Differential Effects of Psychotic Illness on Directed and Random Exploration

James A. Waltz, Robert C. Wilson, Matthew A. Albrecht, Michael J. Frank, James M. Gold

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Schizophrenia is associated with a number of deficits in decision-making, but the scope, nature, and cause of these deficits are not completely understood. Here we focus on a particular type of decision, known as the explore/exploit dilemma, in which people must choose between exploiting options that yield relatively known rewards and exploring more ambiguous options of uncertain reward probability or magnitude. Previous work has shown that healthy people use two distinct strategies to decide when to explore: directed exploration, which involves choosing options that would reduce uncertainty about the reward values (information seeking), and random exploration (exploring by chance), which describes behavioral variability that is not goal directed. We administered a recently developed gambling task designed to quantify both directed and random exploration to 108 patients with schizophrenia (PSZ) and 33 healthy volunteers (HVs). We found that PSZ patients show reduced directed exploration relative to HVs, but no difference in random exploration. Moreover, patients’ directed exploration behavior clusters into two qualitatively different behavioral phenotypes. In the first phenotype, which accounts for the majority of the patients (79%) and is consistent with previously reported behavior, directed exploration is only marginally (but significantly) reduced, suggesting that these patients can use directed exploration, but at a slightly lower level than community controls. In contrast, the second phenotype, comprising 21% of patients, exhibits a form of “extreme ambiguity aversion,” in which they almost never choose more informative options, even when they are clearly of higher value. Moreover, in PSZ, deficits in directed exploration were related to measures of intellectual function, whereas random exploration was related to positive symptoms. Taken together, our results suggest that schizophrenia has differential effects on directed and random exploration and that investigating the explore/exploit dilemma in psychosis patients may reveal subgroups of patients with qualitatively different patterns of exploration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18-39
Number of pages22
JournalComputational Psychiatry
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • ambiguity
  • decision-making
  • positive symptoms
  • reinforcement learning
  • schizophrenia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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