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A “Sweet Spot” for Navigating Uncertainty

June 3, 2022

Filed in: Learning & Education

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By Linda Wilbrecht

During mid-adolescence—around our middle and high school years—we face many new and unfamiliar circumstances. We might successfully learn how to navigate the cafeteria, but the best way grab a bite may change fast when a new kid arrives or we’re hanging out with a new group or we transition to a new school.

This uncertainty doesn’t just happen for human adolescents. Animals too, have ‘teenage’ phase when they leave the nest and explore the world in search of a new home and perhaps a mate. Conditions can be harsh and teens of all species have to adapt quickly to succeed or even survive.

Given that these challenges are such a hallmark of the years between childhood and adulthood, we might imagine that our biology would provide a unique set of skills and tendencies to help us navigate this uncertain and changing world.

We tested this idea in the laboratory with 293 participants from ages 8 through 50 using a digital hidden coin game. The game worked like this: Participants were trying to collect gold coins that were hidden in one of two boxes. Two boxes appeared on screen at a time, and players chose one in hopes of finding the coin hidden inside. One box held the coin for a dozen or so trials, and then the task flipped and the other box help the coin for a stretch; the task kept flipping back and forth for 120 turns. But there was a hitch: the “correct” box—the only one in a stretch that would hold a coin—only contained a coin 75 percent of the time.

The results showed that 13- to 15-year-old participants found the most coins. This wasn’t simply a matter of these ages being good at games—in other games with more predictable rewards, the adults earned the most points. So the 13- to 15-year-olds specifically shone in the game with the most uncertainty and volatility.

We then used multiple computational models to find out how the teenagers did so well finding the shifting coins. We found that the 13- to 15-year-olds were at a “sweet spot” for taking on this uncertain task, using a unique combination of adult-like understanding and focus, a child-like ability to learn quickly, and a uniquely adolescent way of processing rewards from positive results. Interestingly the 13-15-year-olds were also most accurate at estimating the uncertainty and volatility of the environment, so they outperformed adults in multiple ways.

We can take home two golden coins of our own from these results. One, adolescents’ brains appear to be uniquely adapted to navigate unpredictability and uncertainty inherent in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Two, the way we learn and make decisions is sculpted by both age and the particular types of challenges around us.

In a changing environment, adolescents have a unique combination of strengths that help them make the discoveries they need to succeed.

You can read the full study here.

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