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Coherency-maximizing exploration in the supermarket


In uncertain environments, effective decision makers balance exploiting options that are currently preferred against exploring alternative options that may prove superior1,2. For example, a honeybee foraging for nectar must decide whether to continue exploiting the current patch or move to a new location36. When the relative reward of options changes over time, humans explore in a normatively correct fashion, exploring more often when they are uncertain about the relative value of competing options711. However, rewards in these laboratory studies were objective (for example, monetary payoff), whereas many real-world decision environments involve subjective evaluations of reward (for example, satisfaction with food choice). In such cases, rather than choices following preferences, preferences may follow choices with subjective reward (that is, value) to maximize coherency between preferences and behaviour12,13. If so, increasing coherency would lessen the tendency to explore while uncertainty increases, contrary to previous findings. To evaluate this possibility, we examined the exploratory choices of more than 280,000 anonymized individuals in supermarkets over several years. Consumers’ patterns of exploratory choice ran counter to normative models for objective rewards79,14—the longer the exploitation streak for a product, the less likely people were to explore an alternative. Furthermore, customers preferred coupons to explore alternative products when they had recently started an exploitation streak. These findings suggest interventions to promote healthy lifestyle choices.

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Figure 1: Predicted exploration patterns for uncertainty minimization and coherency maximization.
Figure 2: Exploration changes locally but not globally.
Figure 3: Predicting exploration from exploitation streak lengths.
Figure 4: Coupon redemption depending on current exploitation streak length.


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We thank P. Todd for comments. This work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust grant RPG-2014-075, National Institutes of Health (grant 1P01HD080679) and Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award WT106931MA to B.C.L. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. At the time of submission, R.P., N.B. and G.P. were employed by dunnhumby Ltd. This work was carried out as part of P.S.R.’s PhD thesis, which was co-sponsored by dunnhumby Ltd. and UCL. dunnhumby Ltd. did not place any restrictions on the design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript, beyond the requirement that this work was to be done in compliance with its data policy.

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P.S.R. was involved in all parts of this project, supported by R.P., N.B. and G.P. regarding the data analysis and with input from B.C.L. for the design, analysis and write-up of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter S. Riefer.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Data and Analyses, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary References (PDF 272 kb)

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Riefer, P., Prior, R., Blair, N. et al. Coherency-maximizing exploration in the supermarket. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0017 (2017).

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