Therefore, at the level of psychological theory, Kemp et al.’s model merely

recapitulates a previously established idea in a way that is mathematically more elegant

but psychologically less informative.

In summary, Bayesian Fundamentalism is simultaneously more restrictive and

less constrained than Behaviorism. In terms of modes of inquiry and explanation, both

schools of thought shun psychological constructs, in favor of aiming to predict behavior

directly from environmental inputs. However, under Behaviorism this restriction was

primarily a technological one. Nothing in the Behaviorist philosophy would invalidate

relatively recent tools that enable direct measurements of brain function, such as

neuroimaging, EEG, and single-unit recording (at least as targets of explanation, if not as

tools through which to develop theories of internal processes). Indeed, these techniques

would presumably have been embraced because they satisfy the criterion of direct

observation. Bayesian Fundamentalism, in contrast, rejects all measures of brain

processing out of principle because only the end product (i.e., behavior) is relevant to

rational analysis.2 At the same time, whereas Behaviorist theories were built from simple

mechanisms and minimal assumptions, Bayesian models often depend on complex

26

hypothesis spaces based on elaborate and mathematically complex assumptions about

environmental dynamics. As the emphasis is generally on rational inference (i.e., starting

with the assumptions of the generative model and deriving optimal behavior from there),

the assumptions themselves generally receive little scrutiny. The combination of these

two factors leads to a dangerously underconstrained research program in which the core

assumptions of a model (i.e., the choice of hypothesis space) can be made at the

modeler’s discretion without comparison to alternatives and without any requirement to

fit physiological or other process-level data.

4. Bayes as evolutionary psychology

In addition to the rejection of mechanistic explanation, a central principle of the

Fundamentalist Bayesian approach to cognition is that of optimality. The claim that

human behavior can be explained as adaptation to the environment is also central to

evolutionary psychology. On the surface, these two approaches to understanding behavior

seem very different, as their content and methods differ. For example, one core domain of

inquiry in evolutionary psychology is mating, which is not often studied by cognitive

psychologists, and theories in evolutionary psychology tend not to be computational in

nature, whereas rational Bayesian approaches are by definition. Thus, one advantage of

rational Bayesian accounts is that they formalize notions of optimality, which can clarify

assumptions and allow for quantitative evaluation. Despite these differences, Bayesian

Fundamentalism and evolutionary psychology share a number of motivations and

assumptions. Indeed, Geisler and Diehl (2003) propose a rational Bayesian account of

Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In this section, we highlight the commonalities and

important differences between these two approaches to understanding human behavior.

We argue below that Bayesian Fundamentalism is vulnerable to many of the

criticisms that have been leveled at evolutionary psychology. Indeed, we argue that

notions of optimality in evolutionary psychology are more complete and properly

constrained than those forwarded by Bayesian Fundamentalists, because evolutionary

psychology considers other processes than simple adaptation (e.g., Buss et al. 1998).

Bayesian Fundamentalism appropriates some concepts from evolutionary psychology

(e.g., adaptation, fitness, and optimality), but leaves behind many other key concepts

27

because of its rejection of mechanism. Because it is mechanisms that evolve, not

behaviors, Bayesian Fundamentalism’s assertions of optimality provide little theoretical

grounding and are circular in a number of cases.

Basic evolutionary theory holds that animal behavior is adapted by natural

selection, which increases inclusive fitness. High fitness indicates that an animal’s

behaviors are well suited to its environment, leading to reproductive success. On the

assumption that evolutionary pressures tune a species’ genetic code such that the

observed phenotype gives rise to optimal behaviors, one can predict an animal’s behavior

by considering the environment in which its ancestors flourished and reproduced.

According to evolutionary psychologists, this environment, referred to the environment

of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), must be understood in order to comprehend the

functions of the brain (Bowlby 1969). Thus, evolutionary explanations of behavior tend

to focus on the environment, and this focus can on occasion occur at the expense of

careful consideration of mechanism. However, as discussed extensively below in section

4.3 and in contrast to Bayesian Fundamentalism, some key concepts in evolutionary

psychology do rely on mechanistic considerations, and these concepts are critical for

grounding notions of adaptation and optimization. These key concepts are neglected in

Bayesian Fundamentalism.

Critically, it is not any function that is optimized by natural selection, but

functions that are relevant to fitness. To use Oaksford and Chater’s (1998) example,

animals may be assumed to use optimal foraging strategies because (presumably)

gathering food efficiently is relevant to the global goal of maximizing inclusive fitness

(see Hamilton 1964). Thus, in practice, evolutionary arguments, like rational theories of

cognition, require characterizing the environment and the behaviors that increase fitness.

For example, Anderson’s (1991) rational model of category learning is intended to

maximize prediction of unknown information in the environment, which presumably

increases fitness.

Like rational approaches to cognition, evolutionary psychology draws inspiration

from evolutionary biology and views much of human behavior as resulting from

adaptations shaped by natural selection (Buss 1994; Pinker 2002; Tooby & Cosmides

2005). The core idea is that recurring challenges in our ancestral environments (i.e.,

28

EEA) shaped our mental capacities and proclivities. This environmental focus is in the

same spirit as work in ecological psychology (Gibson 1979; Michaels & Carello 1981).

Following from a focus on specific challenges and adaptations, evolutionary theories

often propose special-purpose modules. For example, evolutionary psychologists have

proposed special-purpose modules for cheater detection (Cosmides & Tooby 1992),

language acquisition (Pinker 1995), incest avoidance (Smith 2007), and snake detection

(Sperber & Hirschfeld 2003). Much like evolutionary psychology’s proliferation of

modules, rational models are developed to account for specific behaviors, such as

children’s ability to give the number of objects requested (Lee & Sarnecka 2010),

navigation when disoriented in a maze (Stankiewicz et al. 2006), and understanding a

character’s actions in an animation (Baker et al. 2009), at the expense of identifying

general mechanisms and architectural characteristics (e.g., working memory) that are

applicable across a number of tasks (in which the specific behaviors to be optimized

differ).

4.1. An illustrative example of rational analysis as evolutionary argument

Perhaps the rational program’s focus on environmental adaptation is best exemplified by

work in early vision. Early vision is a good candidate for rational investigation because

the visual environment has likely been stable for millennia and the ability to perceive the

environment accurately is clearly related to fitness. The focus on environmental statistics

is clear in Geisler et al.’s (2001) work on contour detection. In this work, Geisler and

colleagues specify how an ideal classifier detects contours and compare this ideal

classifier’s performance to human performance. To specify the ideal classifier, the

researchers gathered natural image statistics that were intended to be representative of the

environment in which our visual system evolved. Implicit in the choice of images are

assumptions about what the environment was like. Additionally, the analysis requires

assuming which measures or image statistics are relevant to the contour classification

problem. Geisler et al. selected a number of natural images of mountains, forests,

coastlines, etc., to characterize our ancestral visual environment. From these images, they

measured certain statistics they deemed relevant to contour detection. Their chosen

measures described relationships among edge segments belonging to the same contour,

29

such as the distance between the segments and their degree of colinearity. To gather these

statistics, expert raters determined whether two edge elements belonged to the same

contour in the natural images. These measures specify the likelihood and prior in the

Bayesian ideal observer. The prior for the model is simply the probability that two

randomly selected edge elements belong to the same contour. The likelihood follows

from a table of co-occurrences of various distances and angles between pairs of edge

elements indexed by whether each pair belongs to the same contour. Geisler et al.

compared human performance to the ideal observer in a laboratory task that involved

determining whether a contour was present in novel, meaningless images composed of

scattered edge elements. Human performance and the rational model closely

corresponded, supporting Geisler et al.’s account.

Notice that there is no notion of mechanism (i.e., process or representation) in this

account of contour detection. The assumptions made by the modeler include what our

ancestral environment was like and which information in this environment is relevant.

Additionally, it is assumed that the specific behavior modeled (akin to a module in

evolutionary psychology) is relevant to fitness. These assumptions, along with

demonstrating a correlation with human performance, are the intellectual contribution of

the work. Finally, rational theories assume optimal inference as reflected in the Bayesian

classification model. Specifying the Bayesian model may be technically challenging, but

is not part of the theoretical contribution (i.e., it is a math problem, not a psychology

problem). The strength of Geisler et al.’s work rests in its characterization of the

environment and the statistics of relevance.

Unfortunately, the majority of rational analyses do not include any measurements

from actual environments even though the focus of such theories is on the environment

(for a similar critique, see Murphy 1993). Instead, the vast majority of rational analysis in

cognition relies on intuitive arguments to justify key assumptions. In some cases,

psychological phenomena can be explained from environmental assumptions that are

simple and transparent enough not to require verification (e.g., McKenzie & Mikkelsen

2007; Oaksford & Chater 1994). However, more often Bayesian models incorporate

complex and detailed assumptions about the structure of the environment that are far

from obvious and are not supported by empirical data (e.g., Anderson 1991; Brown &

30

Steyvers 2009; Goodman et al. 2008; Steyvers et al. 2009; Tenenbaum & Griffiths 2001).

Cognitive work that does gather environmental measures is exceedingly rare and tends to

rely on basic statistics to explain general behavioral tendencies and judgments (e.g.,

Anderson & Schooler 1991; Griffiths & Tenenbaum 2006). This departure from true

environmental grounding can be traced back to John Anderson’s (1990; 1991) seminal

contributions in which he popularized the rational analysis of cognition. In those works,

he specified a series of steps for conducting such analyses. Step 6 of the rational method

(Anderson 1991) is to revisit assumptions about the environment and relevant statistics

when the model fails to account for human data. In practice, this step involves the

modeler’s ruminating on what the environment is like and what statistics are relevant

rather than actual study of the environment. This is not surprising given that most

cognitive scientists are not trained to characterize ancestral environments. For example,

at no point in the development of Anderson’s (1991) rational model of category learning

is anything in the environment actually measured. Although one purported advantage of

rational analysis is the development of zero-parameter, nonarbitrary models, it would

seem that the theorist has unbounded freedom to make various assumptions about the

environment and the relevant statistics (for a similar critique, see Sloman & Fernbach

2008). As discussed in the next section, similar criticisms have been made of

evolutionary psychology.

4.2. Too much flexibility in evolutionary and rational explanations?

When evaluating any theory or model, one must consider its fit to the data and its

flexibility to account for other patterns of results (Pitt et al. 2002). Models and theories

are favored that fit the data and have low complexity (i.e., are not overly flexible). One

concern we raise is whether rational approaches offer unbounded and hidden flexibility to

account for any observed data. Labeling a known behavior as rational is not theoretically

significant if it is always possible for some rational explanation to be constructed.

Likewise, evolutionary psychology is frequently derided as simply offering “just so”

stories (Buller 2005, but see Machery & Barrett 2006). Adaptationist accounts certainly

constrain explanation compared to nonadaptationist alternatives, but taken alone they still

allow significant flexibility in terms of assumptions about the environment and the extent

31

to which adaptation is possible. For example, to return to the foraging example, altering

one’s assumptions about how food rewards were distributed in ancestral environments

can determine whether an animal’s search process (i.e., the nature and balance of

exploitative and exploratory decisions) is optimal. Likewise, the target of optimization

can be changed. For example, inefficiencies in an animal’s foraging patterns for food-rich

environments can be explained after the fact as an adaptation to ensure the animal does

not become morbidly obese. On the other hand, if animals were efficient in abundant

environments and became obese, one could argue that foraging behaviors were shaped by

adaptation to environments in which food was not abundant. If, no matter the data, there

is a rational explanation for a behavior, it is not a contribution to label a behavior as

rational. Whereas previous work in the heuristics-and-biases tradition (Tversky &

Kahneman 1974) cast the bulk of cognition as irrational by using a fairly simplistic

notion of rationality, Bayesian Fundamentalism finds rationality to be ubiquitous based

on underconstrained notions of rationality.

To provide a recent example from the literature, the persistence of negative traits,

such as anxiety and insecurity, that lower an individual’s fitness has been explained by

appealing to these traits’ utility to the encompassing group in signaling dangers and

threats facing the group (Ein-Dor et al. 2010). While this ingenious explanation could be

correct, it illustrates the incredible flexibility that adaptive accounts can marshal in the

face of a challenging data point.

Similar criticisms have been leveled at work in evolutionary biology. For

example, Gould and Lewontin (1979) have criticized work that develops hypotheses

about the known functions of well-studied organs as “backward-looking.” One worry is

that this form of theorizing can lead to explanations that largely reaffirm what is currently

believed. Work in evolutionary psychology has been criticized for explaining

unsurprising behaviors (Horgan 1999), like that men are less selective about who they

will mate with than are women. Likewise, we see a tendency for rational analyses to

largely reexpress known findings in the language of Bayesian optimal behavior. The

work of Geisler et al. (2001) on contour perception is vulnerable to this criticism because

it largely recapitulates Gestalt principles (e.g., Wertheimer 1923/1938) in the language of

Bayes. In cognition, the rational rules model (Goodman et al. 2008) of category learning

32

reflects many of the intuitions of previous models, such as the rule-plus-exception

(RULEX) model (Nosofsky et al. 1994), in a more elegant and expressive Bayesian form

that does not make processing predictions. In other cases, the intuitions from previous

work are reexpressed in more general Bayesian terms in which particular choices for the

priors enable the Bayesian model to mimic the behavior of existing models. For example,

unsupervised clustering models using simplicity principles based on minimum

description length (MDL; Pothos & Chater 2002) are recapitulated by more flexible

approaches phrased in the language of Bayes (Austerweil & Griffiths 2008; Griffiths et

al. 2008). A similar path of model development has occurred in natural language

processing (Ravi & Knight 2009).

One motivation for rational analysis was to prevent models with radically

different assumptions from making similar predictions (Anderson 1991). In reality, the

modeler has tremendous flexibility in characterizing the environment (for similar

arguments, see Buller 2005). For example, the articles by Dennis and Humphreys (1998)

and Shiffrin and Steyvers (1998) both offer rational accounts of memory (applicable to

word-list tasks) that radically differ, but both do a good job with the data and are thought-

provoking. According to the rational program, analysis of the environment and the task

should provide sufficient grounding to constrain theory development. Cognitive scientists

(especially those trained in psychology) are not expert in characterizing the environment

in which humans evolved, and it is not always clear what this environment was like. As

in experimental sciences, our understanding of past environments is constantly revised

rather than providing a bedrock from which to build rational accounts of behavior.

Adding further complexity, humans can change the environment to suit their needs rather

than adapt to it (Kurz & Tweney 1998).

One factor that provides a number of degrees of freedom to the rational modeler is

that it is not clear which environment (in terms of when and where) is evolutionarily

relevant (i.e., for which our behavior was optimized). The environment that is relevant

for determining rational action could be the local environment present in the laboratory

task, similar situations (however defined) that the person has experienced, all experiences

over the person’s life, all experiences of our species, all experiences of all ancestral

organisms traced back to single cell organisms, etc. Furthermore, once the relevant

33

environment is specified and characterized, the rational theorist has considerable

flexibility in characterizing which relevant measures or statistics from the environment

should enter into the optimality calculations. When considered in this light, the argument

that rational approaches are parameter free and follow in a straightforward manner from

the environment is tenuous at best.

4.3. Optimization occurs over biological mechanisms, not behaviors

It is noncontroversial that many aspects of our behavior are shaped by evolutionary

processes. However, evolutionary processes do not directly affect behavior, but instead

affect the mechanisms that give rise to behavior when coupled with environmental input

(McNamara & Houston 2009). Assuming one could properly characterize the

environment, focusing solely on how behavior should be optimized with respect to the

environment is insufficient because the physical reality of the brain and body is

neglected. Furthermore, certain aspects of behavior, such as the time to execute some

operation (e.g., the decision time to determine whether a person is a friend or foe), are

closely linked to mechanistic considerations.

Completely sidestepping mechanistic considerations when considering optimality

leads to absurd conclusions. To illustrate, it may not be optimal or evolutionarily

advantageous to ever age, become infertile, and die, but these outcomes are universal and

follow from biological constraints. It would be absurd to seriously propose an optimal

biological entity that is not bounded by these biological and physical realities, but this is

exactly the reasoning Bayesian Fundamentalists follow when formulating theories of

cognition. Certainly, susceptibility to disease and injury impact inclusive fitness more

than do many aspects of cognition. Therefore, it would seem strange to assume that

human cognition is fully optimized while these basic challenges, which all living

creatures past and present face, are not. Our biological reality, which is ignored by

Bayesian Fundamentalists, renders optimal solutions, defined solely in terms of choice

behavior, unrealistic and fanciful for many challenges.

Unlike evolutionary approaches, rational approaches to cognition, particularly

those in the Bayesian Fundamentalist tradition, do not address the importance of

mechanism in the adaptationist story. Certain physical limitations and realities lead to

34

certain designs prevailing. Which design prevails is determined in part by these physical

realities and the contemporaneous competing designs in the gene pool. As Marcus (2008)

reminds us, evolution is survival of the best current design, not survival of the globally

optimal design. Rather than the globally optimal design winning out, often a locally

optimal solution (i.e., a design better than similar designs) prevails (Dawkins 1987; Mayr

1982). Therefore, it is important to consider the trajectory of change of the mechanism

(i.e., current and past favored designs) rather than to focus exclusively on which design is

globally optimal.

As Marcus (2008) notes, many people are plagued with back pain because the

human spine is adapted from animals that walk on four paws, not two feet. This is clearly

not the globally optimal design, indicating that the optimization process occurs over

constraints not embodied in rational analyses. The search process for the best design is

hampered by the set of current designs available. These current designs can be adapted by

descent-with-modification, but there is no purpose or forethought to this process (i.e.,

there is no intelligent designer). It simply might not be possible for our genome to code

for shock absorbers like those in automobiles, given that the current solution is locally

optimal and distant from the globally optimal solution. In the case of the human spine,

the current solution is clearly not globally optimal, but is good enough to get the job

done. The best solution is not easily reachable and might never be reached. If evolution

settles on such a bad design for our spine, it seems unlikely that aspects of cognition are

fully optimized. Many structures in our brains share homologs with other species.

Structures more prominent in humans, such as the frontal lobes, were not anticipated, but

like the spine, resulted from descent-with-modification (Wood & Grafman 2003).

The spine example makes clear that the history of the mechanism plays a role in

determining the present solution. Aspects of the mechanism itself are often what is being

optimized rather than the resulting behavior. For example, selection pressures will

include factors such as how much energy certain designs require. The human brain

consumes 25% of a person’s energy, yet accounts for only 2% of a person’s mass (Clark

& Sokoloff 1999). Such nonbehavioral factors are enormously important to the

optimization process, but are not reflected in rational analyses, because these factors are

tied to a notion of mechanism, which is absent in rational analyses. Any discussion of

35

evolution optimizing behavior is incomplete without consideration of the mechanism that

generates the behavior. To provide an example from the study of cognition, in contrast to

Anderson’s (1991) rational analysis of concepts solely in terms of environmental

prediction, concepts might also serve other functions, such as increasing cognitive

economy in limited-capacity memory systems that would otherwise be swamped with

details (Murphy 1993; Rosch 1978).

The notion of incremental improvement of mechanisms is also important because

it is not clear that globally optimal solutions are always well defined. The optimality of

Bayesian inference is well supported in small worlds in which an observer can sensibly

assign subjective probabilities to all possible contingencies (Savage 1954). However,

Binmore (2009) argues that proponents of Bayesian rationality overextend this reasoning

when moving from laboratory tasks to the natural world. Normative support for the

Bayesian framework breaks down in the latter case because, in an unconstrained

environment, there is no clear rational basis for generating prior probabilities.

Evolutionary theory does not face this problem because it relies on incremental

adjustment rather than global optimization. Furthermore, shifting focus to the level of

mechanism allows one to study the relative performance of those mechanisms without

having to explicitly work out the optimal pattern of behavior in a complex environment

(Gigerenzer & Todd 1999).

The preceding discussion assumes that we are optimized in at least a local sense.

This assumption is likely invalid for many aspects of the mechanisms that give rise to

behavior. Optimization by natural selection is a slow process that requires consistent

selective pressure in a relatively stable environment. Many of the behaviors that are

considered uniquely human are not as evolutionarily old as basic aspects of our visual

system. It is also not clear how stable the relevant environment has been. To provide one

example, recent simulations support the notion that many syntactic properties of language

cannot be encoded in a language module, and that the genetic basis of language use and

acquisition could not coevolve with human language (Chater et al. 2009).

Finally, while rational theorists focus on adaptation in pursuit of optimality,

evolutionary theorists take a broader view of the products of evolution. Namely,

evolution yields three products: (1) adaptations, (2) by-products, and (3) noise (Buss et al.

36

1998). An adaptation results from natural selection to solve some problem, whereas a by-

product is the consequence of some adaptation. To use Bjorklund and Pelligrini’s (2000)

example, the umbilical cord is an adaptation, whereas the belly button is a by-product.

Noise includes random effects due to mutations, drift, etc. Contrary to the rational

program, one should not take all behaviors and characteristics of people to be adaptations

that increase (i.e., optimize) fitness.

4.4. Developmental psychology and notions of capacity limitation: What changes over

time?

Although rational Bayesian modeling has a large footprint in developmental psychology

(Kemp et al. 2007; Sobel et al. 2004; Xu & Tenenbaum 2007), development presents

basic challenges to the rational approach. One key question for any developmental model

is what develops. In rational models, the answer is that nothing develops. Rational

models are mechanism free, leaving only information sampled to change over time.

Although some aspects of development are driven by acquisition of more observations,

other aspects of development clearly reflect maturational changes in the mechanism (see

Xu & Tenenbaum 2007, p. 169). For example, some aspects of children’s performance

are indexed by prefrontal development (Thompson-Schill et al. 2009) rather than the

degree of experience within a domain. Likewise, teenage boys’ interest in certain stimuli

is likely attributable more to hormonal changes than to collecting examples of certain

stimuli and settling on certain hypotheses.

These observations put rational theories of development in a difficult position.

People’s mental machinery clearly changes over development, but no such change occurs

in a rational model. One response has been to posit rational theories that are collections of

discrepant causal models (i.e., hypothesis spaces). Each discrepant model is intended to

correspond to a different stage of development (Goodman et al. 2006; Lucas et al. 2009).

In effect, development is viewed as consisting of discrete stages, and a new model is

proposed for each qualitative developmental change. Model selection is used to

determine which discrepant model best accounts for an individual’s current behavior.

Although this approach may be useful in characterizing an individual’s performance and

current point in development, it does not offer any explanation for the necessity of the

37

stages or why developmental transitions occur. Indeed, rather than accounts of

developmental processes, these techniques are best viewed as methods to assess a

person’s conceptual model, akin to user modeling in tutoring systems (Conati et al.

1997). To the extent that the story of development is the story of mechanism

development, rational theories have little to say (e.g., Xu & Tenenbaum 2007).

Epigenetic approaches ease some of these tensions by addressing how experience

influences gene expression over development, allowing for bidirectional influences

between experience and genetic activity (Gottlieb 1992; Johnson 1998). One

complication for rational theories is the idea that different selection pressures are exerted

on organisms at different points in development (Oppenheim 1981). For adults, rigorous

play wastes energy and is an undue risk, but, for children, rigorous play may serve a

number of adaptive functions (Baldwin & Baldwin 1977). For example, play fighting

may prepare boys for adult hunting and fighting (Smith 1982). It would seem that

different rational accounts are needed for different periods of development.

Various mental capacities vary across development and individuals. In adult

cognition, Herbert Simon (1957) introduced the notion of bounded rationality to take into

account, among other things, limitations in memory and processing capacities. One of the

proposals that grew out of bounded rationality was optimization under constraints, which

posits that people may not perform optimally in any general sense, but, if their capacities

could be well characterized, people might be found to perform optimally, given those

limitations (e.g., Sargent 1993; Stigler 1961). For instance, objects in the environment

may be tracked optimally, given sensory and memory limitations (Vul et al. 2009).

Although the general research strategy based on bounded rationality can be

fruitful, it severely limits the meaning of labeling a behavior as rational or optimal.

Characterizing capacity limitations is essentially an exercise in characterizing the

mechanism, which represents a departure from rational principles. Once all capacity

limitations are detailed, notions of rationality lose force. To provide a perverse example,

each person can be viewed as an optimal version of himself given his own limitations,

flawed beliefs, motivational limitations, etc. At such a point, it is not clear what work the

rational analysis is doing. Murphy (1993) makes a similar argument about the circularity

of rational explanations: Animals are regarded as optimal with respect to their ecological

38

niche, but an animal’s niche is defined by its behaviors and abilities. For example, if one

assumes that a bat’s niche involves flying at night, then poor eyesight is not a

counterexample of optimality.

Although these comments may appear critical, we do believe that considering

capacity limitations is a sound approach that can facilitate the unification of rational and

mechanistic approaches. However, we have doubts as to the efficacy of current

approaches to exploring capacity limitations. For example, introducing capacity

limitations by altering sampling processes through techniques like the particle filter

(Brown & Steyvers 2009) appears to be motivated more by modeling convenience than

by examination of actual cognitive mechanisms. It would be a curious coincidence if

existing mathematical estimation techniques just happened to align with human capacity

limitations. In section 5, we consider the possibility of using (mechanistic) psychological

characterizations of one or more aspects of the cognitive system to derive bounded-

optimality characterizations of decision processes. Critically, the potential of such

approaches lies in the mutual constraint of mechanistic and rational considerations, as

opposed to rational analysis alone.

To return to development, one interesting consideration is that reduced capacity at

certain points in development is actually seen as a benefit by many researchers. For

example, one proposal is that children’s diminished working-memory capacity may

facilitate language acquisition by encouraging children to focus on basic regularities

(Elman 1993; Newport 1990). “Less is more” theories have also been proposed in the

domain of metacognition. For example, children who overestimate their own abilities

may be more likely to explore new tasks and be less self-critical in the face of failure

(Bjorklund & Pellegrini 2000). Such findings seem to speak to the need to consider the

nature of human learners rather the nature of the environment. Human learners do not

seem to “turn off” harmful capacity to narrow the hypothesis space when it might be

prove beneficial to do so.

5. The role of Bayesian modeling in cognitive science

The observations in the preceding sections suggest that, although Bayesian modeling has

great potential to advance our understanding of cognition, several conceptual problems

39

with the Fundamentalist Bayesian program limit its potential theoretical contributions.

One possible reason is that most current work lacks a coherent underlying philosophy

regarding just what that contribution should be. In this section, we lay out three roles for

Bayesian modeling in cognitive science that potentially avoid the problems of the

fundamentalist approach and that better integrate with other modes of inquiry. We make

no strong commitment that any of the approaches proposed in this section will succeed,

but we believe these are the viable options if one wants to use Bayes’s Rule or

probabilistic inference as a component of psychological theory.

First, Bayesian inference has proven to be exceedingly valuable as an analysis

tool for deciding among scientific hypotheses or models based on empirical data. We

refer to such approaches as Bayesian Agnosticism because they take no stance on

whether Bayesian inference is itself a useful psychological model. Instead, the focus is on

using Bayesian inference to develop model-selection techniques that are sensitive to true

model complexity and that avoid many of the logical inconsistencies of frequentist

hypothesis testing (e.g., Pitt et al. 2002; Schwarz 1978).

Second, Bayesian models can offer computational-level theories of human

behavior that bypass questions of cognitive process and representation. In this light,

Bayesian analysis can serve as a useful starting point when investigating a new domain,

much like how ideal-observer analysis can be a useful starting point in understanding a

task and thus assist in characterizing human proficiency in the task. This approach is in

line with the Fundamentalist Bayesian philosophy, but, as the observations of the

previous sections make clear, several changes to current common practice would greatly

improve the theoretical impact of this research program. Foremost, rational analysis

should be grounded in empirical measurement of the environment. Otherwise, the

endeavor is almost totally unconstrained. Environmental grounding has yielded useful

results in low-level vision (Geisler et al. 2001) and basic aspects of memory (Anderson &

Schooler 1991), but the feasibility of this approach with more complex cognitive tasks

remains an open question. Furthermore, researchers are faced with the questions of what

is the relevant environment (that behavior is supposedly optimized with respect to) and

what are the relevant statistics of that environment (that behavior is optimized over).

There is also the question of the objective function that is being optimized, and how that

40

objective might vary according to developmental trajectory or individual differences

(e.g., sex or social roles). Finally, it may be impossible in cases to specify what is optimal

in any general sense without considering the nature of the mechanism. All of these

questions can have multiple possible answers, and finding which answers lead to the best

explanation of the data is part of the scientific challenge. Just as with mechanistic models,

competing alternatives need to be explicitly recognized and compared. Finally, an

unavoidable limitation of the pure rational approach is that behavior is not always

optimal, regardless of the choice of assumptions about the environment and objective

function. Evolution works locally rather than globally, and many aspects of behavior may

be by-products rather than adaptations in themselves. More importantly, evolution is

constrained by the physical system (i.e., the body and brain) that is being optimized. By

excluding the brain from psychological theory, Bayesian Fundamentalism is logically

unable to account for mechanistic constraints on behavior and unable to take advantage

of or inform us about the wealth of data from areas such as neurophysiology,

development, or timing.3

Third, rather than putting all the onus on rational analysis by attempting to explain

behavior directly from the environment, one could treat various elements of Bayesian

models as psychological assumptions subject to empirical test. This approach, which we

refer to as Bayesian Enlightenment, seems the most promising because it allows Bayesian

models to make contact with the majority of psychological research and theory, which

deals with mechanistic levels of analysis. The remainder of this section explores several

avenues within Bayesian Enlightenment. We emphasize up front that all of these

directions represent significant departures from the Fundamentalist Bayesian tenet that

behavior can be explained and understood without recourse to process or representation.

5.1. Bayesian Enlightenment: taking Bayesian models seriously as psychological

theories

The most obvious candidate within the Bayesian framework for status as a psychological

construct or assumption is the choice of hypothesis space or generative model. According

to the Fundamentalist Bayesian view, the hypotheses and their prior distribution

correspond to the true environmental probabilities within the domain of study. However,

41

as far as predicting behavior is concerned, all that should matter is what the subject

believes (either implicitly or explicitly) are the true probabilities. Decoupling information

encoded in the brain from ground truth in the environment (which cannot always be

determined) enables separation of two different tenets of the rationalist program. That is,

the question of whether people have veridical mental models of their environments can

be separated from the question of whether people reason and act optimally with respect to

whatever models they have. A similar perspective has been proposed in game theory,

whereby distinguishing between an agent’s model of the opponent(s) and rational

behavior with respect to that model can resolve paradoxes of rationality in that domain

(Jones & Zhang 2003). Likewise, Baker et al. (2009) present a model of how people

reason about the intentions of others in which the psychological assumption is made that

people view others as rational agents (given their current knowledge).

Separating Bayesian inference from the mental models it operates over opens up

those models as a fruitful topic of psychological study (e.g., Sanborn et al. 2010b).

Unfortunately, this view of Bayesian modeling is at odds with most applications, which

focus on the inferential side and take the generative model for granted, leaving that

critical aspect of the theory to be hand-coded by the researcher. Thus, the emphasis on

rationality marginalizes most of the interesting psychological issues. The choice of the

generative model or hypothesis space reflects an assumption about how the subject

imputes structure to the environment and how that structure is represented. There are

often multiple options here (i.e., there is not a unique Bayesian model of most tasks), and

these correspond to different psychological theories. Furthermore, even those cases that

ground the hypothesis space in empirical data from natural environments tend not to

address how it is learned by individual subjects. One strong potential claim of the

Bayesian framework is that the most substantial part of learning lies in constructing a

generative model of one’s environment, and that using that model to make inferences and

guide behavior is a relatively trivial (albeit computationally intensive) exercise in

conditional probability. Therefore, treating the generative model as a psychological

construct enables a shift of emphasis to this more interesting learning problem. Future

work focusing on how people develop models of their environment (e.g., Griffiths &

Tenenbaum 2006; Mozer et al. 2008; Steyvers et al. 2003) would greatly increase the

42

theoretical utility of Bayesian modeling by bringing it into closer contact with the hard

psychological questions of constructive learning, structured representations, and

induction.

Consideration of generative models as psychological constructs also highlights a

fundamental difference between a process-level interpretation of Bayesian learning and

other learning architectures such as neural networks or production systems. The Bayesian

approach suggests that learning involves working backward from sense data to compute

posterior probabilities over latent variables in the environment and then determining

optimal action with respect to those probabilities. This can be contrasted with the more

purely feed-forward nature of most extant models, which learn mappings from stimuli to

behavior and use feedback from the environment to directly alter the internal parameters

that determine those mappings (e.g., connection weights or production utilities). A

similar contrast has been proposed in the literature on reinforcement learning, between

model-based (planning) and model-free (habit) learning, with behavioral and neurological

evidence that these exist as separate systems in the brain (Daw et al. 2005). Model-based

reinforcement learning and Bayesian inference have important computational differences,

but this parallel does suggest a starting point for addressing the important question of

how Bayesian learning might fit into a more complete cognitive architecture.

Prior distributions offer another opportunity for psychological inquiry within the

Bayesian framework. In addition to the obvious connections to biases in beliefs and

expectations, the nature of the prior has potential ties to questions of representation. This

connection arises from the principle of conjugate priors (Raiffa & Schlaifer 1961). A

conjugate prior for a Bayesian model is a parametric family of probability distributions

that is closed under the evidence-updating operation of Bayesian inference, meaning that

the posterior is guaranteed also to lie in the conjugate family after any number of new

observations have been made. Conjugate priors can dramatically simplify computational

and memory demands because the learner needs only to store and update the parameters

of the conjugate family rather than the full evidence distribution. Conjugate priors are a

common assumption made by Bayesian modelers, but this assumption is generally made

solely for mathematical convenience of the modeler rather than for any psychological

reason. However, considering a conjugate prior as part of the psychological theory leads

43

to the intriguing possibility that the parameters of the conjugate family constitute the

information that is explicitly represented and updated in the brain. If probabilistic

distributions over hypotheses are indeed part of the brain’s computational currency, then

they must be encoded in some way, and it stands to reason that the encoding generally

converges on one that minimizes the computational effort of updating knowledge states

(i.e., of inferring the posterior after each new observation). Therefore, an interesting

mechanistic-level test of Bayesian theory would be to investigate whether the variables

that parameterize the relevant conjugate priors are consistent with what is known based

on more established methods about knowledge representation in various psychological

domains. Of course, it is unlikely that any extant formalism (currently adopted for

mathematical convenience) will align perfectly with human performance, but empirically

exploring and evaluating such possibilities might prove a fruitful starting point.

A final element of Bayesian models that is traditionally considered as outside the

psychological theory but that may have valuable process-level implications involves the

algorithms that are often used for approximating exact Bayesian inference. Except in

models that admit a simple conjugate prior, deriving the exact posterior from a Bayesian

model is in most practical cases exceedingly computationally intensive. Consequently,

even the articles that propose these models often resort to approximation methods such as

Markov-Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC; Hastings 1970) or specializations such as Gibbs

sampling (Geman & Geman 1984) to derive approximate predictions. To the extent that

Bayesian models capture any truth about the workings of the brain, the brain is faced with

the same estimation problems that Bayesian modelers are, so it too likely must use

approximate methods for inference and decision making. Many of the algorithms used in

current Bayesian models correspond to important recent advances in computer science

and machine learning, but until their psychological predictions and plausibility are

addressed, they cannot be considered part of cognitive theory. Therefore, instead of being

relegated to footnotes or appendices, these approximation algorithms should be a focus of

the research because this is where a significant portion of the psychology lies. Research

investigating estimation algorithms as candidate psychological models (e.g., Daw &

Courville 2007; Sanborn et al. 2010a) represents a promising step in this direction. An

alternative line of work suggests that inference is carried out by a set of simple heuristics

44

that are adapted to statistically different types of environments (Brighton & Gigerenzer

2008; Gigerenzer & Todd 1999). Deciding between these adaptive heuristics and the

aforementioned, more complex estimation algorithms is an important empirical question

for the mechanistic grounding of Bayesian psychological models.

A significant aspect of the appeal of Bayesian models is that their assumptions are

explicitly laid out in a clean and interpretable mathematical language that, in principle,

affords the researcher a transparent view of their operation. This is in contrast to other

computational approaches (e.g., connectionism), in which it can be difficult to separate

theoretically important assumptions from implementational details. Unfortunately, as we

have argued here, this is not generally the case in practice. Instead, unexamined, yet

potentially critical, assumptions are routinely built into the hypothesis sets, priors, and

estimation procedures. Treating these components of Bayesian models as elements of the

psychological theory rather than as ancillary assumptions is an important prerequisite for

realizing the transparency of the Bayesian framework. In this sense, the shift from

Bayesian Fundamentalism to Enlightenment is partly a shift of perspective, but it is one

we believe could have a significant impact on theoretical progress.

5.2. Integrating Bayesian analysis with mechanistic-level models

Viewing Bayesian models as genuine psychological theories in the ways outlined here

also allows for potential integration between rational and mechanistic approaches. The

most accurate characterization of cognitive functioning is not likely to come from

isolated considerations of what is rational or of what is a likely mechanism. More

promising is to look for synergy between the two, in the form of powerful rational

principles that are well approximated by efficient and robust mechanisms. Such an

approach would aid understanding not just of the principles behind the mechanisms

(which is the sole focus of Bayesian Fundamentalism) but also of how the mechanisms

achieve and approximate those principles and how constraints at both levels combine to

shape behavior (for one thorough example, see Oaksford & Chater 2010). We stress that

we are not advocating that every model include a complete theory at all levels of

explanation. The claim is merely that there must be contact between levels. We have

argued this point here for rational models – that they should be informed by

45

considerations of process and representation – but the same holds for mechanistic

models, as well, that they should be informed by consideration of the computational

principles they carry out (Chater et al. 2003).

With reference to the problem of model fractionation discussed earlier, one way

to unite Bayesian models of different phenomena is to consider their rational

characterizations in conjunction with mechanistic implementations of belief updating and

knowledge representation, with the parsimony-derived goal of explaining multiple

computational principles with a common set of processing mechanisms. In this way the

two levels of analysis serve to constrain each other and to facilitate broader and more

integrated theories. From the perspective of theories as metaphors, the rationality

metaphor is unique in that is has no physical target, which makes it compatible with

essentially any mechanistic metaphor and suggests that synthesis between the two levels

of explanation will often be natural and straightforward (as compared to the challenge of

integrating two distinct mechanistic architectures). In the context of conditioning, Daw et

al. (2008) offer an excellent example of this approach by mapping out the relationships

between learning algorithms and the rational principles they approximate and by showing

how one can distinguish behavioral phenomena reflecting rational principles from

mechanistic signatures of the approximation schemes.

Examples of work that integrates across levels of explanation can also be found in

computational neuroscience. Although the focus is not on explaining behavior, models in

computational neuroscience relate abstract probabilistic calculations to operations in

mechanistic neural network models (Denève 2008; Denève et al. 1999). Other work

directly relates and evaluates aspects of Bayesian models to brain areas proposed to

perform the computation (Doll et al. 2009; Soltani & Wang 2010). For example, Köver

and Bao (2010) relate the prior in a Bayesian model to the number of cells devoted to

representing possible hypotheses. This work makes contact with all three of Marr’s

(1982) levels of analysis by making representational commitments and relating these

aspects of the Bayesian model to brain regions.

An alternative to the view of mechanisms as approximations comes from the

research of Gigerenzer and colleagues on adaptive heuristics (e.g., Gigerenzer & Todd

1999). Numerous studies have found that simple heuristics can actually outperform more

46

complex inference algorithms in naturalistic prediction tasks. For example, with certain

datasets, linear regression can be outperformed in cross-validation (i.e., transfer to new

observations) by a simple tallying heuristic that gives all predictors equal weight

(Czerlinski et al. 1999; Dawes & Corrigan 1974). Brighton and Gigerenzer (2008)

explain how the advantage of simple heuristics is rooted in the bias-variance dilemma

from statistical estimation theory, specifically that more constrained inference algorithms

can perform better on small datasets because they are less prone to overfitting (e.g.,

Geman et al. 1992). Although this conclusion has been used to argue against

computational-level theories of rationality in favor of ecological rationality based on

mechanisms adapted to specific environments (Gigerenzer & Brighton 2009), we believe

the two approaches are highly compatible. The connection lies in that any inference

algorithm implicitly embodies a prior expectation about the environment, corresponding

to the limitations in what patterns of data it can fit and hence the classes of environments

in which it will tend to succeed (cf. Wolpert 1996). For example, the tallying heuristic is

most successful in environments with little variation in true cue validities and in cases

where the validities cannot be precisely estimated (Hogarth & Karelaia 2005). This

suggests that tallying should be matched or even outperformed by Bayesian regression

with a prior giving more probability to more homogeneous regression weights. The point

here is that the ecological success of alternative algorithms (tallying versus traditional

regression) can inform a rational analysis of the task and hence lead to more accurate

normative theories. This sort of approach could alleviate the insufficient environmental

grounding and excessive flexibility of Bayesian models discussed in section 4.

Formalizing the relationship between algorithms and implicit priors – or between

statistical regularities in particular environments and algorithms that embody those

regularities – is therefore a potentially powerful route to integrating mechanistic and

rational approaches to cognition.

Another perspective on the relationship between Bayesian and mechanistic

accounts of cognition comes from the recognition that, at its core, Bayes’s Rule is a

model of the decision process. This is consistent with (and partly justifies) the

observation that most work in the Bayesian Fundamentalist line avoids commitments

regarding representation. However, the thesis that inference and decision making are

47

optimal is meaningful only in the context of the knowledge (i.e., beliefs about the

environment) with respect to which optimality is being defined. In other words, a

complete psychological theory must address both how knowledge is acquired and

represented and how it is acted upon. As argued earlier in section 3.1, questions of the

structure of people’s models of their environments, and of how those models are learned,

are better addressed by traditional, mechanistic psychological methods than by rational

analysis. Taken together, these observations suggest a natural synthesis in which

psychological mechanisms are used to model the learner’s state of knowledge, and

rational analysis is used to predict how that knowledge is used to determine behavior.

The line between knowledge and decision making, or representation and process,

is of course not so well defined as this simple proposal suggests, but the general idea is

that rational analysis can be performed not in the environment but instead within a

mechanistic model, thus taking into account whatever biases and assumptions the

mechanisms introduce. This approach allows the modeler to postulate decision rules that

are optimal with respect to the representations and dynamics of the rest of the model. The

result is a way of enforcing good design while still making use of what is known about

mental representations. It can improve a mechanistic model by replacing what might

otherwise be an arbitrary decision rule with something principled, and it also offers an

improvement over rational analysis that starts and ends with the environment and is not

informed by how information is actually represented. This approach has been used

successfully to explain, for example, aspects of memory as optimal retrieval, given the

nature of the encoding (Shiffrin & Steyvers 1998), patterns of short-term priming as

optimal inference with unknown sources of feature activation (Huber et al. 2001), and

sequential effects in speeded detection tasks as optimal prediction with respect to a

particular psychological representation of binary sequences (Wilder et al. 2009). A

similar approach has been applied at the neural level, for example, to model activity of

lateral intraparietal (LIP) neurons as computing a Bayesian posterior from activity of

middle temporal (MT) cells (Beck et al. 2008). One advantage of bringing rational

analysis inside cognitive or neural models is that it facilitates empirical comparison

among multiple Bayesian models that make different assumptions about knowledge

representation (e.g., Wilder et al. 2009). These lines of research illustrate that the

48

traditional identification of rational analysis with computational-level theories is an

artificial one, and that rational analysis is in fact applicable at all levels of explanation

(Danks 2008).

A complementary benefit of moving rational analysis inside psychological models

is that the assumption of optimal inference can allow the researcher to decide among

multiple candidate representations, through comparison to empirical data. The

assumption of optimal inference allows for more unambiguous testing of representation

because representation becomes the only unknown in the model. This approach has been

used successfully in the domain of category induction by Tenenbaum et al. (2006).

However, such conclusions depend on a strong assumption of rational inference. The

question of rational versus biased or heuristic inference has been a primary focus of much

of the judgment and decision-making literature for several decades, and a large body of

work argues for the latter position (e.g., Tversky & Kahneman 1974). On the other hand,

some of these classic findings have been given rational reinterpretations under new

assumptions about the learner’s knowledge and goals (e.g., Oaksford & Chater 1994).

This debate illustrates how the integration of rational and mechanistic approaches brings

probabilistic inference under the purview of psychological models where it can be more

readily empirically tested.

Ultimately, transcending the distinction between rational and mechanistic

explanations should enable significant advances of both and for cognitive science as a

whole. Much of how the brain operates reflects characteristics of the environment to

which it is adapted, and therefore an organism and its environment can be thought of as a

joint system, with behavior depending on aspects of both subsystems. There is of course a

fairly clear line between organism and environment, but that line has no more

epistemological significance than the distinctions between different sources of

explanation within either category. In other words, the gap between an explanation rooted

in some aspect of the environment and one rooted in a mechanism of neural or cognitive

processing should not be qualitatively wider than the gap between explanations rooted in

different brain regions, different processing stages or modules, or uncertainty in one

latent variable versus another. The joint system of organism and environment is a

complex one, with a large number of constituent processes, and a given empirical

49

phenomenon (of behavior, brain activity, etc.) can potentially be ascribed to any of them.

Just as in other fields, the scientific challenge is to determine which explanation is best in

each case, and for most interesting phenomena the answer will most likely involve an

interaction of multiple, disparate causes.

6. Conclusions

The recent advances in Bayesian modeling of cognition clearly warrant excitement.

Nevertheless, many aspects of current research practice act to severely limit the

contributions to psychological theory. This article traces these concerns to a particular

philosophy that we have labeled Bayesian Fundamentalism, which is characterized by the

goal of explaining human behavior solely in terms of optimal probabilistic inference

without recourse to mechanism. It is motivated by the thesis that, once a given task is

correctly characterized in terms of environmental statistics and goals of the learner,

human behavior in that task will be found to be rational. As the numerous citations

throughout this article demonstrate, Bayesian Fundamentalism constitutes a significant

portion (arguably the majority) of current research on Bayesian modeling of cognition.

Establishing the utility of the Bayesian framework, and the rational metaphor

more generally, is an important first step, and convincing arguments have been made for

this position (e.g., Oaksford & Chater 2007). However, excessive focus on this

metascientific issue severely limits the scope and impact of the research. Focusing on

existence proofs distracts from the more critical work of deciding among competing

explanations and identifying the critical assumptions behind models. In the context of

rational Bayesian modeling, existence proofs hide that there are generally many Bayesian

models of any task, corresponding to different assumptions about the learner’s goals and

model of the environment. Comparison among alternative models would potentially

reveal a great deal about what people’s goals and mental models actually are. Such an

approach would also facilitate comparison to models within other frameworks by

separating the critical assumptions of any Bayesian model (e.g., those that specify the

learner’s generative model) from the contribution of Bayes’s Rule itself. This separation

should ease recognition of the logical relationships between assumptions of Bayesian

models and of models cast within other frameworks, so that theoretical development is

50

not duplicated and so that the core differences between competing theories can be

identified and tested.

The total focus on rational inference that characterizes Bayesian Fundamentalism

is especially unfortunate from a psychological standpoint because the belief updating of

Bayes’s Rule is psychologically trivial, amounting to nothing more than vote counting.

Much more interesting are other aspects of Bayesian models, including the algorithms

and approximations by which inference is carried out, the representations on which those

algorithms operate (e.g., the parameters of conjugate priors), and the structured beliefs

(i.e., generative models) that drive them. The Enlightened Bayesian view takes these

seriously as psychological constructs and evaluates them according to theoretical merit

rather than mathematical convenience. This important shift away from Bayesian

Fundamentalism opens up a rich base for psychological theorizing, as well as contact

with process-level modes of inquiry.

It is interesting to note that economics, the field of study with the richest history

of rational modeling of behavior and the domain in which rational theories might be

expected to be most accurate, has increasingly questioned the value of rational models of

human decision making (Krugman 2009). Economics is thus moving away from purely

rational models toward theories that consider psychological mechanisms and biases

(Thaler & Sunstein 2008). Therefore it is surprising to observe a segment of the

psychological community moving in the opposite direction. Bayesian modeling certainly

has much to contribute, but its potential impact will be much greater if developed in a

way that does not eliminate the psychology from psychological models. We believe this

will be best achieved by treating Bayesian methods as a complement to mechanistic

approaches rather than as an alternative.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This research was supported in part by Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR)

Grant FA9550-07-1-0178 and Army Research Laboratory (ARL) Grant W911NF-09-2-

0038 to Bradley C. Love. We thank John Anderson, Colin Bannard, Lera Boroditsky,

David Buss, Matt Keller, Mike Mozer, Mike Oaksford, Randy O’Reilly, Michael

51

Ramscar, Vladimir Sloutsky, and Alan Yuille for helpful comments on an earlier draft of

this article.

NOTES

1. Formally, Eposterior equals the logarithm of the posterior distribution, Eprior is the

logarithm of the prior, and Edata(H) is the logarithm of the likelihood of the data under

hypothesis H. The model’s prediction for the probability that hypothesis H is correct,

after data have been observed, is proportional to exp[Eposterior(H)] (cf. Luce 1963).

2. Bayesian analysis has been used to interpret neural spike recordings (e.g., Gold

& Shadlen 2001), but this falls outside Bayesian Fundamentalism, which is concerned

only with behavioral explanations of cognitive phenomena.

3. Note that we refer here to Bayesian models that address behavior, not those that

solely aim to explain brain data without linking to behavior, such as Mortimer et al.’s

(2009) model of axon wiring.

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