Are Adolescents More Optimal Decision-Makers in Novel Environments? Examining the Benefits of Heightened Exploration in a Patch Foraging Paradigm

Alex Lloyd, Ryan McKay, Catherine Sebastian, Joshua Balsters

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Adolescence is a period of heightened exploration relative to adulthood and childhood. This predisposition has been linked with negative behaviours related to risk-taking, including dangerous driving, substance misuse and risky sexual practices. However, recent models have argued that adolescents’ heightened exploration serves a functional purpose within the lifespan, allowing adolescents to develop experiential knowledge of their surroundings. Yet, there is limited evidence that heightened exploration in adolescence is associated with positive outcomes. To address this, the present pre-registered study utilised a foraging paradigm with a sample of adolescents aged 16-17 (N=68) and of adults aged 21 and above (N=69). Participants completed a patch foraging task, which required them to choose between exploiting a known resource which gradually yields fewer rewards, and exploring a novel, unknown resource with a fresh distribution of rewards. Findings demonstrated that adolescents explored more than adults, which – in the context of the current task – represented more optimal patch foraging behaviour. These findings indicate that adolescents’ heightened exploration can be beneficial, as they were able to effectively navigate unknown environments and accrue rewards more successfully than adults. This provides evidence that heightened exploration in adolescence, relative to adulthood, can lead to positive outcomes and contributes to our understanding of the role increased novelty-seeking plays at this point in the lifespan.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13075
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
Early online date11 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2021

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