The Influence of Different Kinds of Incentives on Decision-Making and Cognitive Control in Adolescent Development: A Review of Behavioral and Neuroscientific Studies

Front Psychol. 2018 May 23;9:768. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00768. eCollection 2018.


A number of recent hypothetical models on adolescent development take a dual-systems perspective and propose an imbalance in the maturation of neural systems underlying reward-driven and control-related behavior. In particular, such models suggest that the relative dominance of the early emerging subcortical reward system over the later emerging prefrontal-guided control system leads to higher risk-taking and sensation-seeking behavior in mid-adolescents. Here, we will review recent empirical evidence from behavioral and neuroscientific studies examining interactions between these systems and showing that empirical evidence in support for the view of a higher sensitivity to rewards in mid-adolescents is rather mixed. One possible explanation for this may be the use of different kinds and amounts of incentives across studies. We will therefore include developmental studies comparing the differential influence of primary and secondary incentives, as well as those investigating within the class of secondary incentives the effects of monetary, cognitive, or social incentives. We hypothesized that the value of receiving sweets or sours, winning or losing small or large amounts of money, and being accepted or rejected from a peer group may also changes across development, and thereby might modulate age differences in decision-making and cognitive control. Our review revealed that although developmental studies directly comparing different kinds of incentives are rather scarce, results of various studies rather consistently showed only minor age differences in the impact of incentives on the behavioral level. In tendency, adolescents were more sensitive to higher amounts of incentives and larger uncertainty of receiving them, as well as to social incentives such as the presence of peers observing them. Electrophysiological studies showed that processing efficiency was enhanced during anticipation of incentives and receiving them, irrespective of incentive type. Again, we found no strong evidence for interactions with age across studies. Finally, functional brain imaging studies revealed evidence for overlapping brain regions activated during processing of primary and secondary incentives, as well as social and non-social incentives. Adolescents recruited similar reward-related and control-related brain regions as adults did, but to a different degree. Implications for future research will be discussed.

Keywords: adolescence; cognitive control; decision-making; incentive type; social-emotional system.

Publication types

  • Review