Balancing exploration and exploitation with information and randomization

Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2021 Apr;38:49-56. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.10.001. Epub 2020 Nov 6.


Explore-exploit decisions require us to trade off the benefits of exploring unknown options to learn more about them, with exploiting known options, for immediate reward. Such decisions are ubiquitous in nature, but from a computational perspective, they are notoriously hard. There is therefore much interest in how humans and animals make these decisions and recently there has been an explosion of research in this area. Here we provide a biased and incomplete snapshot of this field focusing on the major finding that many organisms use two distinct strategies to solve the explore-exploit dilemma: a bias for information ('directed exploration') and the randomization of choice ('random exploration'). We review evidence for the existence of these strategies, their computational properties, their neural implementations, as well as how directed and random exploration vary over the lifespan. We conclude by highlighting open questions in this field that are ripe to both explore and exploit.