Humans decompose tasks by trading off utility and computational cost

Carlos G. Correa, Mark K. Ho, Frederick Callaway, Nathaniel D. Daw, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Human behavior emerges from planning over elaborate decompositions of tasks into goals, subgoals, and low-level actions. How are these decompositions created and used? Here, we propose and evaluate a normative framework for task decomposition based on the simple idea that people decompose tasks to reduce the overall cost of planning while maintaining task performance. Analyzing 11,117 distinct graph-structured planning tasks, we find that our framework justifies several existing heuristics for task decomposition and makes predictions that can be distinguished from two alternative normative accounts. We report a behavioral study of task decomposition (N = 806) that uses 30 randomly sampled graphs, a larger and more diverse set than that of any previous behavioral study on this topic. We find that human responses are more consistent with our framework for task decomposition than alternative normative accounts and are most consistent with a heuristic—betweenness centrality—that is justified by our approach. Taken together, our results suggest the computational cost of planning is a key principle guiding the intelligent structuring of goal-directed behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1011087
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number6 June
StatePublished - Jun 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Ecology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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