The structure and development of explore-exploit decision making

Madeline B. Harms, Yuyan Xu, C. Shawn Green, Kristina Woodard, Robert Wilson, Seth D. Pollak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A critical component of human learning reflects the balance people must achieve between focusing on the utility of what they know versus openness to what they have yet to experience. How individuals decide whether to explore new options versus exploit known options has garnered growing interest in recent years. Yet, the component processes underlying decisions to explore and whether these processes change across development remain poorly understood. By contrasting a variety of tasks that measure exploration in slightly different ways, we found that decisions about whether to explore reflect (a) random exploration that is not explicitly goal-directed and (b) directed exploration to purposefully reduce uncertainty. While these components similarly characterized the decision-making of both youth and adults, younger participants made decisions that were less strategic, but more exploratory and flexible, than those of adults. These findings are discussed in terms of how people adapt to and learn from changing environments over time. Data has been made available in the Open Science Foundation platform (

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101650
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - May 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 Elsevier Inc.


  • Adolescence
  • Decision-making
  • Exploitation
  • Exploration
  • Principal component analysis

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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