Ultimately, inferences can be found in almost anything, ranging from inferring the winner of a sports match or the severity of a physical illness.4 Beyond inferential logic, inferences are applied to a variety of contexts and are drawn using a host of strategies, as we’ll explore below.
In the realm of cognitive psychology, inferences are incredibly relevant.3 They are necessary for perception, which is the conscious experience that results from interpreting stimulation from sensory organs. For example, when it comes to our retina, proximal stimulus is the two-dimensional representation of stimuli, and distal stimulus refers to stimuli in the world, most likely three-dimensional objects. The brain uses information from both eyes as well as properties from the proximal stimulus to make inferences about the relative depth of distal stimulus. Additionally, humans tend to make unconscious inferences, meaning that some of our object perceptions are the result of unconscious assumptions that we make about the environment.
As emphasized by cognitive psychologists, humans use data about our environments to form perceptions, gathered through our past experiences.3 This concept is also found in statistics, where inferences use mathematical principles to draw conclusions. Bayesian inferences refer to the idea that our estimates of the probability of an outcome is determined by two factors:
- Prior probability, our initial belief about the probability of an outcome; and,
- Likelihood of outcome, the extent to which the available evidence is consistent with the outcome.
Inferences can happen automatically and unconsciously, as we’ve covered.3 One area where inferences are constantly used — even among children — is when reading. Readers’ roles are to create connections between parts of a story, in order for narratives to be coherent. Anaphoric inferences, for instance, connect objects or people in one sentence to objects or people in another sentence. Two other inferences that are necessary for successful understanding of narratives include:
- Instrument inferences, which are inferences about tools or methods that occur while reading a text or listening to a speech; and,
- Causal inferences, which are inferences that result in the conclusions that events described in one clause or sentence were caused by events that occurred in a previous sentence.
Inferences have also been built into artificial intelligence (AI) systems, with the role of automatically extending knowledge bases.5 These knowledge bases are sets of propositions that represent what the system knows about the world, allowing AI systems to draw conclusions relevant to the task at hand.