Teens and Adults Make Decisions In Different Ways

by Jonathan Chang ‘17

There’s now another difference between teenage and adult minds: decision-making. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, teens and adults are vastly different in how they seek information to make a decision.

The study took 149 volunteers, ages 12-28, who were all asked to earn the highest possible score on a computer-simulated slot-machine game. Participants were given two slot machines with varying levels of information about each machine’s previous outputs along with the number of chances they’d get to play, either one or six times.

When given only one chance to play, most of the participants chose the machine that seemed to give the best outputs based on the given data. This comes as no surprise; however, it is when the participants were given six chances that distinctions between the ages occurred.

When given more chances to play, the older participants, ages 18-28, were more likely than the younger participants to play the machine with the least information about it. Researchers reason that, while it may seem counter-intuitive, the older participants were trying to learn more about the slot machine they knew the least about, engaging in a process called “directed exploration,” in which people search for specific information regarding a topic. Researchers believe that the adults placed more value on information, a long-term benefit, and were more likely to give up one of their chances to play, a short-term reward.

Teenagers, ages 12-18, used the slot machine they had the most information about no matter how many chances they had. Researchers reasoned that teenagers were relying on “random exploration,” where they collect relevant information as they go through the process but don’t actively seek it out. It’s speculated that teens were less likely to give up their chance to play, a short term reward, in order to learn more information about the other slot machine.

This reflects a difference between adolescents and adults in the decision-making process. More specifically, what teens and adults value when making a decision. The study shows that teens were less likely to consider long-term options, or weigh them equally to short-term benefits, while young adults were more likely to consider the long-term benefits of their decision, even at the cost of shortterm rewards.

It should be noted that neither process used by the two age groups were better than the other, but it does reveal new insights into the differences between them. Researchers’ work is not finished, however, as more investigation is needed to explore the reasons for this difference.