On the instrumental value of hypothetical and counterfactual thought

AbstractPeople often engage in "offline simulation'", considering what would happen if they performed certain actions in the future, or had performed different actions in the past. Prior research shows that these simulations are biased towards actions a person considers to be good---i.e., likely to pay off. We ask whether, and why, this bias might be adaptive. Through computational experiments we compare five agents who differ only in the way they engage in offline simulation, across a variety of different environment types. Broadly speaking, our experiments reveal that simulating actions one already regards as good does in fact confer an advantage in downstream decision making, although this general pattern interacts with features of the environment in important ways. We contrast this bias with alternatives such as simulating actions whose outcomes are instead uncertain.


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