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Context Effects in Category Learning: An Investigation of Four Probabilistic Models

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3 Author(s)

Categorization is a central activity of human cognition. When an individual is asked to categorize a sequence of items, context effects arise: categorization of one item influences category decisions for subsequent items. Specifically, when experimental subjects are shown an exemplar of some target category, the category prototype appears to be pulled toward the exemplar, and the prototypes of all nontarget categories appear to be pushed away. These push and pull effects diminish with experience, and likely reflect long-term learning of category boundaries. We propose and evaluate four principled probabilistic (Bayesian) accounts of context effects in categorization. In all four accounts, the probability of an exemplar given a category is encoded as a Gaussian density in feature space, and categorization involves computing category posteriors given an exemplar. The models differ in how the uncertainty distribution of category prototypes is represented (localist or distributed), and how it is updated following each experience (using a maximum likelihood gradient ascent, or a Kalman filter update). We find that the distributed maximum-likelihood model can explain the key experimental phenomena. Further, the model predicts other phenomena that were confirmed via reanalysis of the experimental data.