Adolescents flexibly adapt action selection based on controllability inferences

Hillary A. Raab, Noam Goldway, Careen Foord, Catherine A. Hartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


From early in life, we encounter both controllable environments, in which our actions can causally influence the reward outcomes we experience, and uncontrollable environments, in which they cannot. Environmental controllability is theoretically proposed to organize our behavior. In controllable contexts, we can learn to proactively select instrumental actions that bring about desired outcomes. In uncontrollable environments, Pavlovian learning enables hard-wired, reflexive reactions to anticipated, motivationally salient events, providing “default” behavioral responses. Previous studies characterizing the balance between Pavlovian and instrumental learning systems across development have yielded divergent findings, with some studies observing heightened expression of Pavlovian learning during adolescence and others observing a reduced influence of Pavlovian learning during this developmental stage. In this study, we aimed to investigate whether a theoretical model of controllability-dependent arbitration between learning systems might explain these seemingly divergent findings in the developmental literature, with the specific hypothesis that adolescents’ action selection might be particularly sensitive to environmental controllability. To test this hypothesis, 90 participants, aged 8–27, performed a probabilistic-learning task that enables estimation of Pavlovian influence on instrumental learning, across both controllable and uncontrollable conditions. We fit participants’ data with a reinforcement-learning model in which controllability inferences adaptively modulate the dominance of Pavlovian versus instrumental control. Relative to children and adults, adolescents exhibited greater flexibility in calibrating the expression of Pavlovian bias to the degree of environmental controllability. These findings suggest that sensitivity to environmental reward statistics that organize motivated behavior may be heightened during adolescence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere053901.123
JournalLearning and Memory
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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