Why we go where no one’s gone before

Alice G. Walton | Mar 02, 2021

Even in the routine of daily life, there exist points in time when people could choose to explore and seek out something new. Do you order food from the restaurant your friend recommended or look for one you haven’t heard of before? After dinner, do you watch the television show the Netflix algorithm rated or scroll through other options to see what you find?

Chicago Booth PhD student Yuji K. Winet, University of Florida’s Yanping Tu (a graduate of Booth’s PhD Program), Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Shoham Choshen-Hillel (a former Booth postdoctoral scholar), and Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach studied what may prompt people to choose unknown options over known ones, and they find that the source of the information is important: when what you know comes from other people’s experiences, you’re more likely to explore new options.

“We posit that this effect is driven by an intuitive tendency to take a group-level perspective (or ‘we’-perspective) when exploring an environment with others, even when no group membership is made explicit,” the researchers write. “This we-perspective makes people gravitate towards exploring new options to diversify their experiences as a group.”

They conducted a series of experiments, some of which presented participants with a half-hearted recommendation or unexciting prompt to see if they’d look for something better.

In one experiment, they were asked to choose one of four squares on a computer screen. Each square, or button, hid an amount of money from 1 cent to 40 cents, and participants were told how much money was behind one of the squares in order to help them determine whether to explore and try another square in hopes of turning up more. What varied was the ostensible source of the information: some participants were told the information came from another person taking part in the experiment; others were told it came from the computer.

Participants were almost twice as likely to explore an unknown button when the information about the known amount appeared to come from a player rather than the computer. As social beings, we consider other people’s experiences as part of our own, so we’re less likely to want to repeat them, even if the experiences are positive, the researchers find. It doesn’t seem to work the same way with computers.

Not surprisingly, the amount revealed also had an effect: participants were more willing to choose a different square—to explore, so to speak—when the known amount was low and less willing when it was high, no matter the source of the information. But when the revealed amount was in the middle, the human versus computer effect became particularly evident.

“If there are 20 cents there, I’m both tempted to take the money and to look at other options,” Winet says. “In the middle, the ‘right answer’ about what to do is ambiguous. It’s in these cases where knowing whether the information came from a person versus a nonperson pushes me one way or the other.”

Another experiment tested this effect using a setup designed to mimic a video-sharing site such as YouTube. All participants were told they could choose one of four video clips and that one of them had a middling rating of 7 on a 10-point scale. One group was told the rating came from the website’s algorithm, another that the rater was a person named Alex who lived far away, and a third that the rater was a person named Alex who lived in the same town as they did.

In the algorithm group, 41 percent of participants said they were likely to explore a different clip, compared with 50 percent in the “out-of-town-advice” group and 52 percent in the “local-advice” group. The results again suggest that we’re more likely to take a chance on something new if the information comes from a person, even if it’s not someone particularly close.  

The idea that the individual decision about whether to venture out has a social component could have practical implications, the researchers write. “For those seeking to encourage exploration in others, our findings offer a simple intervention: make salient the fact that existing information is available because of previous explorers.”