Learning as Hypothesis Testing: Learning Conditional and Probabilistic Information


Complex constraints like conditionals ('If A, then B') and probabilistic constraints ('The probability that A is p') pose problems for Bayesian theories of learning. Since these propositions do not express constraints on outcomes, agents cannot simply conditionalize on the new information. Furthermore, a natural extension of conditionalization, relative information minimization, leads to many counterintuitive predictions, evidenced by the sundowners problem and the Judy Benjamin problem. Building on the notion of a `paradigm shift' and empirical research in psychology and economics, I argue that the model of hypothesis testing can explain how people learn complex, theory-laden propositions like conditionals and probability constraints. Theories are formalized as probability distributions over a set of possible outcomes and theory change is triggered by a constraint which is incompatible with the initial theory. This leads agents to consult a higher order probability function, or a 'prior over priors,' to choose the most likely alternative theory which satisfies the constraint. The hypothesis testing model is applied to three examples: learning a simple probabilistic constraint involving coin bias, the sundowners problem for conditional learning, and the Judy Benjamin problem for learning conditional probability constraints.

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Jonathan Vandenburgh
Stanford University


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