When uncertainty in social contexts increases exploration and decreases obtained rewards


Similar decision-making situations often arise repeatedly, presenting tradeoffs between (i) acquiring new information to facilitate future-related decisions (exploration) and (ii) using existing information to secure expected outcomes (exploitation). Exploration choices have been well characterized in nonsocial contexts, however, choices to explore (or not) in social environments are less well understood. Social environments are of particular interest because a key factor that increases exploration in nonsocial contexts is environmental uncertainty, and the social world is generally appreciated to be highly uncertain. Although uncertainty sometimes must be reduced behaviorally (e.g., by trying something and seeing what happens), other times it may be reduced cognitively (e.g., by imagining possible outcomes). Across four experiments, participants searched for rewards in a series of grids that were either described as comprising real people distributing previously earned points (social context) or as the result of a computer algorithm or natural phenomenon (nonsocial context). In Experiments 1 and 2, participants explored more, and earned fewer rewards, in the social versus nonsocial context, suggesting that social uncertainty prompted behavioral exploration at the cost of task-relevant goals. In Experiments 3 and 4, we provided additional information about the people in the search space that could support social-cognitive approaches to uncertainty reduction, including relationships of the social agents distributing points (Experiment 3) and information relevant to social group membership (Experiment 4); exploration decreased in both instances. Taken together, these experiments highlight the approaches to, and tradeoffs of, uncertainty reduction in social contexts. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).

In Journal of Experimental Psychology:General