Much of creative pursuit involves acts of exploration – for example, exploring new ideas, combinations of musical notes, or arrangements of color and texture on canvas. Past research has shown that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to have creative professions than those without bipolar disorder. The aim of our research is to better understand how people with bipolar disorder balance pursuing new information (exploring) with ‘cashing in’, so to speak, on what has already been learned.
This choice is often described as an ‘explore-exploit’ dilemma. If someone only explores, they lose the opportunity to make the most of what they’ve learned (imagine choosing a different lunch option each day, and never getting to choose your favorite option more than once). If someone only exploits, they run the risk that there might be a better option out there (imagine eating ham sandwiches every single day, and never trying anything new). In nearly all real-world situations, there is no right answer or perfect balance to the explore-exploit dilemma.
People with bipolar disorder might be willing to explore more when they are tackling their goals.
Our goal was to examine explore-exploit decisions among those with and without bipolar disorder, and how those relate to creativity. To measure tendencies to explore vs exploit, we used a lab-based computer task called the Observe or Bet task. In this task, participants are shown a sequence of information. They have to choose between two options: watch the sequence to learn more about which option is more valuable (explore), or bet on one option—if the bet is correct, they win points (exploit).
Exploit: capitalizing on what you already know to earn points
To win points, participants have to bet, or ‘exploit.’ To have a better chance of making high value choices, however, participants also should explore enough to learn about options. Every explore choice is a missed opportunity to bet, so participants must carefully balance their explore and exploit choices to win as many points as possible.
We expected that all participants would explore more in the beginning of the task as they were learning about the value of different options, but that the participants with bipolar disorder would continue to explore at a greater rate throughout the entire task. We did indeed find that on average, participants with bipolar made more choices to observe across the entire length of the task – and as a result, they won fewer points than other participants. However, both groups learned about the value of different options equally well.
We expected that […] the participants with bipolar disorder would continue to explore at a greater rate throughout the entire task
Overall, this suggests that people with bipolar disorder might be willing to explore more when they are tackling their goals. That is, they may take more time to gather information before starting to make the most of learned knowledge and experiences.
This is important to consider for future research because it indicates that poor outcomes of goal pursuit (i.e., degree of ultimate success or failure) might not, on its own, be a very good indicator of how well people learn from feedback. In other words, when it comes to understanding the way that people think and make decisions, the journey may tell us more than the destination.
This poster was presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry in Chicago, IL in May of 2019.
Ironside, M.L., Collins, A.G., Clark, L., Michalak, E., Poh, C. & Johnson, S.L. (2019, May). Distinct Behavioral Profiles of Information-Seeking for Reward in Euthymic Bipolar Disorder. Poster presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Chicago, IL. (view poster)
Manon Ironside is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley researching learning and decision making in people with and without mood disorders. Sheri Johnson is Director of the Cal Mania Research Program and Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley.