From Creatures of Habit to Goal-Directed Learners: Tracking the Developmental Emergence of Model-Based Reinforcement Learning

Psychol Sci. 2016 Jun;27(6):848-58. doi: 10.1177/0956797616639301. Epub 2016 Apr 15.


Theoretical models distinguish two decision-making strategies that have been formalized in reinforcement-learning theory. A model-based strategy leverages a cognitive model of potential actions and their consequences to make goal-directed choices, whereas a model-free strategy evaluates actions based solely on their reward history. Research in adults has begun to elucidate the psychological mechanisms and neural substrates underlying these learning processes and factors that influence their relative recruitment. However, the developmental trajectory of these evaluative strategies has not been well characterized. In this study, children, adolescents, and adults performed a sequential reinforcement-learning task that enabled estimation of model-based and model-free contributions to choice. Whereas a model-free strategy was apparent in choice behavior across all age groups, a model-based strategy was absent in children, became evident in adolescents, and strengthened in adults. These results suggest that recruitment of model-based valuation systems represents a critical cognitive component underlying the gradual maturation of goal-directed behavior.

Keywords: cognitive development; decision making; open data; reinforcement learning.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Human Development / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Young Adult