Age differences in the impact of peers on adolescents’ and adults’ neural response to reward (2014)

Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2014 Sep 2. pii: S1878-9293(14)00061-9. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2014.08.010.

Smith AR1, Steinberg L1, Strang N2, Chein J3.


Prior research suggests that increased adolescent risk-taking in the presence of peers may be linked to the influence of peers on the valuation and processing of rewards during decision-making. The current study explores this idea by examining how peer observation impacts the processing of rewards when such processing is isolated from other facets of risky decision-making (e.g. risk-perception and preference, inhibitory processing, etc.). In an fMRI paradigm, a sample of adolescents (ages 14-19) and adults (ages 25-35) completed a modified High/Low Card Guessing Task that included rewarded and un-rewarded trials. Social context was manipulated by having participants complete the task both alone and while being observed by two, same-age, same-sex peers. Results indicated an interaction of age and social context on the activation of reward circuitry during the receipt of reward; when observed by peers adolescents exhibited greater ventral striatal activation than adults, but no age-related differences were evinced when the task was completed alone. These findings suggest that, during adolescence, peers influence recruitment of reward-related regions even when they are engaged outside of the context of risk-taking. Implications for engagement in prosocial, as well as risky, behaviors during adolescence are discussed.