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Two Hills

Abstraction promotes Exploration

The act of sightseeing in an unfamiliar city, of deciding whether to end a relationship, and of trying out a new item on a menu all have at least one thing in common: they all involve the act of venturing beyond the relative safety of a known environment (the “local maximum”) in search of a superior alternative (the “global maximum”) (cite). Such behavior lies at the heart of a wide range of phenomena in humans and animals, such as a bird determining how long to remain at a certain berry bush, a chimpanzee choosing whether to venture away from the troupe in search of a mate, or a researcher deciding how long to continue pursuing a given research agenda. 

In this research we were interested in what psychological properties allow people to consider distant alternatives and engage in exploration. We based our predictions on Construal Level Theory, a psychological theory suggesting that people use abstraction to transcend psychological distance. The quintessential example of this is a vacation to Hawaii: when it's far in the future you just think about beach and sun. When it's happening today, suddenly you need to think about suitcases, packing, and plane tickets. 

Construal level theory says that abstraction is useful to us when we want to consider distant things. Because abstraction focuses on the gist of available information, it helps us consider things that are more likely to vary across time and space. 

Participants' view of the Two Hills Game. 

Participants' view of the Two Hills Game. 

So if abstraction is a useful tool for transcending psychological distance, so too might it be useful in exploration. 

In other words, the more abstractly someone is thinking, the more likely they will be to explore. 

To test this question, we implemented a simplified computer game called the "Two Hills Game." The Two Hills Game consisted of a 20 x 20 grid of buttons. Underneath each button was a point value, and participants' task was to get as many points as possible.

Actual point distribution of the Two Hills Game. 

Actual point distribution of the Two Hills Game. 

Unbeknownst to participants, the buttons followed a pattern. At one end of the grid was the "local maximum": the place that was easy to reach and yielded decent point values. At the other was the "global maximum": the place that was hard to reach, but most valuable.

Our question was: who will reach the global maximum?

We predicted that the more abstractly people were thinking, the more likely they would be in reaching the global maximum. 

Indeed that is what we saw. Before people played the game, they took a "Category Inclusiveness" task. In this task, their job was to indicate how good of an example each of several items was of an overarching category. This has been used before as a measure of how abstractly people are thinking. 

 
A measure of mental abstraction called "Category Inclusiveness."

A measure of mental abstraction called "Category Inclusiveness."

 

Next, they played the Two Hills Game. 

As predicted, people who were thinking more abstractly reached the Global Maximum sooner, and more frequently. 

These results have implications for how we think about exploration. Exploration is critical behavior underlying much of human success, from Christopher Columbus to your next vacation to Kenya. Now we know that one of the things that encourages people to explore is the act of taking a step back, and thinking more big-picture about their situation. This can help us to encourage exploration in the future.