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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017 Sep;42(10):1931-1939. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.108. Epub 2017 May 29.

A Primer on Foraging and the Explore/Exploit Trade-Off for Psychiatry Research.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Philosophy and Neuroscience, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.
Departments of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Marketing, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


Foraging is a fundamental behavior, and many types of animals appear to have solved foraging problems using a shared set of mechanisms. Perhaps the most common foraging problem is the choice between exploiting a familiar option for a known reward and exploring unfamiliar options for unknown rewards-the so-called explore/exploit trade-off. This trade-off has been studied extensively in behavioral ecology and computational neuroscience, but is relatively new to the field of psychiatry. Explore/exploit paradigms can offer psychiatry research a new approach to studying motivation, outcome valuation, and effort-related processes, which are disrupted in many mental and emotional disorders. In addition, the explore/exploit trade-off encompasses elements of risk-taking and impulsivity-common behaviors in psychiatric disorders-and provides a novel framework for understanding these behaviors within an ecological context. Here we explain relevant concepts and some common paradigms used to measure explore/exploit decisions in the laboratory, review clinically relevant research on the neurobiology and neuroanatomy of explore/exploit decision making, and discuss how computational psychiatry can benefit from foraging theory.

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