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Burns, BD (2009)

Sensitivity to statistical regularities: People (largely) follow Benford’s law

pp 2872-2877 in: Proceedings of CogSci 2009, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

ISSN/ISBN: Not available at this time. DOI: Not available at this time.

Abstract: Recent decision making research has emphasized people’s sensitivity to statistical relationships in the environment. A little-known relationship is Benford’s law, that the first digitsof numbers representing many natural and human phenomena have a logarithmic distribution (Benford, 1938). Benford’s law is being used to help detect fraudulent financial data, butthis assumes that people will not follow Benford’s law whengenerating data. In two studies I examined whether people follow Benford’s law. In Study 1 participants were given nine questions (e.g., “Length of the Indus river: km”) chosen tohave a flat distribution of first-digits for correct answers. The generated distribution was close to Benford’s law. In Study 2 the results for generated data were replicated with newquestions, and a selection task was also given in which participants selected from nine possible answers. Selected answers were a poor fit to Benford’s law. Taken together the results suggest that Benford’s law is a product of the way people generate responses, rather than sensitivity to the relationship itself.

@inproceedings{, AUTHOR={Bruce D. Burns}, TITLE={Sensitivity to statistical regularities: People (largely) follow Benford’s law}, BOOKTITLE={Proceedings of the 2009 CogSci Conference}, ADDRESS={Amsterdam, The Netherlands}, YEAR={2009}, URL={}, }

Reference Type: Conference Paper

Subject Area(s): Psychology, Statistics