Evaluating the inverse decision-making approach to preference learning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 24 (NIPS 2011)

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Alan Jern, Christopher Lucas, Charles Kemp


Psychologists have recently begun to develop computational accounts of how people infer others' preferences from their behavior. The inverse decision-making approach proposes that people infer preferences by inverting a generative model of decision-making. Existing data sets, however, do not provide sufficient resolution to thoroughly evaluate this approach. We introduce a new preference learning task that provides a benchmark for evaluating computational accounts and use it to compare the inverse decision-making approach to a feature-based approach, which relies on a discriminative combination of decision features. Our data support the inverse decision-making approach to preference learning. A basic principle of decision-making is that knowing people's preferences allows us to predict how they will behave: if you know your friend likes comedies and hates horror films, you can probably guess which of these options she will choose when she goes to the theater. Often, however, we do not know what other people like and we can only infer their preferences from their behavior. If you know that a different friend saw a comedy today, does that mean that he likes comedies in general? The conclusion you draw will likely depend on what else was playing and what movie choices he has made in the past. A goal for social cognition research is to develop a computational account of people's ability to infer others' preferences. One computational approach is based on inverse decision-making. This approach begins with a model of how someone's preferences lead to a decision. Then, this model is inverted to determine the most likely preferences that motivated an observed decision. An alternative approach might simply learn a functional mapping between features of an observed decision and the preferences that motivated it. For instance, in your friend's decision to see a comedy, perhaps the more movie options he turned down, the more likely it is that he has a true preference for comedies. The difference between the inverse decision-making approach and the feature-based approach maps onto the standard dichotomy between generative and discriminative models. Economists have developed an instance of the inverse decision-making approach known as the multinomial logit model [1] that has been widely used to infer consumer's preferences from their choices. This model has recently been explored as a psychological model [2, 3, 4], but there are few behavioral data sets for evaluating it as a model of how people learn others' preferences. Additionally, the data sets that do exist tend to be drawn from the developmental literature, which focuses on simple tasks that collect only one or two judgments from children [5, 6, 7]. The limitations of these data sets make it difficult to evaluate the multinomial logit model with respect to alternative accounts of preference learning like the feature-based approach. In this paper, we use data from a new experimental task that elicits a detailed set of preference judgments from a single participant in order to evaluate the predictions of several preference learning models from both the inverse decision-making and feature-based classes. Our task requires each participant to sort a large number of observed decisions on the basis of how strongly they indicate 1