Teens generally aren’t afraid to defy authority. Generations of parents know this, having tried different strategies for getting their adolescents to do what they ask — often in attempts to keep them safe and help pave a path toward success. Now, a new study shows that rewards, rather than punishments, could be the way to get them to cooperate.

Researchers at the University College London asked 18 volunteers aged 12 to 17 and 20 volunteers aged 18 to 32 to complete both a learning task and post-learning task in which they chose between abstract symbols, each associated with a fixed chance of reward, punishment, or no outcome. As the trial progressed, participants learned which symbols were likely to lead to each result and adjusted their choices accordingly. Adults and teens alike proved equally capable of learning to be motivated by rewards, but the adults learned to avoid symbols associated with punishment while the adolescents did not.

The adults also performed significantly better when they were told what would have happened had they chosen the other symbol after each choice, whereas adolescents did not appear to take this information into account. These results suggest that adolescents are likely to be more receptive to positive reinforcement of good behavior than to being punished for their bad choices.

"From this experimental lab study we can draw conclusions about learning during adolescence. We find that adolescents and adults learn in different ways, something that might be relevant to education," explained lead author Dr. Stefano Palminteri, who conducted the study at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and now works at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, in a statement. "Unlike adults, adolescents are not so good at learning to modify their choices to avoid punishment. This suggests that incentive systems based on reward rather than punishment may be more effective for this age group. Additionally, we found that adolescents did not learn from being shown what would have happened if they made alternative choices."

The objective of the learning round of the study was to rack up points: Participants either gained a point or didn’t gain a point in the reward scenarios. In the punishment scenarios, they either didn’t lose a point, or worse, lost a point. Then, in a second round, participants chose between pairs again, this time with the knowledge they’d learned by trial and error the first time around. Together, the two rounds tested how participants could be motivated to improve on choices they had made, a process called reinforced learning.

"Our study suggests that adolescents are more receptive to rewards than they are to punishments of equal value," explains senior author Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "As a result, it may be useful for parents and teachers to frame things in more positive terms. For example, saying, 'I will give you a pound to do the dishes' might work better than saying 'I will take a pound from your pocket money if you don't do the dishes.’ In either case they will be a pound better off if they choose to do the dishes, but our study suggests that the reward-based approach is more likely to be effective."

Source Stefano Palminteri, Emma J. Kilford , Giorgio Coricelli, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore The Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence Plos: Computational Biology , 2016