Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment? On the explanatory status and theoretical contributions of Bayesian models of cognition

Matt Jonesa1 and Bradley C. Lovea2

a1 Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712


The prominence of Bayesian modeling of cognition has increased recently largely because of mathematical advances in specifying and deriving predictions from complex probabilistic models. Much of this research aims to demonstrate that cognitive behavior can be explained from rational principles alone, without recourse to psychological or neurological processes and representations. We note commonalities between this rational approach and other movements in psychology – namely, Behaviorism and evolutionary psychology – that set aside mechanistic explanations or make use of optimality assumptions. Through these comparisons, we identify a number of challenges that limit the rational program's potential contribution to psychological theory. Specifically, rational Bayesian models are significantly unconstrained, both because they are uninformed by a wide range of process-level data and because their assumptions about the environment are generally not grounded in empirical measurement. The psychological implications of most Bayesian models are also unclear. Bayesian inference itself is conceptually trivial, but strong assumptions are often embedded in the hypothesis sets and the approximation algorithms used to derive model predictions, without a clear delineation between psychological commitments and implementational details. Comparing multiple Bayesian models of the same task is rare, as is the realization that many Bayesian models recapitulate existing (mechanistic level) theories. Despite the expressive power of current Bayesian models, we argue they must be developed in conjunction with mechanistic considerations to offer substantive explanations of cognition. We lay out several means for such an integration, which take into account the representations on which Bayesian inference operates, as well as the algorithms and heuristics that carry it out. We argue this unification will better facilitate lasting contributions to psychological theory, avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued previous theoretical movements.


  • Bayesian modeling;
  • cognitive processing;
  • levels of analysis;
  • rational analysis;
  • representation

Matt Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He received an M.A. in Statistics (2001) and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology (2003) from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on mathematical modeling of cognition, including learning, knowledge representation, and decision making.

Bradley C. Love is a full Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1999, he received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Northwestern University. His research centers on basic issues in cognition, such as learning, memory, attention, and decision making, using methods that are informed by behavior, brain, and computation. Late in 2011, he will relocate to University College London.