We all do it. We’re hungry and want a snack, so we head to the fridge, but find nothing worthwhile to eat. Then we try the pantry in search of something -- anything -- to satisfy our craving, but still nothing looks good enough to eat. Back to the fridge we go, where we shuffle items around and finally decide that lonely apple in the bottom drawer will do. And then we wander back to the couch, crunching away mindlessly.

This foraging behavior is nothing new.  It's part of our evolved cognition and our ancestors and other animals have been doing it for centuries. The need to search is universal, yet tricky as we often need to trade off searching in new locations over locations we inspected already. Are we going to find more, better alternatives elsewhere or are we going to miss out not properly inspecting the current location that may still have viable options?

Clarkson University Associate Professor of Psychology Andreas Wilke recently co-guest-edited a special issue of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, which reports on multiple studies that researched foraging behaviors. The journal is published by the American Psychological Association.

“Searching is a core aspect of our life and deciding where to search, how long to search, when to stop searching and when to move on to a more suitable location is an old adaptive problem," said Wilke. "The psychologically interesting part here is that many search behaviors in other domains—such as looking for product information on the internet, deciding where to park, which house to buy or what movie to stream tonight—can all rely on a small set of evolved search algorithms, as the available information is statistically structured similarly.”

Along with undergraduate student researchers and faculty from Clarkson’s Department of Biology and Department of Communication & Media, Wilke measured the degree of spatial aggregation, randomness and dispersion in and around Clarkson’s campus.

Over multiple semesters, he observed and coded various resource distributions, such as which seats are taken in a cafeteria, which parking spots are occupied, how local geese and cows distribute themselves, and mapped patterns of wilderness, forest and water in the nearby Adirondack State Park. Data from this real-world study will help better understand what statistical defaults people assume when reasoning about resources that are distributed in space and time.

According to some researchers, these foraging behaviors extend even further. One study in the special issue examined foraging in the context of searching for romantic relationships. The researchers investigated whether the likelihood that a relationship ends at a given time systematically relates to how long the search period was for this relationship. They found that it does. Thus, people may partly decide to stay in a relationship based on how difficult relationships are to find.

“This result does indeed remind us of the classic problem in optimal foraging theory in which animals have to decide when to stop searching for food at a particular location and move on to a new location with potentially better, higher caloric returns.," said Wilke. "This is an interesting new perspective and novel study domain for the psychology of search and will definitely stimulate further research.” 

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