Teenage Brains Have a Totally Different Way of Making Decisions

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Teens, as you may know if you have ever been around a teen, do their fair share of dumb stuff. The advantage of being a teen, though, is that they have a decent excuse: They’re wired for it. As Science of Us has previously reported, adolescent brains are especially adept at learning new things: Memory formation works in tandem with the reward system, so adolescents continually revise their expectations based on the way things actually play out. In adults, those two processes happen separately, meaning that people become less sensitive to the possibility of rewards — in other words, less thrill-seeking — once they age out of adolescence.

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, meanwhile, outlined one more way that teens make decisions differently. It’s not exactly surprising, but it’s interesting nonetheless: Teens, it seems, are less willing than adults to work to uncover all the available information, and more likely to just go with the flow.

For the study, a team of psychologists recruited 149 volunteers between the ages of 12 and 28 to play a digital slot-machine game. Before they could get started, the researchers showed them two different computer simulations of machines, explaining the previous results of each one and instructing the subjects to choose between them. The caveat: The researchers were lopsided in the information they presented, going deeper on the history of one machine than the other.

From there, some participants were told they’d have just one shot to play, while others could go for six rounds. Among those who could play only once, volunteers of all ages opted to use whichever machine had gotten better results in the past. But when they had six chances to win, their choices tended to break down by age, with the younger volunteers (ages 12 through 18) generally choosing whichever one they had more information on. By contrast, the older volunteers (age 19 and up) were more likely to choose the machine they knew the least about.

On first blush, it seems a little counterintuitive — teens, after all, are supposed to be the risk-loving ones — but the researchers argued that the results make sense in the context of the two very different decision-making processes at work. The young adults in the study were using what the authors called “strategic directed exploration” — in other words, futzing with something until you can figure out how it works. The teens, on the other hand, relied on “random exploration,” a more freewheeling process: You collect relevant information as you do your thing, but your actions aren’t necessarily driven by a desire for answers.

The researchers didn’t have a concrete explanation for the age discrepancy — they speculated that it may have something to do with brain development — but they were clearer about the implications: Teens are just better at handling uncertainty than their older counterparts. We may make fun of teens for all the weird stuff they do, but that one’s to their credit. Most adults aren’t so great with shades of gray.

Teens Have a Totally Different Way of Making Decisions