Humans could have an innate sense of probability, research shows

Credit: Carlos Sardá/public domain
(Medical Xpress)—Is a sense of probability learned or innate? To find out whether probability is a subject that people must learn in school, Vittorio Girotto and colleagues at University IUAV of Venice tested rural Mayan villagers, with no formal education, on their knowledge of probability. They found that the villagers performed just as well on probability-related tasks as Mayan schoolchildren and Italian adults. The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some research suggests that an understanding of requires formal schooling. When asked questions that involve probability, children in western cultures aren't able to give correct answers until they're five or six years old. That's around the age at which they start school, so it's possible that a sense of probability requires exposure to counting tasks and other activities associated with formal education. In addition, people without formal training in the basic rules of probability sometimes make incorrect predictions.

However, babies seem to have an intuitive sense of probability. When 12-month-olds see a container with one blue and three yellow bouncing balls, they show surprise when the blue ball exits the container. Nonhuman primates also seem to have some understanding of the likelihood that an event will occur.

To determine whether knowledge of probability is innate and shared by all human beings, Girotto's team gave adult Mayans, with no formal education, living in remote Guatemalan villages, tasks that involved betting on the likelihood of drawing chips of particular shapes and colors from pools of chips.

In one task, the researchers showed subjects four chips, three of one color and one of another. Subjects had to bet on the color of the chip the experimenter would draw. Later, the team showed subjects eight chips, four round and four square. Five of these were one color and three were another color. The subjects had to bet on the color of the chip to be drawn. The experimenter then drew a chip and indicated its shape; the subjects had to bet on its color.

Another task required subjects to choose which of two sets of chips would be more likely to contain a winning chip. Subjects also had to predict whether two randomly chosen chips from a set of chips would be the same or different colors.

The adult Mayans with no performed as well as 7 to 9-year-old Mayan schoolchildren and Italian adults given the same tasks. This suggests the existence of an innate sense of probability.

Explore further

Practice makes perfect, but not when it comes to decisions about risk

More information: Probabilistic cognition in two indigenous Mayan groups Laura Fontanari, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410583111

Is there a sense of chance shared by all individuals, regardless of their schooling or culture? To test whether the ability to make correct probabilistic evaluations depends on educational and cultural guidance, we investigated probabilistic cognition in preliterate and prenumerate Kaqchikel and K'iche', two indigenous Mayan groups, living in remote areas of Guatemala. Although the tested individuals had no formal education, they performed correctly in tasks in which they had to consider prior and posterior information, proportions and combinations of possibilities. Their performance was indistinguishable from that of Mayan school children and Western controls. Our results provide evidence for the universal nature of probabilistic cognition.

© 2014 Medical Xpress

Citation: Humans could have an innate sense of probability, research shows (2014, November 4) retrieved 24 February 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 04, 2014
Uh, do they not understand that in third world countries kids are playing dice games and learning how to play cards?

Nov 04, 2014
This proves Progressives and Democrats are not human. They keep saying there is no probability of voter fraud,

Nov 04, 2014
Perhaps this supports the urban legend: "First guess is best guess" as a strategy when presented with forced choices.

Nov 16, 2014
Hmm. This research is probably inane.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more