Protection from uncertainty in the exploration/exploitation trade-off

Walker, Adrian and Navarro, Danielle and Newell, Ben and Beesley, Tom (2022) Protection from uncertainty in the exploration/exploitation trade-off. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 48 (4). pp. 547-568. ISSN 0278-7393

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The exploration/exploitation trade-off (EE trade-off) describes how, when faced with several competing alternatives, decision-makers must often choose between a known good alternative (exploitation) and one or more unknown but potentially more rewarding alternatives (exploration). Prevailing theory on how humans perform the EE trade-off states that uncertainty is a major motivator for exploration: the more uncertain the environment, the more exploration that will occur. The current paper examines whether exploratory behaviour in both choice and attention may be impacted differently depending on whether uncertainty is onset suddenly (unexpected uncertainty), or more slowly (expected uncertainty). It is shown that when uncertainty was expected, participants tended to explore less with their choices, but not their attention, than when it was unexpected. Crucially, the impact of this "protection from uncertainty" on exploration only occurred when participants had an opportunity to learn the structure of the task prior to experiencing uncertainty. This suggests that the interaction between uncertainty and exploration is more nuanced than simply more uncertainty leading to more exploration, and that attention and choice behaviour may index separate aspects of the EE trade-off.

Item Type:
Journal Article
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Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
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©American Psychological Association, 2022. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the APA journal. Please do not copy or cite without author's permission. The final article is available, upon publication, at: 10.1037/xlm0000883
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24 Nov 2020 12:48
Last Modified:
21 Sep 2023 03:01