Evolved Search Mechanisms in the Mind’s Adaptive Toolbox

Peter M. Todd

Traditional views of rational decision making assume that individuals use a few powerful mechanisms to solve most of the problems they face. But given that human and animal minds have evolved to be quick and just “good enough” in environments where information is often costly and difficult to obtain, we should instead expect individuals to draw on an “adaptive toolbox” of simple, fast and frugal heuristics that make good decisions with limited information processing. These heuristics typically ignore most of the available information and rely on only a few important cues. Yet they make choices that are accurate in their appropriate application domains, achieving ecological rationality through their fit to particular information structures. Individuals not only have to decide when to stop searching for information for making choices, but also when to stop searching for choice options themselves that appear sequentially over an extended period of time. In one form of such sequential search tasks, aspiration-level or satisficing heuristics can determine when to stop search--such as when a suitable mate has been found. Another class of heuristics in the adaptive toolbox can be used in foraging search tasks, where the problem is to decide when to give up on the current depleted location and move on to a fresh resource patch. New experiments in our lab are exploring the heuristic mechanisms that people use in these types of settings, and the ways that search in one domain may influence search in another.

Home | Information | Registration | Links