Problem Structure and the Use of Base-Rate Information From Experience

Douglas L. Medin*, Stephen M. Edelson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


This article is concerned with the use of base-rate information that is derived from experience in classifying examples of a category. The basic task involved simulated medical decision making in which participants learned to diagnose hypothetical diseases on the basis of symptom information. Alternative diseases differed in their relative frequency or base rates of occurrence. In five experiments initial learning was followed by a series of transfer tests designed to index the use of base-rate information. On these tests, patterns of symptoms were presented that suggested more than one disease and were therefore ambiguous. The alternative or candidate diseases on such tests could differ in their relative frequency of occurrence during learning. For example, a symptom might be presented that had appeared with both a relatively common and a relatively rare disease. If participants are using base-rate information appropriately (according to Bayes' theorem), then they should be more likely to predict that the common disease is present than that the rare disease is present on such ambiguous tests. Current classification models differ in their predictions concerning the use of base-rate information. For example, most prototype models imply an insensitivity to base-rate information, whereas many exemplar-based classification models predict appropriate use of base-rate information. The results reveal a consistent but complex pattern. Depending on the category structure and the nature of the ambiguous tests, participants use base-rate information appropriately, ignore base-rate information, or use base-rate information inappropriately (predict that the rare disease is more likely to be present). To our knowledge, no current categorization model predicts this pattern of results. To account for these results, a new model is described incorporating the ideas of property or symptom competition and context-sensitive retrieval.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-85
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • General Psychology


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