The influence of categories on perception: Explaining the perceptual magnet effect as optimal statistical inference

Naomi Feldman, Thomas Griffiths, James Morgan

A variety of studies have demonstrated that organizing stimuli into categories can affect the way the stimuli are perceived. We explore the influence of categories on perception through one such phenomenon, the perceptual magnet effect, in which discriminability between vowels is reduced near prototypical vowel sounds. We present a Bayesian model to explain why this reduced discriminability might occur: It arises as a consequence of optimally solving the statistical problem of perception in noise. In the optimal solution to this problem, listeners’ perception is biased toward phonetic category means because they use knowledge of these categories to guide their inferences about speakers’ target productions. Simulations show that model predictions closely correspond to previously published human data, and novel experimental results provide evidence for the predicted link between perceptual warping and noise. The model unifies several previous accounts of the perceptual magnet effect and provides a framework for exploring categorical effects in other domains.