Experiential reward learning outweighs instruction prior to adulthood

Johannes H. Decker, Frederico S. Lourenco, Bradley B. Doll, Catherine A. Hartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Throughout our lives, we face the important task of distinguishing rewarding actions from those that are best avoided. Importantly, there are multiple means by which we acquire this information. Through trial and error, we use experiential feedback to evaluate our actions. We also learn which actions are advantageous through explicit instruction from others. Here, we examined whether the influence of these two forms of learning on choice changes across development by placing instruction and experience in competition in a probabilistic-learning task. Whereas inaccurate instruction markedly biased adults’ estimations of a stimulus’s value, children and adolescents were better able to objectively estimate stimulus values through experience. Instructional control of learning is thought to recruit prefrontal–striatal brain circuitry, which continues to mature into adulthood. Our behavioral data suggest that this protracted neurocognitive maturation may cause the motivated actions of children and adolescents to be less influenced by explicit instruction than are those of adults. This absence of a confirmation bias in children and adolescents represents a paradoxical developmental advantage of youth over adults in the unbiased evaluation of actions through positive and negative experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5
Pages (from-to)310-320
Number of pages11
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 22 2015


  • Cognitive control
  • Decision-making
  • Development
  • Reinforcement learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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