Theses Doctoral

Motivational Influences on Environmental and Information Exploration, Cognition, and Behavior

Silston, Brian Dearborn

Humans stand alone as the sole extant species able to flexibly and effectively respond to virtually any environmental condition or threat, resulting in dominance over most environments on earth. While other animals may exceed human capabilities in some or many sensory modalities, human cognitive, affective and motivational systems integrate to promote unique capacities such as the ability to simulate possible experiences and imagine outcomes, and monitor changing environmental states in order to adapt dynamically in the service of goals.

Our unreasonable effectiveness at navigating both our immediate and longer-term needs is facilitated by our motivational flexibility, which affords adaptive and context appropriate behaviors. Innate motivational drives, i.e. survival mechanisms (see Mobbs et al 2015), satiety, social bonding, along with evolutionarily endowed and culturally guided values, and orthogonal levers described by theories such as Regulatory Focus (promotion / prevention see (Higgins, E.T. 1997)), facilitate particular motivational states and shifts thereof (i.e. imperative or interrogative (see Murty & Adcock 2017) to guide ongoing behavior in order to satisfy our needs.

These motivational factors interact with the various contexts we encounter to inform our exploration behaviors in our myriad physical and digital information environments. This thesis assesses the effects of motivation in its various manifestations on how we explore our myriad environments; how and when we sample specific kinds of information and what we prioritize; and the downstream effects on cognition, behavior and memory. Each study deploys a novel, custom platform and varying dynamic contexts designed to examine 1) decision-making under competition and threat in a virtual foraging task (Study 1); 2) navigational behavior under threat and subsequent spatial and item-based memory in virtual navigation task (Study 2); and 3) information foraging, and attitude change in the modern digital information environment (Study 3).

Motivational factors are shown to affect exploratory behaviors in each of these domains. Threat often induces an imperative motivational state, influencing environmental selection in a two-patch foraging task, and access to or use of memory systems in the service of navigational goals. Finally, online contexts interact with motivational influences to determine how we search for, select, and consume competing information to form or update attitudes and make decisions.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochsner, Kevin N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 12, 2022