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#15 - Information Foraging I - Introduction

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Article written by
Juan Jesús Millo

Writing of the week

Would we be able to relate our behavior on the web to how animals forage for food in the wild? What does foraging for food by the animals have to do with the web?

Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card at Xerox PARC explained how we, as individuals, track information on the web, based on anthropological and biological animal theory, making an analogy to the Optimal foraging theory, which is the idea that animals that forage for food try to maximize their energy consumption (finding food) during the time needed to find it.

This more mundane explanation could be explained by putting us in the skin of a fox, where we would have 100% of energy, but moving to the forest in front of us consumes 20% of energy, and to the forest on the right 5%, which forest will this fox go to? Well, here comes the most underrated statement about interaction, it depends. How many animals will there be in each forest? It is not the same that there are 20 rabbits or 2 of them, since once the fox finishes "cleaning" an area, it will have to move to the next one, consuming more energy. How much energy does an animal's intake consume? It is not the same to run after a rabbit as it is to run after a deer.

All this taken to the web is the reason why people don't scroll up and down all the pages or why you don't open all the links on a page if you are looking for information on that topic, we have to optimize our energy to the maximum.

Searching for food in animals is a matter of pure survival, we don't have to do these complex calculations as we go down to the supermarket and buy the food, evolution has made us lazy, but we do value our time (leaving aside procrastination), and so we always try to get the most benefit in the minimum amount of time.

Information foraging therefore seeks the optimal benefit:value ratio, making context-based decisions that affect this benefit:cost ratio.

Herbert Simon coined the term Limited Rationality in 1957, where he commented that people maximize the benefit and try to minimize the cost in their decisions, but we find it difficult to accurately estimate this benefit:cost ratio, and therefore, we use imperfect but satisfactory heuristics to choose the most convenient options, even if they are irrational.

This rationality is limited by three dimensions: the information available, the cognitive limitation of the individual mind, and the time available to make the decision.

This is only the introduction of a series of posts about information foraging, I don't know yet how many issues will be involved, but to finish, we can extract the following conclusions from this introduction: people don't know in advance how much relevant data a source of information contains nor how much time they have to invest in extracting this information.

But instead, for a given task, they do know how much time they have invested and how much information they have obtained, so when changing the information source, we calculate what estimated profit rate we can obtain, since this change of context undoubtedly has an associated interaction cost and we will have to choose whether to continue exploring the current information source or change it.

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