Humans are adept at uncovering abstract associations in the world around them, yet the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood. Intuitively, learning the higher-order structure of statistical relationships should involve complex mental processes. Here we propose an alternative perspective: that higher-order associations instead arise from natural errors in learning and memory. Combining ideas from information theory and reinforcement learning, we derive a maximum entropy (or minimum complexity) model of people's internal representations of the transitions between stimuli. Importantly, our model (i) affords a concise analytic form, (ii) qualitatively explains the effects of transition network structure on human expectations, and (iii) quantitatively predicts human reaction times in probabilistic sequential motor tasks. Together, these results suggest that mental errors influence our abstract representations of the world in significant and predictable ways, with direct implications for the study and design of optimally learnable information sources.