Adolescent learning: rewards, punishments, and the importance of context

Ant Rozetsky, unsplash
Ant Rozetsky, unsplash

“Adolescence” often evokes a time of increased emotionality and poor decision making. Accordingly, adolescents’ impulsive responses to positive and negative inputs from their environments have been a prominent topic of research. Yet many of teenagers’ actions do not occur in the heat of the moment but, instead, are shaped by the outcomes of previous choices.

During adolescence, as individuals gain more independence, they frequently have new experiences that lead to a range of outcomes, some of them positive, some negative. How do adolescents learn from these good and bad outcomes?

A growing number of studies aim to address how adolescents learn from the outcomes of their choices and how learning from reinforcement changes with age. In these studies, a good outcome is typically a reward and a bad outcome is typically a punishment. Emerging evidence indicates that adolescents might be particularly skillful at learning from positive, rewarding outcomes. This is consistent with research conducted in both adolescent humans and animals showing that, relative to older and younger individuals, adolescents are highly drawn to rewards and will exert additional effort to obtain them.

Adolescents’ unique sensitivity to rewards is thought to be due to increased activity in and communication between areas of the brain that respond to rewards. However, we also know that many of the same brain areas also respond to punishment and that there are dynamic changes occurring throughout the brain during adolescence. Much like the complexity of brain development, the story about how adolescents learn from reinforcement might not be so simple.

“The way that adolescents learn from the choices that they have made in the past will ultimately influence their future choices and actions.”

An in-depth review of studies examining how we learn from reinforcement across age shows mixed results. Contrary to the idea that adolescents may learn best from rewards, some studies find that adolescents actually learn more from punishment. Other studies show no differences in how adolescents learn from rewards and punishment – they learn well from both. How can we make sense of such dissimilar descriptions of how adolescents learn?

The context in which learning takes place may be key. For example, to get good grades, a teen might need to use different strategies for different teachers. The teen should learn to adjust their actions to a greater extent due to negative feedback from a teacher who usually gives them good grades. In contrast, the teen should learn to adjust their actions to a greater extent due to positive feedback from a teacher who usually gives them bad grades.

Studies conducted to date have subtly varied the learning context in different, specific ways. For example, some studies differ in how often a choice is associated with reward or punishment. Other studies switch whether a particular choice is associated with reward or punishment over time. By continuing to do research investigating how individuals learn in different environments across age, we will gain a more complete picture of how adolescents learn from positive and negative outcomes.

“By understanding how adolescents learn in various environments, we can discover how to better support their health and well-being.”

As adolescents navigate the transition into adulthood, they are faced with more opportunities to make choices in a variety of different contexts. While this newfound freedom can leave adolescents vulnerable to negative outcomes, it also creates numerous crucial learning opportunities. The way that adolescents learn from the choices that they have made in the past will ultimately influence their future choices and actions. By understanding how adolescents learn in various environments, we can discover how to better support their health and well-being.

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