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Embracing Uncertainty: The Interface of Bayesian Statistics and Cognitive Psychology

Judith L Anderson, Dept. of Psychology, Simon Fraser University

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Abstract

Ecologists working in conservation and resource management are discovering the importance of using Bayesian analytic methods to deal explicitly with uncertainty in data analyses and decision making. However, Bayesian procedures require, as inputs and outputs, an idea that is problematic for the human brain: the probability of a hypothesis ("single-event probability"). I describe several cognitive concepts closely related to single-event probabilities, and discuss how their interchangeability in the human mind results in "cognitive illusions," apparent deficits in reasoning about uncertainty. Each cognitive illusion implies specific possible pitfalls for the use of single-event probabilities in ecology and resource management. I then discuss recent research in cognitive psychology showing that simple tactics of communication, suggested by an evolutionary perspective on human cognition, help people to process uncertain information more effectively as they read and talk about probabilities. In addition, I suggest that carefully considered standards for methodology and conventions for presentation may also make Bayesian analyses easier to understand.

Key words

cognitive psychology; judgment under uncertainty; cognitive illusion; Bayesian statistical analysis; Bayesian decision analysis; probability; frequency; expert elicitation of probabilities.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087