Inferring an unobservable population size from observable samples


Success in the physical and social worlds often requires knowledge of population size. However, many populations cannot be observed in their entirety, making direct assessment of their size difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, an unobservable population size can be inferred from observable samples. We measured people’s ability to make such inferences and their confidence in these inferences. Contrary to past work suggesting insensitivity to sample size and failures in statistical reasoning, inferences of populations size were accurate – but only when observable samples indicated a large underlying population. When observable samples indicated a small underlying population, inferences were systematically biased. This error, which cannot be attributed to a heuristics account, was compounded by a metacognitive failure. Confidence was highest when accuracy was at its worst. This dissociation between accuracy and confidence was confirmed by a manipulation that shifted the magnitude and variability of people’s inferences without impacting their confidence. Together, these results (a) highlight the mental acuity and limits of a fundamental human judgment and (b) demonstrate an inverse relationship between cognition and metacognition.

Memory & Cognition, 1-13
Jack Cao
Quantitative Researcher