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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Exploring the Structure of Predecisional Information Search in Risky Choice

  • Author(s): Bolenz, Florian;
  • Pachur, Thorsten
  • et al.

It is commonly assumed that there are qualitatively distinct cognitive strategies that underlie decision making. Because cognitive strategies differ in how information is processed, predecisional information search offers a window onto these strategies. Using a bottom-up approach, we examine whether predecisional information search actually reflects the use of distinct strategies. Specifically, we investigate the extent to which the heterogeneity in people's predecisional information search in a risky choice task reflects qualitatively distinct patterns that should emerge when people use distinct strategies. Our analysis takes into account the distribution of attention across attributes and transitions between attributes. Using cluster analysis, we find just two qualitatively different clusters with low separability: one characterized by balanced attention to all attributes and by transitions occurring mostly within the same option, and one characterized by a focus on outcome information and by frequent attribute-wise transitions. These two clusters were also associated with differences in people's choice behavior. The distribution of these clusters varied considerably across individuals, but less so across choice problems, suggesting that information search is not necessarily guided by features of the choice problem—this result challenges current theories on strategy selection. Our results challenge the common assumption that heterogeneity in predecisional information search is differentiated along clearly distinct information processing policies. Instead, the differentiation seems to fall into just two broad clusters—one resembling rational principles of expectation computation, the other reflecting heuristic principles that neglect probabilities—with considerable variability within each cluster.

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