Biases and variability from costly Bayesian inference

Arthur Prat-Carrabin, Florent Meyniel, Misha Tsodyks, Rava Azeredo da Silveira

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When humans infer underlying probabilities from stochastic observations, they exhibit biases and variability that cannot be explained on the basis of sound, Bayesian manipulations of probability. This is especially salient when beliefs are updated as a function of sequential observations. We introduce a theoretical framework in which biases and variability emerge from a trade-off between Bayesian inference and the cognitive cost of carrying out probabilistic computations. We consider two forms of the cost: a precision cost and an unpredictability cost; these penalize beliefs that are less entropic and less deterministic, respectively. We apply our framework to the case of a Bernoulli variable: the bias of a coin is inferred from a sequence of coin flips. Theoretical predictions are qualitatively different depending on the form of the cost. A precision cost induces overestimation of small probabilities, on average, and a limited memory of past observations, and, consequently, a fluctuating bias. An unpredictability cost induces underestimation of small probabilities and a fixed bias that remains appreciable even for nearly unbiased observations. The case of a fair (equiprobable) coin, however, is singular, with non-trivial and slow fluctuations in the inferred bias. The proposed framework of costly Bayesian inference illustrates the richness of a ‘resource-rational’ (or ‘bounded-rational’) picture of seemingly irrational human cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Article number603
JournalEntropy (Basel, Switzerland)
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Information Systems
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)


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