Reconciling categorization and memory via environmental statistics

Arjun Devraj, Thomas L. Griffiths, Qiong Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How people represent categories and how those representations change over time is a basic question about human cognition. Previous research has demonstrated that people categorize objects by comparing them to category prototypes in early stages of learning but consider the individual exemplars within each category in later stages. However, these results do not seem consistent with findings in the memory literature showing that it becomes increasingly easier to access representations of general knowledge than representations of specific items over time. Why would one rely more on exemplar-based representations in later stages of categorization when it is more difficult to access these exemplars in memory? To reconcile these incongruities, our study proposed that previous findings on categorization are a result of human participants adapting to a specific experimental environment, in which the probability of encountering an object stays uniform over time. In a more realistic environment, however, one would be less likely to encounter the same object if a long time has passed. Confirming our hypothesis, we demonstrated that under environmental statistics identical to typical categorization experiments the advantage of exemplar-based categorization over prototype-based categorization increases over time, replicating previous research in categorization. In contrast, under realistic environmental statistics simulated by our experiments the advantage of exemplar-based categorization over prototype-based categorization decreases over time. A second set of experiments replicated our results, while additionally demonstrating that human categorization is sensitive to the category structure presented to the participants. These results provide converging evidence that human categorization adapts appropriately to environmental statistics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
StateAccepted/In press - 2024
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


  • Category learning
  • Environmental statistics
  • Exemplar model
  • Memory retrieval
  • Prototype model
  • Rational analysis


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