Prior knowledge can help observers in various situations. Adults can simultaneously learn two location priors and integrate these with sensory information to locate hidden objects. Importantly, observers weight prior and sensory (likelihood) information differently depending on their respective reliabilities, in line with principles of Bayesian inference. Yet, there is limited evidence that observers actually perform Bayesian inference, rather than a heuristic, such as forming a look-up table. To distinguish these possibilities, we ask whether previously learned priors will be immediately integrated with a new, untrained likelihood. If observers use Bayesian principles, they should immediately put less weight on the new, less reliable, likelihood (“Bayesian transfer”). In an initial experiment, observers estimated the position of a hidden target, drawn from one of two distinct distributions, using sensory and prior information. The sensory cue consisted of dots drawn from a Gaussian distribution centered on the true location with either low, medium, or high variance; the latter introduced after block three of five to test for evidence of Bayesian transfer. Observers did not weight the cue (relative to the prior) significantly less in the high compared to medium variance condition, counter to Bayesian predictions. However, when explicitly informed of the different prior variabilities, observers placed less weight on the new high variance likelihood (“Bayesian transfer”), yet, substantially diverged from ideal. Much of this divergence can be captured by a model that weights sensory information, according only to internal noise in using the cue. These results emphasize the limits of Bayesian models in complex tasks.
Kiryakova, R., Aston, S., Beierholm, U., & Nardini, M. (2020). Bayesian transfer in a complex spatial localization task. Journal of Vision, 20(6), Article 17. https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.6.17