Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Seek and ye shall find: How unpredictability relates to exploration

Unpredictability is adaptive!
M and MsA while back, I wrote a post about unpredictability in human behavior. I discussed the concept of probability matching in choice. A simple case of probability matching is one in which you are given a choice between two cups, only one of which will have an M&M in it. If the M&M is in the left cup 80% of the time, and the right cup 20% of the time, you can maximize the number of M&Ms you are likely to receive by always selecting the left cup. That way, you will get M&Ms 80% of the time. People (and most other animals) tend not to make this optimal response. Instead, we tend to probability match. That is, if the left cup has the M&M 80% of the time, then we pick the left cup 80% of the time.

There are many reasons why we carry out this behavior, and a paper by Wolfgang Gaissmaier and Lael Schooler in the December, 2008 issue of Cognition suggests a new reason. They find that people who tend to probability match are better able to detect changes in the environment than people who find the option that is most highly rewarded and stick with it.

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One way to think about this is that there is always a tradeoff between exploring the world and exploiting it. Exploration is the process of searching for new things. The potential benefit of exploration is that you may discover rich new sources of reward. The danger of exploration is that you may spend a lot of time and energy and come up empty handed. Exploitation is the process of drawing rewards from the world in known places. The benefit of exploitation is that you have a good idea of what you are going to get. The danger is that you may miss out on other opportunities that are more rewarding than the one you are currently exploiting.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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