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Heuristic to Bayesian: The evolution of reasoning from childhood to adulthood


  • Barash, Jori
  • Brocas, Isabelle
  • Carrillo, Juan D.
  • Kodaverdian, Niree


In this laboratory experiment, children and teenagers learn the composition of balls in an urn through sampling with replacement. We find significant aggregate departures from optimal Bayesian learning across all ages, but also important developmental trajectories. Two inference-based and two heuristic-based strategies capture the behavior of 65% to 90% of participants. Many of the youngest children (K to 2nd grade) base their decisions only on the last piece of information and use evolutionary heuristics (such as the “Win-Stay, Lose-Switch” strategy) to guide their choices. Older children and teenagers are gradually able to condition their decisions on all previous information but they often fall prey of the gambler’s fallacy. Only the oldest participants display optimal Bayesian reasoning. These results are modulated by task complexity, and Bayesian reasoning is evidenced earlier when inferences are simpler.

Suggested Citation

  • Barash, Jori & Brocas, Isabelle & Carrillo, Juan D. & Kodaverdian, Niree, 2019. "Heuristic to Bayesian: The evolution of reasoning from childhood to adulthood," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 159(C), pages 305-322.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:159:y:2019:i:c:p:305-322
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2018.05.008

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Brocas, Isabelle & Carrillo, Juan D & Combs, T. Dalton & Kodaverdian, Niree, 2015. "Consistency in Simple vs. Complex Choices over the Life Cycle," CEPR Discussion Papers 10457, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    2. Erev, Ido & Roth, Alvin E, 1998. "Predicting How People Play Games: Reinforcement Learning in Experimental Games with Unique, Mixed Strategy Equilibria," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(4), pages 848-881, September.
    3. Grether, David M., 1992. "Testing bayes rule and the representativeness heuristic: Some experimental evidence," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 31-57, January.
    4. Fatemeh Borhani & Edward J. Green, 2018. "Identifying the occurrence or non occurrence of cognitive bias in situations resembling the Monty Hall problem," Papers 1802.08935,
    5. Holt, Charles A. & Smith, Angela M., 2009. "An update on Bayesian updating," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 69(2), pages 125-134, February.
    6. Rachel Croson & James Sundali, 2005. "The Gambler’s Fallacy and the Hot Hand: Empirical Data from Casinos," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 30(3), pages 195-209, May.
    7. Tibor Besedeš & Cary Deck & Sudipta Sarangi & Mikhael Shor, 2012. "Age Effects and Heuristics in Decision Making," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 94(2), pages 580-595, May.
    8. Charness, Gary & Gneezy, Uri & Halladay, Brianna, 2016. "Experimental methods: Pay one or pay all," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 131(PA), pages 141-150.
    9. Brocas, Isabelle & Carrillo, Juan D & Kodaverdian, Niree, 2017. "Altruism and strategic giving in children and adolescents," CEPR Discussion Papers 12288, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    10. Terrell, Dek, 1994. "A Test of the Gambler's Fallacy: Evidence from Pari-mutuel Games," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 8(3), pages 309-317, May.
    11. Colin Camerer & Teck-Hua Ho, 1999. "Experience-weighted Attraction Learning in Normal Form Games," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 67(4), pages 827-874, July.
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    More about this item


    Laboratory experiment; Developmental economics; Learning; Bayesian updating; Heuristic reasoning;

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D83 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Search; Learning; Information and Knowledge; Communication; Belief; Unawareness
    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making


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