Foraging for the self: Environment selection for agency inference

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Sometimes agents choose to occupy environments that are neither traditionally rewarding nor worth exploring, but which rather promise to help minimise uncertainty related to what they can control. Selecting environments that afford inferences about agency seems a foundational aspect of environment selection dynamics – if an agent can’t form reliable beliefs about what they can and can’t control, then they can’t act efficiently to achieve rewards. This relatively neglected aspect of environment selection is important to study so that we can better understand why agents occupy certain environments over others – something that may also be relevant for mental and developmental conditions, such as autism. This online experiment investigates the impact of uncertainty about agency on the way participants choose to freely move between two environments, one that has greater irreducible variability and one that is more complex to model. We hypothesise that increasingly erroneous predictions about the expected outcome of agency-exploring actions can be a driver of switching environments, and we explore which type of environment agents prefer. Results show that participants actively switch between the two environments following increases in prediction error, and that the tolerance for prediction error before switching is modulated by individuals’ autism traits. Further, we find that participants more frequently occupy the variable environment, which is predicted by greater accuracy and higher confidence than the complex environment. This is the first online study to investigate relatively unconstrained ongoing foraging dynamics in support of judgements of agency, and in doing so represents a significant methodological advance.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Agency
  • Autism
  • Environment complexity
  • Environmental niche selection
  • Prediction error

Cite this