Relation between belief and performance in perceptual decision making

PLoS One. 2014 May 9;9(5):e96511. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096511. eCollection 2014.


In an uncertain and ambiguous world, effective decision making requires that subjects form and maintain a belief about the correctness of their choices, a process called meta-cognition. Prediction of future outcomes and self-monitoring are only effective if belief closely matches behavioral performance. Equality between belief and performance is also critical for experimentalists to gain insight into the subjects' belief by simply measuring their performance. Assuming that the decision maker holds the correct model of the world, one might indeed expect that belief and performance should go hand in hand. Unfortunately, we show here that this is rarely the case when performance is defined as the percentage of correct responses for a fixed stimulus, a standard definition in psychophysics. In this case, belief equals performance only for a very narrow family of tasks, whereas in others they will only be very weakly correlated. As we will see it is possible to restore this equality in specific circumstances but this remedy is only effective for a decision-maker, not for an experimenter. We furthermore show that belief and performance do not match when conditioned on task difficulty--as is common practice when plotting the psychometric curve--highlighting common pitfalls in previous neuroscience work. Finally, we demonstrate that miscalibration and the hard-easy effect observed in humans' and other animals' certainty judgments could be explained by a mismatch between the experimenter's and decision maker's expected distribution of task difficulties. These results have important implications for experimental design and are of relevance for theories that aim to unravel the nature of meta-cognition.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Culture*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*

Grant support

R.M.B. was supported by a Ramón y Cajal Spanish Award and by the Marie Curie FP7-PEOPLE-2010-IRG grant (PIRG08-GA-2010-276795). A.P. was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS0446730 and REESE 1109366), a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (N00014-07-1-0937) and the James McDonnell Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.