Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Adolescent-Specific Patterns of Behavior and Neural Activity during Social Reinforcement Learning

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Adolescent-Specific Patterns of Behavior and Neural Activity during Social Reinforcement Learning

Article excerpt

Published online: 19 February 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Humans are sophisticated social beings. Social cues from others are exceptionally salient, particularly during adolescence. Understanding how adolescents interpret and learn from variable social signals can provide insight into the observed shift in social sensitivity during this period. The present study tested 120 participants between the ages of 8 and 25 years on a social reinforcement learning task where the probability of receiving positive social feedback was parametrically manipulated. Seventy-eight of these participants completed the task during fMRI scanning. Modeling trial-by-trial learning, children and adults showed higher positive learning rates than did adolescents, suggesting that adolescents demonstrated less differentiation in their reaction times for peers who provided more positive feedback. Forming expectations about receiving positive social reinforcement correlated with neural activity within the medial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum across age. Adolescents, unlike children and adults, showed greater insular activity during positive prediction error learning and increased activity in the supplementary motor cortex and the putamen when receiving positive social feedback regardless of the expected outcome, suggesting that peer approval may motivate adolescents toward action. While different amounts of positive social reinforcement enhanced learning in children and adults, all positive social reinforcement equally motivated adolescents. Together, these findings indicate that sensitivity to peer approval during adolescence goes beyond simple reinforcement theory accounts and suggest possible explanations for how peers may motivate adolescent behavior.

Keywords Adolescence · fMRI · Reinforcement · Social acceptance · Peers · Brain

Introduction

Humans are unique and sophisticated social beings (Herrmann, Call, Hernandez-Lloreda, Hare, & Tomasello, 2007) whose daily interactions require the ability to decipher and learn from a range of social signals. The impact of these signals is magnified during adolescence, a developmental period in which the social environment is shifting, with more time spent with peers and less time with parents (Larson & Richards, 1991). This change is associated with a tendency to rely on peers rather than parents for guidance and approval. Perhaps it is not surprising that adolescents, as compared with children and adults, show increased attention and neural activation in response to peer acceptance (Guyer, Choate, Pine, & Nelson, 2012; Silk et al., 2012). Feelings of relatedness with others and perceived acceptance during adolescence are associated with higher self-esteem, better adjustment in school, and greater self worth (Rudolph, Caldwell, & Conley, 2005; Vanhalst, Luyckx, Scholte, Engels, & Goossens, 2013; Wentzel & Caldwell, 1997). In contrast, peer rejection in the adolescent is associated with school withdrawal, aggression, and mental health problems (Dodge et al., 2003;Laird, Jordan, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 2001; Prinstein & Aikins, 2004; Veronneau, Vitaro, Brendgen, Dishion, & Tremblay, 2010; White & Kistner, 2011). Understanding how adolescents interpret and learn from variable social signals can provide insight into the observed shift in social sensitivity during this period and how peers can impact quality of life and outcomes in the adolescent.

Social contexts are acutely salient to adolescents, which can ultimately can lead to altered decision-making abilities around one's peers (Blakemore & Mills, 2013; Somerville, 2013; Steinberg, 2008). Having peers in a car increases accident rates in adolescents, but not adults (Chen, Baker, Braver, &Li,2000), and the presence of peers increases risky decision making in adolescents, relative to children and adults (Chein, Albert, O'Brien, Uckert, & Steinberg, 2011; Gardner & Steinberg, 2005; Weigard, Chein, Albert, Smith, & Steinberg, 2014). …

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