Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Adaptive Mechanisms for Treating Missing Information: A Simulation Study

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Adaptive Mechanisms for Treating Missing Information: A Simulation Study

Article excerpt

When making inferences, people are often confronted with incomplete information. Looking for a healthy meal at a restaurant, for instance, we often do not have much detail about the entrees on the menu (e.g., the amount of cholesterol, fat, or preservatives in the dishes, or the cooking methods used) to help us infer which dish would be the wisest choice. Nevertheless, even with incomplete information, people infer which is the healthier option and make their choices. In the present article, the question addressed is how people should make inferences despite incomplete information.

The question of how people deal with incomplete information has attracted increasing interest (see Ganzach & Krantz, 1990; Huber & McCann, 1982; Jaccard & Wood, 1988; Johnson & Levin, 1985; Kardes, Posavac, Cronley, & Herr; 2008; White & Koehler, 2004; Zhang & Markman, 1998, 2001). The research, however, has led to a rather mixed picture. Several authors, for instance, have argued that when people confront an inference situation with incomplete information, missing information is treated as the average of the observed information (Ganzach & Krantz, 1990; Slovic & MacPhillamy, 1974; White & Koehler, 2004) or the most frequently observed information (i.e., the mode, Jaccard & Wood, 1988).

Alternatively, others have argued that individuals sometimes treat missing information as if it were negative (Huber & McCann, 1982; Jaccard & Wood, 1988; Johnson, 1987, 1989; Johnson & Levin, 1985; Lim & Kim, 1992; Lim, Olshavsky, & Kim, 1988; Meyer, 1981; Yamagishi & Hill, 1981, 1983; Yates, Jagacinski, & Faber, 1978). Presumably, the assumption is that missing information has been withheld because it would lead to a negative evaluation. For instance, when a personnel manager tries to find a new employee for an open position in a company, the applications often are not complete. Possibly, those candidates who are less competent might have incomplete applications more frequently.

In contrast, sometimes individuals process unknown information as if it were positive, especially when positive information is more prevalent in the inference situation (see, e.g., the studies of Levin, Johnson, & Faraone, 1984; Levin, Johnson, Ruso, & Deldin, 1985; Levin, Mosell, Lamka, Savage, & Gray, 1977). For instance, casino managers initially assume that their guests can cover their bets unless a negative report has been made in the past. Likewise, road users expect good weather conditions as long as no warning is given on the radio; that is, when explicit information about the weather conditions is missing, people regard the missing information as a positive signal. In these cases, missing information is positively correlated with the criterion value that must be predicted. Finally, people sometimes just use whatever information is available and simply ignore missing information (see Kardes et al., 2008; Sanbonmatsu, Kardes, & Herr, 1992; Simmons & Lynch, 1991). In summary, the empirical evidence shows a large heterogeneity in how people treat missing information, leading to the question of how this heterogeneity can be explained.

Mechanisms for Treating Missing Information as Adaptations to the Environment

The present study was undertaken to solve the question of why people respond in different ways to incomplete information, by following a Brunswikian perspective on human inference (e.g., Brunswik, 1943, 1956, 1957; Gigerenzer, Hoffrage, & Kleinbolting, 1991; Hammond, 1996). The in terrelation between the organism and its environment is the basic premise of Brunswik's theory (Brunswik, 1957). This general premise took shape in the well-known lens model (Brunswik, 1956), which analyzes the structure of the environment and addresses the organism's adjustment to that environment (see also Hammond, 1996; Hammond & Stewart, 2001; Vicente, 2003). …

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