Memory & Cognition

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 270–280 | Cite as

Physician Bayesian updating from personal beliefs about the base rate and likelihood ratio



Whether humans can accurately make decisions in line with Bayes’ rule has been one of the most important yet contentious topics in cognitive psychology. Though a number of paradigms have been used for studying Bayesian updating, rarely have subjects been allowed to use their own preexisting beliefs about the prior and the likelihood. A study is reported in which physicians judged the posttest probability of a diagnosis for a patient vignette after receiving a test result, and the physicians’ posttest judgments were compared to the normative posttest calculated from their own beliefs in the sensitivity and false positive rate of the test (likelihood ratio) and prior probability of the diagnosis. On the one hand, the posttest judgments were strongly related to the physicians’ beliefs about both the prior probability as well as the likelihood ratio, and the priors were used considerably more strongly than in previous research. On the other hand, both the prior and the likelihoods were still not used quite as much as they should have been, and there was evidence of other nonnormative aspects to the updating, such as updating independent of the likelihood beliefs. By focusing on how physicians use their own prior beliefs for Bayesian updating, this study provides insight into how well experts perform probabilistic inference in settings in which they rely upon their own prior beliefs rather than experimenter-provided cues. It suggests that there is reason to be optimistic about experts’ abilities, but that there is still considerable need for improvement.


Bayesian reasoning Probabilistic reasoning Diagnosis 


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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