People's thinking plans adapt to the problem they're trying to solve

Cognition 243 (C):105669 (2024)
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Much of our thinking focuses on deciding what to do in situations where the space of possible options is too large to evaluate exhaustively. Previous work has found that people do this by learning the general value of different behaviors, and prioritizing thinking about high-value options in new situations. Is this good-action bias always the best strategy, or can thinking about low-value options sometimes become more beneficial? Can people adapt their thinking accordingly based on the situation? And how do we know what to think about in novel events? Here, we developed a block-puzzle paradigm that enabled us to measure people's thinking plans and compare them to a computational model of rational thought. We used two distinct response methods to explore what people think about—a self-report method, in which we asked people explicitly to report what they thought about, and an implicit response time method, in which we used people's decision-making times to reveal what they thought about. Our results suggest that people can quickly estimate the apparent value of different options and use this to decide what to think about. Critically, we find that people can flexibly prioritize whether to think about high-value options (Experiments 1 and 2) or low-value options (Experiments 3, 4, and 5), depending on the problem. Through computational modeling, we show that these thinking strategies are broadly rational, enabling people to maximize the value of long-term decisions. Our results suggest that thinking plans are flexible: What we think about depends on the structure of the problems we are trying to solve.



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Joshua Knobe
Yale University

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