The limits of learning: Exploration, generalization, and the development of learning traps

Alexander S. Rich, Todd M. Gureckis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Learning usually improves the accuracy of beliefs through the accumulation of experience. But are there limits to learning that prevent us from accurately understanding our world? In this article we investigate the concept of a "learning trap"-the formation of a stable false belief even with extensive experience. Our review highlights how these traps develop through the interaction of learning and decision making in unknown environments. We further document a particularly pernicious learning trap driven by selective attention, a mechanism often assumed to facilitate learning in complex environments. Using computer simulation, we demonstrate the key attributes of the agent and environment that lead to this new type of learning trap. Then, in a series of experiments we present evidence that people robustly fall into this trap, even in the presence of various interventions predicted to meliorate it. These results highlight a fundamental limit to learning and adaptive behavior that impacts individuals, organizations, animals, and machines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1553-1570
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Biases
  • Decision making
  • Exploration
  • Learning
  • Selective attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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