Putting Bandits Into Context: How Function Learning Supports Decision Making

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The authors introduce the contextual multi-armed bandit task as a framework to investigate learning and decision making in uncertain environments. In this novel paradigm, participants repeatedly choose between multiple options in order to maximize their rewards. The options are described by a number of contextual features which are predictive of the rewards through initially unknown functions. From their experience with choosing options and observing the consequences of their decisions, participants can learn about the functional relation between contexts and rewards and improve their decision strategy over time. In three experiments, the authors explore participants’ behavior in such learning environments. They predict participants’ behavior by context-blind (mean-tracking, Kalman filter) and contextual (Gaussian process and linear regression) learning approaches combined with different choice strategies. Participants are mostly able to learn about the context-reward functions and their behavior is best described by a Gaussian process learning strategy which generalizes previous experience to similar instances. In a relatively simple task with binary features, they seem to combine this learning with a probability of improvement decision strategy which focuses on alternatives that are expected to lead to an improvement upon a current favorite option. In a task with continuous features that are linearly related to the rewards, participants seem to more explicitly balance exploration and exploitation. Finally, in a difficult learning environment where the relation between features and rewards is nonlinear, some participants are again well-described by a Gaussian process learning strategy, whereas others revert to context-blind strategies.

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