Probabilistic mental models: a Brunswikian theory of confidence

Psychol Rev. 1991 Oct;98(4):506-28. doi: 10.1037/0033-295x.98.4.506.


Research on people's confidence in their general knowledge has to date produced two fairly stable effects, many inconsistent results, and no comprehensive theory. We propose such a comprehensive framework, the theory of probabilistic mental models (PMM theory). The theory (a) explains both the overconfidence effect (mean confidence is higher than percentage of answers correct) and the hard-easy effect (overconfidence increases with item difficulty) reported in the literature and (b) predicts conditions under which both effects appear, disappear, or invert. In addition, (c) it predicts a new phenomenon, the confidence-frequency effect, a systematic difference between a judgment of confidence in a single event (i.e., that any given answer is correct) and a judgment of the frequency of correct answers in the long run. Two experiments are reported that support PMM theory by confirming these predictions, and several apparent anomalies reported in the literature are explained and integrated into the present framework.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Probability Theory*
  • Self Concept*