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Deciding which options to engage, and which to forego, requires developing accurate beliefs about the overall distribution of prospects. Here we adapt a classic prey selection task from foraging theory to examine how individuals keep track of an environment's reward rate and adjust choices in response to its fluctuations. Preference shifts were most pronounced when the environment improved compared to when it deteriorated. This is best explained by a trial-by-trial learning model in which participants estimate the reward rate with upward vs. downward changes controlled by separate learning rates. A failure to adjust expectations sufficiently when an environment becomes worse leads to suboptimal choices: options that are valuable given the environmental conditions are rejected in the false expectation that better options will materialize. These findings offer a previously unappreciated parallel in the serial choice setting of observations of asymmetric updating and resulting biased (often overoptimistic) estimates in other domains.

Original publication




Journal article


Nat Commun

Publication Date





Adult, Bias, Choice Behavior, Culture, Environment, Female, Humans, Learning, Male, Models, Biological, Reward, Task Performance and Analysis