Quantifying Humans’ Priors Over Graphical Representations of Tasks

Gecia Bravo Hermsdorff, Talmo Pereira, Yael Niv

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Some new tasks are trivial to learn while others are almost impossible; what determines how easy it is to learn an arbitrary task? Similar to how our prior beliefs about new visual scenes colors our perception of new stimuli, our priors about the structure of new tasks shapes our learning and generalization abilities [2]. While quantifying visual priors has led to major insights on how our visual system works [5, 10, 11], quantifying priors over tasks remains a formidable goal, as it is not even clear how to define a task [4]. Here, we focus on tasks that have a natural mapping to graphs. We develop a method to quantify humans’ priors over these “task graphs”, combining new modeling approaches with Markov chain Monte Carlo with people, MCMCP (a process whereby an agent learns from data generated by another agent, recursively [9]). We show that our method recovers priors more accurately than a standard MCMC sampling approach. Additionally, we propose a novel low-dimensional “smooth” (In the sense that graphs that differ by fewer edges are given similar probabilities.) parametrization of probability distributions over graphs that allows for more accurate recovery of the prior and better generalization. We have also created an online experiment platform that gamifies our MCMCP algorithm and allows subjects to interactively draw the task graphs. We use this platform to collect human data on several navigation and social interactions tasks. We show that priors over these tasks have non-trivial structure, deviating significantly from null models that are insensitive to the graphical information. The priors also notably differ between the navigation and social domains, showing fewer differences between cover stories within the same domain. Finally, we extend our framework to the more general case of quantifying priors over exchangeable random structures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSpringer Proceedings in Complexity
Number of pages10
StatePublished - 2018

Publication series

NameSpringer Proceedings in Complexity
ISSN (Print)2213-8684
ISSN (Electronic)2213-8692

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Computer Science Applications


  • Human cognition
  • Markov chain Monte Carlo with People (MCMCP)
  • Representational learning
  • Structural priors
  • Task graphs


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