Developmental changes in exploration resemble stochastic optimization


Human development is often described as a “cooling off” process, analogous to stochastic optimization algorithms that implement a gradual reduction in randomness over time. Yet there is ambiguity in how to interpret this analogy, due to a lack of concrete empirical comparisons. Using data from n=281 participants ages 5 to 55, we show that ”cooling off” does not only apply to the single dimension of randomness. Rather, human development resembles an optimization process of multiple learning parameters e.g. reward generalization, uncertainty-directed exploration, and random temperature. Rapid changes in parameters occur during childhood, but these changes plateau and converge to efficient values in adulthood. We show that while the developmental trajectory of human parameters is strikingly similar to several stochastic optimization algorithms, there are important differences in convergence. None of the optimization algorithms tested were able to discover reliably better regions of the strategy space than adult participants on this task.

Nature Human Behavior, 7, 1955-1967