During adolescence, youth venture out, explore the wider world, and are challenged to learn how to navigate novel and uncertain environments. We investigated how performance changes across adolescent development in a stochastic, volatile reversal-learning task that uniquely taxes the balance of persistence and flexibility. In a sample of 291 participants aged 8–30, we found that in the mid-teen years, adolescents outperformed both younger and older participants. We developed two independent cognitive models, based on Reinforcement learning (RL) and Bayesian inference (BI). The RL parameter for learning from negative outcomes and the BI parameters specifying participants’ mental models were closest to optimal in mid-teen adolescents, suggesting a central role in adolescent cognitive processing. By contrast, persistence and noise parameters improved monotonically with age. We distilled the insights of RL and BI using principal component analysis and found that three shared components interacted to form the adolescent performance peak: adult-like behavioral quality, child-like time scales, and developmentally-unique processing of positive feedback. This research highlights adolescence as a neurodevelopmental window that can create performance advantages in volatile and uncertain environments. It also shows how detailed insights can be gleaned by using cognitive models in new ways.

Maria K. Eckstein, Sarah L. Master, Ronald E. Dahl, Linda Wilbrecht, Anne G.E. Collins, Reinforcement learning and Bayesian inference provide complementary models for the unique advantage of adolescents in stochastic reversal, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Volume 55, 2022, 101106, ISSN 1878-9293, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2022.101106, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929322000494