Simple Threshold Rules Solve Explore/Exploit Trade-offs in a Resource Accumulation Search Task

Sang, K., Todd, P. M., Goldstone, R. L., & Hills, T. T. (2020).  Simple threshold rules solve explore/exploit tradeoffs in a resource accumulation search task. Cognitive Science44, e12817.

How, and how well, do people switch between exploration and exploitation to search for and accumulate resources? We study the decision processes underlying such exploration/exploitation trade-offs using a novel card selection task that captures the common situation of searching among multiple resources (e.g., jobs) that can be exploited without depleting. With experience, participants learn to switch appropriately between exploration and exploitation and approach optimal performance. We model participants’ behavior on this task with random, threshold, and sampling strategies, and find that a linear decreasing threshold rule best fits participants’ results. Further evidence that participants use decreasing threshold-based strategies comes from reaction time differences between exploration and exploitation; however, participants themselves report nondecreasing thresholds. Decreasing threshold strategies that “front-load” exploration and switch quickly to exploitation are particularly effective in resource accumulation tasks, in contrast to optimal stopping problems like the Secretary Problem requiring longer exploration.

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