Sequential effects: Superstition or rational behavior?

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 21 (NIPS 2008)

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Angela J. Yu, Jonathan D. Cohen


In a variety of behavioral tasks, subjects exhibit an automatic and apparently sub-optimal sequential effect: they respond more rapidly and accurately to a stimulus if it reinforces a local pattern in stimulus history, such as a string of repetitions or alternations, compared to when it violates such a pattern. This is often the case even if the local trends arise by chance in the context of a randomized design, such that stimulus history has no predictive power. In this work, we use a normative Bayesian framework to examine the hypothesis that such idiosyncrasies may reflect the inadvertent engagement of fundamental mechanisms critical for adapting to changing statistics in the natural environment. We show that prior belief in non-stationarity can induce experimentally observed sequential effects in an otherwise Bayes-optimal algorithm. The Bayesian algorithm is shown to be well approximated by linear-exponential filtering of past observations, a feature also apparent in the behavioral data. We derive an explicit relationship between the parameters and computations of the exact Bayesian algorithm and those of the approximate linear-exponential filter. Since the latter is equivalent to a leaky-integration process, a commonly used model of neuronal dynamics underlying perceptual decision-making and trial-to-trial dependencies, our model provides a principled account of why such dynamics are useful. We also show that near-optimal tuning of the leaky-integration process is possible, using stochastic gradient descent based only on the noisy binary inputs. This is a proof of concept that not only can neurons implement near-optimal prediction based on standard neuronal dynamics, but that they can also learn to tune the processing parameters without explicitly representing probabilities.