When approaching a difficult task, adolescents may not use incentives, such as rewards and punishments, to adjust their performance, shows a study published this week in Nature Communications. The study suggests that this lack of goal-directed behaviour is probably due to ongoing development of brain connectivity, or cross-communication, between regions involved in mediating cognitive effort and gauging incentive value.
Previous research in adults has shown that reward can be a good motivator: adults work harder for goals that mean more to them. However, it has been unclear if the same is true for adolescents. In this study, Catherine Insel and colleagues tested participants aged 13-20 on a cognitive test, known as the planets task, which could either give them high or low financial rewards or punishments in return for correctly sorting pictures of planets. In line with previous research, participants aged 19 or 20 were better at the task when high value rewards and punishments were at stake. However, incentive stakes did not influence performance for the younger adolescents. The authors were able to show that the ability to the ability to match performance with incentive stakes is dependent on connectivity between brain areas that respond to value and guide cognitive effort. While older adolescents showed more connectivity between these regions when stakes were high, adolescents did not, likely explaining their inability to adjust performance.
In summary, these results suggest that, when pursuing high stakes goals in a challenging environment, adolescents may respond differently to incentives than adults due to the emerging development of brain connectivity. This finding indicates that ongoing brain development may shape how motivation influences cognitive performance throughout adolescence.