Disturbance modifies payoffs in the explore-exploit trade-off

Shay O’Farrell*, James N. Sanchirico, Orr Spiegel, Maxime Depalle, Alan C. Haynie, Steven A. Murawski, Larry Perruso, Andrew Strelcheck

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Decision-making agents face a fundamental trade-off between exploring new opportunities with risky outcomes versus exploiting familiar options with more certain but potentially suboptimal outcomes. Although mediation of this trade-off is essential to adaptive behavior and has for decades been assumed to modulate performance, the empirical consequences of human exploratory strategies are unknown beyond laboratory or theoretical settings. Leveraging 540,000 vessel position records from 2494 commercial fishing trips along with corresponding revenues, here we find that during undisturbed conditions, there was no relationship between exploration and performance, contrary to theoretical predictions. However, during a major disturbance event which closed the most-utilized fishing grounds, explorers benefited significantly from less-impacted revenues and were also more likely to continue fishing. We conclude that in stochastic natural systems characterized by non-stationary rewards, the role of exploration in buffering against disturbance may be greater than previously thought in humans.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3363
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2019


FundersFunder number
Spatial Economics Toolbox for Fisheries
National Science Foundation
Directorate for Geosciences1325452
National Academy of Sciences2000007631


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