Control of mental representations in human planning

05/14/2021 ∙ by Mark K Ho, et al. ∙ 5

One of the most striking features of human cognition is the capacity to plan. Two aspects of human planning stand out: its efficiency, even in complex environments, and its flexibility, even in changing environments. Efficiency is especially impressive because directly computing an optimal plan is intractable, even for modestly complex tasks, and yet people successfully solve myriad everyday problems despite limited cognitive resources. Standard accounts in psychology, economics, and artificial intelligence have suggested this is because people have a mental representation of a task and then use heuristics to plan in that representation. However, this approach generally assumes that mental representations are fixed. Here, we propose that mental representations can be controlled and that this provides opportunities to adaptively simplify problems so they can be more easily reasoned about – a process we refer to as construal. We construct a formal model of this process and, in a series of large, pre-registered behavioral experiments, show both that construal is subject to online cognitive control and that people form value-guided construals that optimally balance the complexity of a representation and its utility for planning and acting. These results demonstrate how strategically perceiving and conceiving problems facilitates the effective use of limited cognitive resources.

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