Balance of exploratory and reward-based behaviors in children
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Publisher:The Ohio State University
Series/Report no.:The Ohio State University. Department of Psychology Undergraduate Research Theses; 2020
Making the best decision in a given situation requires a person to strike a unique balance between exploiting already known information and exploring new options. Previous research has shown that children have a greater tendency to explore than adults. Exploration is a long-term strategy that is utilized to gain more information about unknown options, sacrificing immediate rewards for information that can be used to achieve better outcomes later. This study pitted this long-term strategy versus immediate reward to see if children's unique balance gave them an advantage over adults in a situation where higher levels of exploration are necessary to succeed. To examine this possibility, a sample of 6 to 10-year-old children (N = 78) and adults (N = 56) performed 150 trials of a two-choice task with a complex reward structure in which immediate exploitation was disadvantageous. Surprisingly, children performed as well as adults in this task through all 150 trials. Separating the task into three 50-trial blocks revealed children's exploration tendency led them to outperform adults at the beginning of the task. Additionally, both children and adults performed better as the experiment progressed while children's exploration tendency decreased and adult's remained constant throughout the study. These results suggest the theory that adults have better decision-making skills is incomplete. Instead, children and adults have different default-modes of decision-making that gives children an advantage in a situation that requires exploration to be successful. Adults' advantage later in the experiment can be explained by children having an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is necessary to learn and adapt an appropriate strategy after gaining the information necessary from exploration earlier in the experiment.
Academic Major: Psychology