One way to divide up the world is between people who like to explore new possibilities and those who stick to the tried and true. In fact, the tension between betting on a sure thing and taking a chance that something unexpected and wonderful might happen bedevils human and nonhuman animals alike.
Take songbirds, for example. The half-dozen finches perching at my deck feeder all summer know exactly what they’ll find there: black sunflower seed, and lots of it. Meanwhile, the warblers exploring the woods nearby don’t depend on this predictable food source in fine weather. As foragers, they enjoy other advantages: a more varied diet, less exposure to predators and, as a bonus, the chance to meet the perfect mate flitting from tree to tree.
This “explore-exploit” trade-off has prompted scores of lab studies, computer simulations and algorithms, trying to determine which strategy yields the greatest reward. Now a new study of human behavior in the real world, published last month in Nature Communications, shows that in good times, there’s not much difference between pursuing novelty and sticking to the status quo. When times are tough, however, explorers are the winners.
The new study, led by Shay O’Farrell and James Sanchirico, both of the University of California, Davis, along with Orr Spiegel of Tel Aviv University, examined the routes and results of nearly 2,500 commercial fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 2½ years. The study focused on “bottom longline” fishing, a system where hundreds of lines are attached to a horizontal bar that is then lowered to reach the sea bed. Dr. O’Farrell explained the procedure this way: “Go to a location and put the line down. Stay for a few hours. The lines are a mile long and have a buoy at either end. When they pull that up, they assess the catch, then decide if they will stay or move on to a different spot.”
Over two years of collecting data under various climate conditions, the researchers discovered that the fishermen were fairly consistent. “The exploiters would go to a smaller set of locations over and over, and go with what they know,” Dr. O’Farrell said. “The explorers would consistently try a wider range; they’d sample new places.”
The payoffs were clear. The explorers benefited from their prior knowledge of alternatives—and their ability to take risks—when the going got tough. For instance, while the study was under way, some prime fishing grounds were unexpectedly closed to protect their population of endangered sea turtles. Those who explored alternative sites had other options when their usual fishing grounds were suddenly off limits. Unlike the exploiters, “they didn’t have to start from ground zero to gain the knowledge they needed” when conditions changed, said Dr. O’Farrell. At the very least, they were more likely to continue to fish during an upheaval.
Similarly, the immediate impact of storms didn’t disrupt the explorers as much as it did those who cleaved to their routine. In the long run, there wasn’t a huge difference between the two groups, perhaps due to the sharing of information between fishing crews, said Dr. O’Farrell. But in challenging times, the study’s message was clear: “You can try new things in the face of uncertainty.”