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Departmental Colloquium: The adaptivity of human search

Andreas Wilke
Wednesday, September 6, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm


Humans and other organisms must search effectively for the resources they need, whether these are physical (e.g., food or shelter) or informational (e.g., patterns in the world, or concepts stored in memory). Most human search studies have focused on brief (static) laboratory tasks, but being effective in realistic search settings requires adapting to changing environments over both short and long terms, and to changing individual abilities developmentally. In this talk, I will report on an ongoing project that investigates how children grow to understand searchable patterns as clusters and sequences.

A tendency to perceive illusory streaks or clumps in random sequences of data—the hot hand phenomenon—has been identified as a human universal tied to our evolutionary history of foraging for clumpy resources. We investigate how this misperception of randomness and ecologically relevant statistical thinking develops ontogenetically. Based on our work with adults, we developed three iPad-based decision-making tasks to assess how 3- to 10-year-old children decide that sequential events will continue in a streak or not, their understanding of randomness, and their ability to reason in spatially dependent terms. Our NSF funded project is collecting data at research sites in the United States and in Germany. Our analyses suggest that children, indeed, hold strong expectations of clumpy resources when they search through and reason with various statistical distributions.