Most parents have had to handle a situation involving a picky eater. Now, instead of forcing them to try a new dish, you can present facts: trying something new may be good for your mental health. 

Jeremy Hogeveen

Thanks to a $2.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant and an $800,000 National Science Foundation CAREER awardUNM Psychology Professor Jeremy Hogeveen is hoping to prove exactly that.  

This year his lab is launching two parallel studies—The LEAD (Learning and Exploration in ADolescents) study, and the Time-Resolved Exploration and Exploitation (TREE) study—to better understand why people sometimes explore new possibilities versus sticking with familiar alternatives. 

“We're interested in how well the human brain is developing during adolescence and young adulthood,” Hogeveen said. “It learns about the world through exploring new options and that can sometimes maybe be more or less successful, and maybe predict mental health relevant outcomes in adolescence.” 

Choosing to study choices

It’s a choice people face well into adulthood. Say you’re giving a new television show a shot on Netflix, and it does not hit the mark. You may be more likely to watch a rerun of The Office or Friends, since you know it will always make you happy. 

 “In psychology and neuroscience, we have all these kinds of models that are really good at explaining how we learn through prior reinforcement. When we get good feedback we're likely to do it again, but when we taste something gross or get bad feedback, we're less likely to do it again,” Hogeveen said. “All of these fail when it comes to why we would try something new. It's hard to figure out why somebody would ever forgo something they know is good and try something novel and uncertain.”  

That does not erase the benefit that exists when finding your next beloved movie, or the best item on the menu.  

“It gives us the chance to find a new favorite option. A lot of really intelligent species out there make this decision to seek new information. We are willing to tolerate a bit of uncertainty to see if we can find a new favorite,” Hogeveen said. “The main thing we do in the lab is we study those conflicting forces and how the brain learns to exploit familiar options versus occasionally deciding to explore novel and uncertain options.” 

The study ahead

To study exploration and exploitation in the laboratory, participants will engage in simple decision-making tasks, and choose options through images that don't have a lot of implicit value. There may be a reward at the end, there may not be. Once they’ve learned which images are most likely to earn a reward, Hogeveen’s team will replace a familiar image with a new one. When a new image is presented, will participants stick with previously rewarded favorites, or will they try something new? 

What makes Hogeveen’s studies so unique is a couple of things. The first is the combination of research elements. He’s tackling both an advanced longitudinal and cross-sectional design. That means he’s not only tracking participants across a long period of time, but comparing different cohorts of participants along the way. 

 “I would be old and gray by the time we would actually get any of these studies done if we were going to be covering that whole age window. So what we're doing is kind of mixing those two worlds. By the time it's all said and done we’ll be able to isolate growth during that age window. You're able to do a large age window within a five year study period, which is a lot more reasonable than doing it in a decade or more,” he said. 

 It’s also a different venture when tackling such a specific age range.  

“We are focused on how that tradeoff develops. In early adolescence you are more of a random explorer, where essentially you're kind of like a dog chasing a squirrel. You seem likely to try a lot of different options without any particular rhyme or reason,” Hogeveen said. “Then over the course of adolescence, we become more information directed explorers, where we're able to learn enough about our environment to know, it would be good to learn whether or not this is a good option and if you should sample it, rather than being kind of bored, or randomly exploring a bunch of options.”  

The LEAD study will enroll 135 13-to-21 year olds that will return for 3 total study visits across five years. That means the older wave of volunteers will be in their mid-20s when the research is completed. In the TREE study, an additional cohort of 90 18-40 year old adults will also be recruited for 1-3 study visits. Dr. Hogeveen’s team will use similar approaches for studying explore-exploit decisions across both studies.

“The task itself is able to extract different parameters that could be related to those different things. If somebody is super exploitative on our task, we think it would be a hallmark of inflexibility or compulsive decision making,” Hogeveen said. “If somebody is very novelty-prone on our task and sampling some new thing, no matter what the current environment is, that suggests that they are potentially impulsive or perhaps more sensation seeking.” 

Goals and results for all

The other thing that separates these studies from the masses is that Hogeveen is not only highlighting the impact of decision making, but looking into why somebody would waver one way or another, even well into your life when habits are the norm.   

“At some point probably during adolescence and young adulthood, you've tried some new foods and realized that was beneficial to you, and then that ended up being the direction you went. That particular example is a perfect one for how we envision it being helpful during that adolescence window,” he said. “That's the exact type of information driven exploration that we're talking about. At some point you are able to break the mold and make your own decision.” 

There’s much to be understood as well when it comes to underlying causes of decision making. Those with generalized anxiety disorder may be less inclined to venture into the unknown. Those with attention deficit disorder may be less inclined to do the same thing twice. That’s one of the benefits of performing these studies in a lab–to hopefully take away some of the risk. 

“You realize within the confines of a given task, like we set up in the lab, these are situations to explore something, and something good happens. The overarching hypothesis is that this growth happens over adolescence and it's the result of changes from a few different decision making circuits in the brain,” Hogeveen said. 

Still, the one thing Hogeveen is sure of going into these five year studies—balance is key! 

“A healthy balance between learning to exploit and deciding to explore is optimal. That would be best for your mental health outcomes,” he said. 

Payment is offered for those ready to join. Participants will be paid $30 / hour during each study visit, and could earn a maximum of $80-90 per session. That means by the end of the decision making journey, those eligible to participate in all study visits will be making almost $300. You can contact Jeremy Hogeveen by email or by phone at (505) 312-5742. 

Learn more about the fascinating research and studies you are eligible for on the Department of Psychology’s website.