This post is based on a paper: “Ecologically Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment”, that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: 2014, Vol. 143, No. 5. The authors are Timothy J. Pleskac and Ralph Hertwig. The paper is based on the idea that decision making theory has largely ignored the idea that risk and reward are tied together with payoff magnitudes signaling their probabilities.
How people should and do deal with uncertainty is one of the most vexing problems in theorizing about choice. The researchers suggests a process that is inferential in nature and rests on the notion that probabilities can be approximated from statistical regularities that govern real-world gambles. In the environment there are typically multiple fallible indicators to guide your way. When some cues become unreliable or unavailable, the organism can exploit this redundancy by substituting or alternating between different cues. This is possible because of what Brunswik called the mutual substitutability or vicarious functioning of cues. It is these properties of intercue relationships and substitutability that Pleskac and Hertwig suggest offer a new perspective on how people make decisions under uncertainty. Under uncertainty, cues such as the payoffs associated with different courses of actions may be accessible, whereas other cues—in this case, the probability with which those payoffs occur—are not. This missing probability information has been problematic for choice theories as typically both payoffs and probabilities are used in determining the value of options and in choosing. However, if payoffs and probabilities are interrelated, then this ecological property can permit the decision maker to infer hidden or unknown probability distributions from the payoffs themselves, thus easing the problem of making decisions under uncertainty.