Risk and ambiguity in information seeking: Eye gaze patterns reveal contextual behavior in dealing with uncertainty

Peter Wittek, Ying-Hsang Liu, Sandor Daranyi, Tom Gedeon, Ik Soo Lim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)
31 Downloads (Pure)


Information foraging connects optimal foraging theory in ecology with how humans search for information. The theory suggests that, following an information scent, the information seeker must optimize the tradeoff between exploration by repeated steps in the search space vs. exploitation, using the resources encountered. We conjecture that this tradeoff characterizes how a user deals with uncertainty and its two aspects, risk and ambiguity in economic theory. Risk is related to the perceived quality of the actually visited patch of information, and can be reduced by exploiting and understanding the patch to a better extent. Ambiguity, on the other hand, is the opportunity cost of having higher quality patches elsewhere in the search space. The aforementioned tradeoff depends on many attributes, including traits of the user: at the two extreme ends of the spectrum, analytic and wholistic searchers employ entirely different strategies. The former type focuses on exploitation first, interspersed with bouts of exploration, whereas the latter type prefers to explore the search space first and consume later. Our findings from an eye-tracking study of experts' interactions with novel search interfaces in the biomedical domain suggest that user traits of cognitive styles and perceived search task difficulty are significantly correlated with eye gaze and search behavior. We also demonstrate that perceived risk shifts the balance between exploration and exploitation in either type of users, tilting it against vs. in favor of ambiguity minimization. Since the pattern of behavior in information foraging is quintessentially sequential, risk and ambiguity minimization cannot happen simultaneously, leading to a fundamental limit on how good such a tradeoff can be. This in turn connects information seeking with the emergent field of quantum decision theory.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1790
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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