# Heuristics and optimal solutions to the breadth–depth dilemma

^{a}Center for Brain and Cognition, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 08002 Barcelona, Spain;^{b}Department of Information and Communication Technologies, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 08002 Barcelona, Spain;^{c}Serra Húnter Fellow Programme, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 08002 Barcelona, Spain;^{d}Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies–Academia, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 08002 Barcelona, Spain;^{e}Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115;^{f}Department of Neuroscience, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455;^{g}Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455;^{h}Center for Neural Engineering, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455

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Edited by Michael Woodford, Columbia University, New York, NY, and accepted by Editorial Board Member David J. Heeger July 7, 2020 (received for review March 15, 2020)

## Significance

From choosing among the many courses offered in graduate school to dividing budget into research programs, the breadth–depth is a commonplace dilemma that arises when finite resources (e.g., time, money, cognitive capabilities) need to be allocated among a large range of alternatives. For such problems, decision makers need to trade off breadth—allocating little capacity to each of many alternatives—and depth—focusing capacity on a few options. We found that little available capacity (less than 10 samples for search) promotes allocating resources broadly, and thus breadth search is favored. Increased capacity results in an abrupt transition toward favoring a balance between breadth and depth. We finally describe a rich casuistic and heuristics for metareasoning with finite resources.

## Abstract

In multialternative risky choice, we are often faced with the opportunity to allocate our limited information-gathering capacity between several options before receiving feedback. In such cases, we face a natural trade-off between breadth—spreading our capacity across many options—and depth*—*gaining more information about a smaller number of options. Despite its broad relevance to daily life, including in many naturalistic foraging situations, the optimal strategy in the breadth–depth trade-off has not been delineated. Here, we formalize the breadth–depth dilemma through a finite-sample capacity model. We find that, if capacity is small (∼10 samples), it is optimal to draw one sample per alternative, favoring breadth. However, for larger capacities, a sharp transition is observed, and it becomes best to deeply sample a very small fraction of alternatives, which roughly decreases with the square root of capacity. Thus, ignoring most options, even when capacity is large enough to shallowly sample all of them, is a signature of optimal behavior. Our results also provide a rich casuistic for metareasoning in multialternative decisions with bounded capacity using close-to-optimal heuristics.

The breadth–depth (BD) dilemma is a ubiquitous problem in decision making. Consider the example of going to graduate school, where one can enroll in many courses in many topics. Let us assume that the goal is to determine the single area of research that is most likely to result in an important discovery. One cannot know, even in a few weeks of enrollment, whether a course is the most exciting one. Should I enroll in few courses in many topics—breadth search—at the risk of not learning enough about any topic to tell which one is the best? Or should I enroll in many courses in very few topics—depth search—at the risk of not even taking the course with the really exciting topic for the future? One crucial element of this type of decision is that the resources (time, in this case) need to be allocated in advance, before feedback is received (before classes start). Also, once decided, the strategy cannot be changed on the fly, as doing so would be very costly.

The BD dilemma is important in tree search algorithms (1, 2) and in optimizing menu designs (3). It is also one faced by humans and other foragers in many situations, such as when we plan, schedule, or invest with finite resources while lacking immediate feedback. Furthermore, it is a dilemma that a large number of distributed decision-making systems have to tackle. These include, for example, ant scouts searching for a new colony settlement (4), stock market investors, or soldiers in an army during battle. Evidence suggests that distributed processing with limited resources is also a valid model of brain computations (5, 6). In face of this, it is remarkable that the bulk of research on the BD has been in fields outside of psychology and neuroscience (e.g., refs. 7⇓–9). We believe that one reason for this is the lack of models and formal tools for thinking about the BD dilemma and separating it from other dilemmas.

Many features of the BD dilemma warrant its study in isolation. First, BD decisions are about how to divide finite resources, with the possibility of oversampling specific options and ignoring others, e.g., one can select several courses on the same topic while ignoring other topics. Second, the BD dilemma is about making strategic decisions, that is, decisions that need to be planned in advance and cannot be changed on the fly once initiated, e.g., it is very costly to change courses once they have started, at least during the first semester. Finally, BD decisions need to be made before the relevant feedback is received, e.g., enrollment happens before courses start, and thus before knowing the true relevance of the courses and topics. One can easily imagine replacing courses by ant scouts or neurons, and topics by potential new settlements or sensory functions, and so on, in the above example to reveal new relevant BD dilemmas pertaining to distributed decision making or brain anatomy, respectively.

The identifying features of the BD dilemma are distinct from those of the well-known exploitation–exploration (EE) dilemma (10⇓⇓⇓–14) and its associated formalization in multiarmed bandits (15⇓–17). Specifically, whereas in the EE dilemma samples are allocated sequentially, one by one, to gather information and reward after each sample, in the BD dilemma multiple samples can be allocated in parallel at once to multiple options (possibly allocating multiple samples to some) without immediate feedback to gather information and maximize future reward. It is worth pointing out that EE and BD are not mutually exclusive aspects of decision making, and therefore they are expected to appear hand-in-hand in many realistic situations.

Past work in multialternative choice has revealed that humans appear to carefully trade off the benefits of examining many options broadly and examining a smaller number of options deeply. For example, when faced with a large number of options, we often focus—even if arbitrarily—on a subset of them (18⇓⇓–21) with the presumable benefit that we can more precisely evaluate them. Likewise, we may consider all options, but arbitrarily reject value-relevant dimensions (22, 23), as if contemplating them all is too costly. Option narrowing appears to be a very general pattern, one that is shared with both human and nonhuman animals, despite the fact that rejecting options can reduce experienced utility (18, 21). It is often proposed that such heuristics reflect bounded rationality (24), which is likely correct in principle, but the exact processes underlying that boundedness remain to be identified. Why do we so often consider a very small number of options when considering more would a priori improve our choice? One possibility is that this pattern reflects an evolved response to an empirical fact: that when capacity is constrained, optimal search favors consideration of a small number of options.

Because cognitive capacity is limited in many ways, the BD dilemma has direct relevance to many aspects of cognition as well. For example, executive control is thought to be limited in capacity, such that control needs to be allocated strategically (25⇓⇓–28). Likewise, attentional focus and working memory capacity are limited, such that, during search, we often foveate only a single target or hold a few items in memory (29). Although the effective numbers are low, each contemplated option is encoded with great detail (30⇓–32). Furthermore, it seems clear that recollection of information from memory can be thought of as a search-like process (33⇓–35). That is, to retrieve a memory we must attend to a recollection processes, with its associated limited capacity. Thus memory-guided decisions presumably involve BD trade-offs too.

Although the relevance of the BD dilemma is clear, tractable models are lacking, and thus, optimal strategies for BD decisions are largely unknown. Here, we develop and solve a model for multialternative decision making endowed with the prototypical ingredients of the BD dilemma. Our model consists of a reward-optimizing yet bounded decision maker (24, 36, 37) confronted with multiple alternatives with unknown subjective values. The first critical element of the model is “finite-sample capacity,” which enforces a trade-off between sampling many options with few samples each (breadth) and sampling few options with many samples each (depth). The second critical element is that samples need to be allocated across alternatives before sampling starts and, thus, before feedback is available. This strategic decision with the finite-sample capacity constraint implies a metareasoning problem (37, 38) where deliberation about the multiple possible allocations of resources (meta-actions) need to be made in advance to optimize expected utility of a future choice.

Despite the simplicity of the model, it features nontrivial behaviors, which are characterized analytically. When capacity is low (less than 4 to 10 samples can be probed), it is best to sample as many alternatives as possible, but only once each; that is, breadth search is favored. At larger capacities, there is a qualitative and sharp change of behavior (a “phase transition”) and the optimal number of sampled alternatives roughly grows with the square root of sample capacity (“square root sampling law”), balancing breadth and depth. Therefore, in the high-capacity regime, it is best to ignore the vast majority of potentially accessible options. We considered globally optimal allocations in comparison to even allocation of samples across sampled alternatives and found that the square root sampling law, obtained for the latter, provides a close-to-optimal heuristic that is simpler to implement. We also study limit cases where the above rules break down, as well as generalizations to dynamic allocation of finite resources with feedback that illustrate the generality of the results. Our results are also robust to strong variations of the environments where the probability of finding good options widely varies.

## Results

### Finite-Sample Capacity Model.

We assume that a decision maker can choose how to allocate a finite resource among options of unknown status to determine the best option (Fig. 1). The environment generates a large number of options, each characterized by the probability of delivering a successful outcome. The success probabilities, unknown to the decision maker, determine the quality of each of the options, with better options having higher success probabilities (e.g., options with a higher probability of delivering a large reward if they are sampled). The goal of the decision maker is to infer which of the options has the highest success probability (and, thus, highest expected value). The success probabilities of the options are generated randomly from an underlying prior probability distribution, modeled as a beta distribution with parameters

The decision maker is endowed with a finite-sample capacity, C, i.e., a finite number of samples that she can allocate to any option and to as many options as desired. Within the allowed flexibility, it is possible that the decision maker decides to oversample some options by allocating more than one sample to them, and it is also possible that she decides to ignore some options by not sampling them at all. Feedback is not provided at the allocation stage, so this decision is based purely on the expected quality of options in the environment. After allocation has been determined, the outcomes of the samples are revealed, constituting the only feedback that the decision maker receives about the fitness of her sample allocation. Outcomes for each of the sampled alternatives are modeled as a Bernoulli variable, where a successful outcome (corresponding to a large reward) has probability equal to the success probability of that option (see below for a generalization in which we consider Gaussian outcomes). The inferred best alternative is the one with the largest inferred success probability based on the observed outcomes from the allocated samples to each of the options (39⇓–41). Choosing this alternative maximizes expected utility (see below and *SI Appendix*).

While making a choice based on the observed outcomes is a trivial problem, deciding how to allocate samples over the options to maximize expected future reward is a hard combinatorial problem. There are many ways a finite number of samples can be allocated among a very large number of alternatives. At the breadth extreme, one can split capacity to over as many alternatives as possible, sampling each just once. In this case, the decision maker will likely identify a few promising options, but will lack the information for choosing well between them. At the depth extreme, the search could allocate all samples only to a couple of alternatives. The decision maker’s estimate of the success probability of those options will be accurate, but that of the other alternatives will remain unknown. It would seem that an intermediate strategy is better than either extreme. Specifically, the optimal allocation of samples should balance the diminishing marginal gains of sampling a new alternative and those of drawing an additional sample from an already sampled alternative.

To formalize the above model, let us assume that the decision maker can sample and choose from

Finally, the optimal allocation of samples across options **1** over all allocations of samples *SI Appendix* for details). The optimal expected utility then becomes

This maximization allows total flexibility over how many samples to allocate to each alternative. However, for the sake of tractability, let us first consider the best even allocation of samples, that is, a subfamily of allocation strategies where the same number of samples L are allocated to each of M sampled alternatives, while the remaining alternatives *SI Appendix*, a particularly simple expression for the optimal even sample allocation, *SI Appendix*), we show that the optimal number of sampled alternatives

In the next section, we analyze this case in detail. After that, we consider optimal even allocations of samples for arbitrary prior distributions, and finally we provide results for the globally optimal allocations, not necessarily even.

### Sharp Transition of Optimal Sampling Strategy at Low Capacity.

We first analyze the expected utility *A*). At low capacity (*SI Appendix*).

The model displays a sharp transition when capacity crosses the critical value of 5 (Fig. 2*B*). Below this critical capacity, the optimal number of sampled alternatives equals capacity. That is, one should follow a breadth strategy and distribute one sample to each alternative. Above 5, the optimal number of sampled alternatives is much smaller than the capacity, with the temporary exception of capacity equal to 7. That is, one should balance the number of sampled alternatives with the depth of sampling each of them. Specifically, the optimal number of sampled alternatives follows a power law with exponent 1/2 (log-log linear regression, power = slope = 0.49, 95% CI = [0.48, 0.50]), as predicted by Eq. **5**, which implies that the fraction of sampled alternatives decreases with the square root of capacity. This means that breadth and depth are tightly balanced in the optimal strategy. The sharp transition at around 5 becomes clearer when plotting the ratio between the optimal number of sampled alternatives and capacity as a function of capacity (Fig. 2*C*).

In summary, if the capacity of a decision maker increases by a factor of 100, the decision maker will roughly increase the number of samples alternatives just by a factor of 10, one order of magnitude smaller than the capacity increase. Because the optimal number of sampled alternatives increases with capacity with an exponent 1/2, we call this the “square root sampling law.” A remarkable implication of this law is that the vast majority of potentially accessible alternatives should be ignored (e.g., for

### Generalizing to Variations in Beta Prior Distributions.

The above critical capacity for optimal even sample allocation changes when, instead of using a uniform prior of success probabilities, we allow for variations of the prior distribution (Fig. 2*D*). However, the critical capacity consistently lies again at around low values (∼10) with the specific value depending on the environment. By changing the prior’s parameters, we can vary the difficulty of finding a good extreme alternative, and thus can compare different scenarios. For the uniform prior that we have used previously (a “flat” environment), a decision maker is equally likely to find an alternative with any success probability. Consider a prior distribution that is concentrated and symmetric around a success probability of 0.5 (approximately as a Gaussian, corresponding to the beta prior parameters *D*, green line). In this case, the BD trade-off as a function of C is remarkably similar to the uniform prior case, with a transition at

We also consider a negatively skewed prior distribution

Finally, consider the opposite scenario, in which the prior distribution is concentrated at low success probability values (*D*, blue line). In this scenario, the sharp transition occurs at capacities around 10 (blue line).

Despite the large variations of prior distributions, a fast transition occurs in all conditions at around a small capacity value, like in the uniform prior case. In addition, a power law behavior is observed at larger values of capacity regardless of skew, with exponents close to 1/2 in all cases (uniform prior, exponent = 0.49; negatively skewed prior, 0.49; positively skewed prior, 0.64; SEM = 0.01). These behaviors are observed over a larger range of parameters of the prior distribution (Fig. 3).

One interesting limit scenario arises for strongly positively skewed prior distributions, e.g., by taking β to infinity while fixing *A* as one moves leftward). Increasing the prior’s skewness makes finding good options less likely, as most of the options are very likely to be very bad, akin to an extreme case of the haystack environment considered before. As expected, this makes breadth search optimal for increasingly larger values of capacity, as indicated by the increasing values of critical capacity. However, for large enough capacities, a transition is still observed above which a roughly balanced mix between breadth and depth becomes optimal. More precisely, in this regime the optimal number of sampled alternatives features a power behavior with exponents close but above 1/2, indicating a bias toward breadth (leftmost points in Fig. 3*B*). When the prior mean probability exceeds values as low as 0.1, the critical capacity plateaus to low values below 10, and the exponent drops to values smaller but close to 1/2, indicating a weak preference toward depth.

To test how robust the behaviors we explored are, we furthermore considered Gaussian rather than Bernoulli samples (*SI Appendix*, Fig. S1). Strikingly, for a large range of the samples’ noisiness, we again observed a sharp transition occurring at low critical capacities

### Optimal Choice Sets and Sample Allocations.

So far, we have focused on optimal even sample allocation. Let us now consider the payoffs for decision makers willing to consider all possible allocation strategies. The number of all possible allocations equals the number of partitions of integers in number theory, which grows exponentially with the square root of capacity (43). This makes finding the globally optimal sample allocation a problem that is intractable in general. For small capacity values

Globally optimal sample allocation (which defines optimal choice sets) for a uniform prior beta distribution tends to sample all or most of the alternatives when the capacity is small, but as capacity increases the number of sampled alternatives decrease (Fig. 4, *Left*). For instance, for capacity equal to 5 samples, the optimal sample allocation is (2, 1, 1, 1, 0). In general, in optimal allocations, the decision maker adopts a local balance between oversampling a few alternatives and sparsely sampling others—a local compromise between breadth and depth—even though all options are initially indistinguishable. This further level of specialization and distinction between alternatives might be able to better break ties between similar alternatives when compared to an even sampling strategy.

We also studied optimal sample allocation for positively and negatively skewed prior distributions. In a rich environment (center panel), the optimal sample allocation is uneven for capacities as low as

### Even Sample Allocation Is Close to Optimal.

Three principles stand out. First, globally optimal sample allocation almost never coincides with optimal even allocation. Second, at low capacity optimal allocation favors breadth, while at large capacity a BD balance is preferred (Fig. 5*A*). Third, a fast transition is observed between the two regimes happening at a relatively small capacity value. The last two features are shared by the optimal even allocations as well (cf. Fig. 2*C*).

Optimal even and globally optimal sample allocations share some important features, but are they equally good in terms of average reward obtained? We compared the average reward from globally optimal and even optimal sample allocations. For comparison, we always used even sampling based on a uniform prior over each alternatives’ success probabilities, that is, we sample *SI Appendix* for details). This heuristic produced comparable performances to the optimal ones (Fig. 5*B*). The worst-case scenario occurred in the poor environment (blue line) when capacity is close to 10, which led to a drop in reward by close to 10%, but the maximum discrepancy value was even smaller for the flat and rich environments. Indeed, for the flat environment, the maximum drop in reward was only around 5%.

For large capacity

We also compared the merits of the square root sampling law to other sensible heuristics: pure breadth, pure depth, random sampling of options, and a triangular approximation. Pure breadth search allocates just one sample per alterative, such that the number of sampled alternatives equals capacity. The pure depth heuristic randomly chooses two alternatives that are each allocated half of the sampling capacity. Random search randomly assigns each of the C samples to any alternative with replacement. A final heuristic, called “triangular,” is inspired by the seemingly isosceles right triangle shape of the optimal allocations (Fig. 4). It splits capacity by sampling the first alternative with *C*).

### Dynamic Allocation of Capacity.

Thus far, we have considered “static” allocations whereby no feedback is provided before all samples are allocated. In a less rigid “dynamic” sample allocation strategy, some basic form of interim feedback might be available, based upon which further alternatives can be sampled. To model such a scenario, assume that the capacity can be divided into a sequence of a maximum of C waves *k*th wave allocates its

Optimal dynamic sample allocations share many features with optimal static sample allocations (Fig. 6). At low capacity, pure breadth search is again optimal. That is, it is best to allocate all samples in the first wave, assigning just one sample per alternative (Fig. 6*A*). For capacities larger than the critical capacity *B* and cf. Fig. 4). Specifically, the initial wave tends to sample many alternatives to identify good ones, and follow-up waves narrow down the search to the potentially best ones. This results in broader sample allocations (Fig. 6*C*) that, overall, sample more alternatives than for static allocations (cf. Fig. 4). Finally, we test how the static square root sampling law performs against the optimal dynamic allocations, finding that the former is worse by less than 9% for all capacity values (Fig. 6*D*). We also confirm that static random, pure breadth, and pure depth strategies are substantially worse than the square root sampling law, while the triangular strategy is similar to the simple square root sampling heuristic.

## Discussion

We delineate a formal mathematical framework for thinking about a commonplace decision-making problem. The BD dilemma occurs when a decision maker is faced with a large set of possible alternatives, can query multiple alternatives simultaneously with arbitrary intensities, and has overall a limited search capacity. In such situations, the decision maker will often have to balance between allocating search capacity to more (breadth) or to fewer (depth) alternatives. We develop and use a finite-sample capacity model to analyze optimal allocation of samples as a function of capacity. The model displays a sharp transition of behavior at a critical capacity corresponding to just a small set of available samples (∼10). Below this capacity, the optimal strategy is to allocate one sample per alternative to access as many alternatives as possible (i.e., breadth is favored). Above this capacity, BD balance is emphasized, and the square root sampling law, a close-to-optimal heuristic, applies. That is, capacity should be split into a number of alternatives equal to the square root of the capacity. This heuristic provides average rewards that are close to those from the optimal allocation of samples. As it is easy to implement, it can become a general rule of thumb for strategic allocation of resources in multialternative choices. The same results roughly apply to a wide variety of environments, including flat, rich, and poor ones, characterized by very different difficulties of finding good alternatives.

Despite the billions of neurons in the brain, our processing capacity seems quite limited. This strict limit applies to attention, where it is sometimes called the attentional bottleneck (44⇓–46), including spatial attention, where the limit is best characterized (47), over working memory (29, 31, 32, 48⇓–50), to executive control (28, 51, 52), and to motor preparation (53). These narrow limits, which often number only a handful of items (although see ref. 32), suggest some sort of bottleneck. However, another interpretation is that capacity is much larger than it appears, and instead, observed capacity reflects the strategic allocation of resources according to the compromises that our model identifies as optimal. The square root sampling law, in other words, suggests that the apparently narrow bandwidth of cognition may reflect the optimal allocation across very few alternatives of a relatively large capacity.

This is particularly likely to be true for economic choice. We are especially interested in the apparent strict capacity limits of prospective evaluation (54⇓⇓⇓–58). Indeed, the failures of choice with choices sets over a few items are striking and have been a major part of the heuristic literature (59, 60). These strict limits are ostensibly difficult to explain. They do not appear to derive, for example, from the basic computational or biophysical properties of the nervous system, as is evident from the fact that our visual systems are an exception to the general pattern and can process much information in parallel. Nor do these limits appear to relate to any desire to reduce the extent of computation, as large numbers of brain regions coordinate to implement these cognitive processes (61⇓⇓–64). Our results presented above offer an appealing explanation for this problem: Economic choice can be construed as BD search problems, and even when capacity is large, the optimal strategy is to focus on a very small region of the search space. Thus, our results can also help to understand why many cognitive systems operate in a regime of low sampling size, thus resolving the paradox of why low breadth sampling and large brain resources can coexist.

We believe that these results are particularly relevant to behavioral economics. Research has shown that consumers often consider just a small number of brands from where to purchase a specific product out of the many brands that exist in the market (65, 66). The prevailing notion is that decision makers hold a consideration choice set from where to make a final choice rather than contemplating all possibilities. Several reasons for this behavior have been provided. First, choice overload has been shown to produce suboptimal choices in certain conditions (60, 67). Second, selecting a small number of options from where to choose can be actually optimal if there is uncertainty about the value of the options and there is cost for exploring and sampling further options (68⇓–70). Estimating the overall benefits of considering larger sets has to be balanced with the associated cost of exploring further options.

This research has provided a relevant line of thought for understanding low sampling behavior within the context of bounded rationality by formally assuming the presence of linear costs of time for searching for new options. Time costs come in their models at the expense of unknown parameters, which often are difficult to fit (68, 69). Furthermore, linear time costs always permit unlimited number of sampled options, as they do not impose a strict limit in the number of options that can be sampled. In our approach, in contrast, allocating finite resources imposes a strict limit to the number of options that can be sampled and, as resources are limited, there is a trade-off between sampling more options with less resources or sampling fewer options with more resources, directly addressing the BD dilemma. This difference could be the main reason why the consideration set literature has not reported sharp transitions of behavior as a function of model parameters (costs) nor power sampling laws, which are the main features of our finite-sample capacity model.

A number of extensions would be required to fully address more realistic problems associated to the BD dilemma. So far, we have considered a two-stage decision process, where the first metareasoning decision is about optimally distributing limited sampling capacity. We have also considered a sequential problem where some basic form of feedback can be used, but the allocation strategy needs to be chosen before the gathering of information and remains fixed thereafter. By construction, these optimal dynamic allocations at large capacity sample more deeply those alternatives that have largest values, in line with experimental work (55, 71). Perhaps a more relevant observation is that the depth of processing of the best alternatives increases with capacity and that more samples are allocated to the top alternatives than for optimal static sample allocations (cf. Fig. 6). Furthermore, if capacity increases, relatively more samples are allocated to the most-sampled than the second-most–sampled alternative. Both predictions are currently untested.

It would be interesting to extend these results to truly sequential processes where the decision of how many samples to allocate per wave is flexible and depends on intermediate feedback. An advantage of this more general setup (72) is that a full-fledged interaction between the BD and EE dilemmas could be studied. In particular, a relevant direction is relating our square root sampling law with Hick’s law (73) for multialternative choices. The two approaches touch different aspects of multialternative decision making: While Hick’s law refers to the problem of how long options should be sampled in a multialternative setting, it does so by sampling all available options; the square root sampling law, by contrast, applies to situations where there are many alternatives and a large fraction of them are to be ignored due to limited capacity, directly facing the BD dilemma. It will be interesting to integrate the two sets of results within a general framework of multialternative sequential sampling (74⇓–76) under limited resources.

A second possible extension of our work is reconsidering the nature of capacity. For instance, “rate distortion theory” defines a natural capacity constraint over the mutual information between the inputs and the outputs in a system (77, 78). This capacity constraint might more naturally enforce a finite capacity than fixing the total number of samples that a system can draw from (externally or internally). A third relevant direction would be extending our study to cases where the capacity is continuous rather than discrete, and to cases where the observations are continuous variables. Showing that Gaussian rather than Bernoulli outcomes yield qualitatively similar strategies is a first step in this direction. Although it remains a topic for future research, we do not expect qualitative differences in behavior in other continuous settings, as for large capacity the continuous limit approximation applies, and for low capacities the optimality of low number of sampled alternatives is expected.

While we do not know of direct tests of BD capacities in humans, indirect measurements suggest that the square root sampling law can be at work in some realistic conditions, such as chess. It has been argued that chess players can image around 100 moves before deciding their next move (79). Assuming that their capacity is 100, then the square root sampling law would predict that players should sample 10 immediate moves followed by around 10 continuations. Indeed, estimates indicate that chess players mentally contemplate roughly between 6 and 12 immediate moves followed by their continuations (79) before capacity is exhausted due to time pressure. Although decisions in trees like this surely involve other types of search heuristics beyond balancing breadth and depth, the quantitative similarity between predictions and observations is intriguing.

Finally, our work potentially opens ways to understand confirmation biases. Confirmation biases happen when people extensively sample too few alternatives, thus effectively seeking information for the same source. We have demonstrated that oversampling some alternatives and completely ignoring others is optimal in certain conditions. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is actually the optimal strategy under more general conditions or whether the oversampling strategy induces severely harmful biases in certain niches.

It is important to note that we have described the phenomenology of the BD dilemma in conditions where all alternatives are, a priori, equally good. Thus, ignoring a large fraction of options and the associated square root sampling law can only be the worst-case scenario, in the sense that if there are biases or knowledge that a subset of alternatives is initially better than the rest, then fewer number of alternatives should be sampled. This consideration reassures us in the conclusion that the number of alternatives that ought to be sampled is much smaller than sampling capacity, an observation that might turn out to be of general validity in both decision-making setups as well as in terms of brain organization for cognition.

## Methods

A detailed description of the finite-capacity model, a derivation of Eqs. 1–5, and a description of the numerical methods used to generate the figures can be found in *SI Appendix*.

## Data Availability.

The data that support the findings of this study, as well as the codes used for analysis and to generate figures, are publicly available in GitHub at https://github.com/rmorenobote/breadth-depth-dilemma.

## Acknowledgments

This work is supported by the HHMI (Grant 55008742), Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation (Spain) (Grant BFU2017-85936-P), and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies–Academia (2016) to R.M.-B.; by NIH (Grant DA037229) to B.Y.H.; and by a scholar award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (Grant 220020462) to J.D.

## Footnotes

- ↵
^{1}To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: ruben.moreno{at}upf.edu.

Author contributions: R.M.-B., J.R.-R., J.D., and B.Y.H. designed research; R.M.-B. and J.R.-R. performed research; R.M.-B. and J.R.-R. analyzed data; and R.M.-B., J.R.-R., J.D., and B.Y.H. wrote the paper.

The authors declare no competing interest.

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. M.W. is a guest editor invited by the Editorial Board.

This article contains supporting information online at https://www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.2004929117/-/DCSupplemental.

- Copyright © 2020 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.

This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND).

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