Context effects on probability estimation

Wei Hsiang Lin, Justin L. Gardner, Shih Wei Wu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Many decisions rely on how we evaluate potential outcomes and estimate their corresponding probabilities of occurrence. Outcome evaluation is subjective because it requires consulting internal preferences and is sensitive to context. In contrast, probability estimation requires extracting statistics from the environment and therefore imposes unique challenges to the decision maker. Here, we show that probability estimation, like outcome evaluation, is subject to context effects that bias probability estimates away from other events present in the same context. However, unlike valuation, these context effects appeared to be scaled by estimated uncertainty, which is largest at intermediate probabilities. Blood-oxygen-leveldependent (BOLD) imaging showed that patterns of multivoxel activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), and intraparietal sulcus (IPS) predicted individual differences in context effects on probability estimates. These results establish VMPFC as the neurocomputational substrate shared between valuation and probability estimation and highlight the additional involvement of dACC and IPS that can be uniquely attributed to probability estimation. Because probability estimation is a required component of computational accounts from sensory inference to higher cognition, the context effects found here may affect a wide array of cognitive computations.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3000634
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020


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