Risk-taking predicts socioeconomic status-related differences in learning among adolescents
Joseph Itiat1 (email@example.com), Alexandra Decker, John Gabrieli; 1Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Adolescents are notorious for engaging in reward-driven risky decision-making behaviors, which are believed to be highly adaptive for learning. Yet, adolescents differ in their tendency to pursue rewards and learn. Indeed, adolescents from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds often display diminished reward sensitivity and reduced learning outcomes, raising the possibility that diminished reward-driven risk-taking may underlie SES-related learning gaps. Here, we examined whether risk-taking enhances learning in adolescents, and whether individual differences in risk-taking mediates SES-related disparities in learning outcomes. Adolescents (n=125; aged 13-15) from diverse SES backgrounds completed the Balloon Emotional Learning Task, in which they inflated a balloon on each trial to earn points. Notably, over-inflation caused balloon explosions and a loss of points. There were 3 colors of balloons, each with a distinct explosion threshold. Thus, participants had to incrementally learn via explosion-related feedback the optimal pumping frequency of each colored balloon. We found that within adolescents, trial number positively correlated with points earned, indicating that adolescents incrementally learned the balloons’ explosion thresholds. Across adolescents, a higher risk-taking propensity (i.e., more pumps and explosions) correlated with better final learning outcomes (points earned). Further implicating risk-taking in the learning process, more risk-taking early in the task predicted better learning outcomes later. We also observed that lower-SES correlated with reduced risk-taking, and poorer learning outcomes (points), and reduced risk-taking fully mediated SES-related gaps in learning. These findings highlight the adaptive nature of adolescent risk-taking, and demonstrate that disparities in risky decision-making may underlie SES-related disparities in learning.
Topic Area: THINKING: Decision making
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