Optimal inference of sameness
Ronald van den Berg, Michael Vogel, Kresimir Josic, and Wei Ji Ma
PNAS February 21, 2012 vol. 109 no. 8 3178-3183
Deciding whether a set of objects are the same or different is a cornerstone of perception and cognition. Surprisingly, no principled quantitative model of sameness judgment exists. We tested whether human sameness judgment under sensory noise can be modeled as a form of probabilistically optimal inference. An optimal observer would compare the reliability-weighted variance of the sensory measurements with a set size-dependent criterion. We conducted two experiments, in which we varied set size and individual stimulus reliabilities. We found that the optimal-observer model accurately describes human behavior, outperforms plausible alternatives in a rigorous model comparison, and accounts for three key findings in the animal cognition literature. Our results provide a normative footing for the study of sameness judgment and indicate that the notion of perception as near-optimal inference extends to abstract relations.