What comes to mind? A mix of what's likely and what's good


People can consciously think about only a few things at a time. But what determines the kind of things that come to mind, among a potentially infinite set of possibilities? Two experiments explored whether the things that come to mind are sampled from a probability distribution that combines what people think is statistically likely and what they think is prescriptively good. Experiment 1 found that when people are asked about the first quantities that come to mind for everyday behaviors and events (e.g., hours of TV that a person could watch in a day), they think of values that are proportional to, and intermediate between, what they think is average and what they think is ideal. Experiment 2 quantitatively manipulated distributions of times people devoted to engaging in a novel hobby (“flubbing”) and the corresponding distributions of goodness of doing this hobby for various amounts of time. The distribution of values that came to mind resembled the mathematical product of the statistical and prescriptive distributions we presented participants, suggesting that something must be both common and good to enter conscious awareness. These results provide insight into the algorithmic process generating people’s conscious thoughts and invite new questions about the adaptive value of thinking about things that are both common and good.

Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
Adam Bear
Research/Data Scientist