Risky decision making from childhood through adulthood: Contributions of learning and sensitivity to negative feedback

Kathryn L. Humphreys, Eva H. Telzer, Jessica Flannery, Bonnie Goff, Laurel Gabard-Durnam, Dylan G. Gee, Steve S. Lee, Nim Tottenham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Decision making in the context of risk is a complex and dynamic process that changes across development. Here, we assessed the influence of sensitivity to negative feedback (e.g., loss) and learning on age-related changes in risky decision making, both of which show unique developmental trajectories. In the present study, we examined risky decision making in 216 individuals, ranging in age from 3-26 years, using the balloon emotional learning task (BELT), a computerized task in which participants pump up a series of virtual balloons to earn points, but risk balloon explosion on each trial, which results in no points. It is important to note that there were 3 balloon conditions, signified by different balloon colors, ranging from quick- to slow-to-explode, and participants could learn the color- condition pairings through task experience. Overall, we found age-related increases in pumps made and points earned. However, in the quick-to-explode condition, there was a nonlinear adolescent peak for points earned. Follow-up analyses indicated that this adolescent phenotype occurred at the developmental intersection of linear age-related increases in learning and decreases in sensitivity to negative feedback. Adolescence was marked by intermediate values on both these processes. These findings show that a combination of linearly changing processes can result in nonlinear changes in risky decision making, the adolescent-specific nature of which is associated with developmental improvements in learning and reduced sensitivity to negative feedback.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-109
Number of pages9
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016


  • Development
  • Risky decision making
  • Sensitivity to negative feedback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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