This thesis investigates the boundary of human rationality and how psychological processes interact with underlying regularities in the environment and affect beliefs and achievement. Two common modes in everyday experiential learning, supervised and unsupervised learning were hypothesized to tap different ecological and epistemological approaches to human adaptation; the Brunswikian and the Gibsonian approach. In addition, they were expected to be differentially effective for achievement depending on underlying regularities in the task environment. The first approach assumes that people use top-down processes and learn from hypothesis testing and external feedback, while the latter assumes that people are receptive to environmental stimuli and learn from bottom-up processes, without mediating inferences and support from external feedback, only exploratory observations and actions.
Study I investigates selective supervised learning and showed that biased beliefs arise when people store inferences about category members when information is partially absent. This constructivist coding of pseudo-exemplars in memory yields a conservative bias in the relative frequency of targeted category members when the information is constrained by the decision maker’s own selective sampling behavior, suggesting that niche picking and risk aversion contribute to conservatism or inertia in human belief systems. However, a liberal bias in the relative frequency of targeted category members is more likely when information is constrained by the external environment. This result suggests that highly exaggerated beliefs and risky behaviors may be more likely in environments where information is systematically manipulated, for example when positive examples are highlighted to convey a favorable image while negative examples are systematically withheld from the public eye.
Study II provides support that the learning modes engage different processes. Supervised learning is more accurate in less complex linear task environments, while unsupervised learning is more accurate in complex nonlinear task environments. Study III provides further support for abstraction based on hypothesis testing in supervised learning, and abstraction based on receptive bottom-up processes in unsupervised learning that aimed to form ideal prototypes as highly valid reference points stored in memory. The studies support previous proposals that integrating the Brunswikian and the Gibsonian approach can broaden the scope of psychological research and scientific inquiry.