Seeking Confirmation Is Rational for Deterministic Hypotheses

Cognitive Science 35 (3):499-526 (2011)
The tendency to test outcomes that are predicted by our current theory (the confirmation bias) is one of the best-known biases of human decision making. We prove that the confirmation bias is an optimal strategy for testing hypotheses when those hypotheses are deterministic, each making a single prediction about the next event in a sequence. Our proof applies for two normative standards commonly used for evaluating hypothesis testing: maximizing expected information gain and maximizing the probability of falsifying the current hypothesis. This analysis rests on two assumptions: (a) that people predict the next event in a sequence in a way that is consistent with Bayesian inference; and (b) when testing hypotheses, people test the hypothesis to which they assign highest posterior probability. We present four behavioral experiments that support these assumptions, showing that a simple Bayesian model can capture people's predictions about numerical sequences (Experiments 1 and 2), and that we can alter the hypotheses that people choose to test by manipulating the prior probability of those hypotheses (Experiments 3 and 4).
Keywords Confirmation bias  Rational analysis  Bayesian inference  Determinism  Decision making  Hypothesis testing
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DOI 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01161.x
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Claude Shannon (1948). A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Bell System Technical Journal 27:379–423.

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