What comes to mind?

Cognition 194 (C):104057 (2020)
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Abstract

When solving problems, like making predictions or choices, people often “sample” possibilities into mind. Here, we consider whether there is structure to the kinds of thoughts people sample by default—that is, without an explicit goal. Across three experiments we found that what comes to mind by default are samples from a probability distribution that combines what people think is likely and what they think is good. Experiment 1 found that the first quantities that come to mind for everyday behaviors and events are quantities that combine what is average and ideal. Experiment 2 found, in a manipulated context, that the distribution of numbers that come to mind resemble the mathematical product of the presented statistical distribution and a (softmax-transformed) prescriptive distribution. Experiment 3 replicated these findings in a visual domain. These results provide insight into the process generating people’s conscious thoughts and invite new questions about the value of thinking about things that are both likely and good.

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