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A resource-rational theory of set size effects in human visual working memory

  1. Ronald van den Berg  Is a corresponding author
  2. Wei Ji Ma  Is a corresponding author
  1. Uppsala University, Sweden
  2. New York University, United States
Research Article
  • Cited 7
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Cite this article as: eLife 2018;7:e34963 doi: 10.7554/eLife.34963


Encoding precision in visual working memory decreases with the number of encoded items. Here, we propose a normative theory for such set size effects: the brain minimizes a weighted sum of an error-based behavioral cost and a neural encoding cost. We construct a model from this theory and find that it predicts set size effects. Notably, these effects are mediated by probing probability, which aligns with previous empirical findings. The model accounts well for effects of both set size and probing probability on encoding precision in nine delayed-estimation experiments. Moreover, we find support for the prediction that the total amount of invested resource can vary non-monotonically with set size. Finally, we show that it is sometimes optimal to encode only a subset or even none of the relevant items in a task. Our findings raise the possibility that cognitive 'limitations' arise from rational cost minimization rather than from constraints.

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Author details

  1. Ronald van den Berg

    Department of Psychology, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-7353-5960
  2. Wei Ji Ma

    Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-9835-9083


National Institutes of Health (R01EY020958)

  • Wei Ji Ma

Vetenskapsrådet (2015-00371)

  • Ronald van den Berg

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Stephanie Palmer, University of Chicago, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: January 10, 2018
  2. Accepted: July 28, 2018
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: August 7, 2018 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: August 27, 2018 (version 2)


© 2018, van den Berg & Ma

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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