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Sources of suboptimality in a minimalistic explore–exploit task


People often choose between sticking with an available good option (exploitation) and trying out a new option that is uncertain but potentially more rewarding (exploration)1,2. Laboratory studies on explore–exploit decisions often contain real-world complexities such as non-stationary environments, stochasticity under exploitation and unknown reward distributions3,4,5,6,7. However, such factors might limit the researcher’s ability to understand the essence of people’s explore–exploit decisions. For this reason, we introduce a minimalistic task in which the optimal policy is to start off exploring and to switch to exploitation at most once in each sequence of decisions. The behaviour of 49 laboratory and 143 online participants deviated both qualitatively and quantitatively from the optimal policy, even when allowing for bias and decision noise. Instead, people seem to follow a suboptimal rule in which they switch from exploration to exploitation when the highest reward so far exceeds a certain threshold. Moreover, we show that this threshold decreases approximately linearly with the proportion of the sequence that remains, suggesting a temporal ratio law. Finally, we find evidence for ‘sequence-level’ variability that is shared across all decisions in the same sequence. Our results emphasize the importance of examining sequence-level strategies and their variability when studying sequential decision-making.

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All experimental and analysis codes used in this paper are available at https://github.com/mingyus/explore-exploit.

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All data that support the findings of this paper are available at https://github.com/mingyus/explore-exploit.

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Change history

  • 11 March 2019

    The original and corrected figures and equations are shown in the accompanying Publisher Correction.


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The authors thank R. Polonia for helpful comments on the manuscript, and people in W.J.M.’s laboratory for helpful discussions. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

All authors designed the study, developed the models, interpreted the results, and wrote the paper. M.S. and Z.B. collected the data and performed the analyses.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Wei Ji Ma.

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Supplementary Figures 1–16, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Methods 1–3, Supplementary Results 1 and 2, and Supplementary References

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Fig. 1: Experimental design, optimal policy and summary statistics.
Fig. 2: Fits of the Opt model to selected summary statistics.
Fig. 3: Evidence of a threshold rule depending on the proportion of days left.
Fig. 4: Sequence-level variability as implemented through variable-threshold models (Num-V and Prop-V).