Applied Cognitive Psychology

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A visualization technique for Bayesian reasoning

Summary

We tested a method for solving Bayesian reasoning problems in terms of spatial relations as opposed to mathematical equations. Participants completed Bayesian problems in which they were given a prior probability and two conditional probabilities and were asked to report the posterior odds. After a pretraining phase in which participants completed problems with no instruction or external support, participants watched a video describing a visualization technique that used the length of bars to represent the probabilities provided in the problem. Participants then completed more problems with a chance to implement the technique by clicking interactive bars on the computer screen. Performance improved dramatically from the pretraining phase to the interactive‐bar phase. Participants maintained improved performance in transfer phases in which they were required to implement the visualization technique with either pencil‐and‐paper or no external medium. Accuracy levels for participants using the visualization technique were very similar to participants trained to solve the Bayes theorem equation. The results showed no evidence of learning across problems in the pretraining phase or for control participants who did not receive training, so the improved performance of participants using the visualization method could be uniquely attributed to the method itself. A classroom sample demonstrated that these benefits extend to instructional settings. The results show that people can quickly learn to perform Bayesian reasoning without using mathematical equations. We discuss ways that a spatial solution method can enhance classroom instruction on Bayesian inference and help students apply Bayesian reasoning in everyday settings.

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