The Development of Reward Sensitivity- Exploring the Role of Culture and Parental Education on Adolescent Development
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The period of adolescence is marked by increased levels of risk taking. One proposed reason for this developmental pattern is a rise during adolescence (relative to earlier and later periods) in the degree to which behaviors are driven by reward-seeking. However, there are individual differences in the extent to which adolescents respond to rewards. One individual difference may arise from the socioeconomic context in which youth develop. Life-history (LH) theory suggests that exposure to early childhood adversity (e.g., more typical in lower SES circumstances) unconsciously predisposes individuals toward decisions that favor instant gratification. Given that reward-seeking may increase during adolescence and early adversity may promote greater risk-taking in pursuit of reward, the present study tested whether individuals exposed to early adversity displayed heightened sensitivity to rewards during adolescence. Reward-seeking behaviors were assessed using measures of sensation-seeking, a psychological manifestation of reward-sensitivity. Participants (N= 4620) aged 10-25 from 11 diverse countries (China, Italy, Kenya, Thailand, Colombia, Jordan, Sweden, US, Philippines, India and Cyprus) completed a self-report (a subset of the Sensation-Seeking Scale) and a behavioral measure of reward sensitivity (Stoplight task). Reward sensitivity followed the expected inverted-U age trend across the full sample for both measures. A country by country analysis revealed that risky driving in the Stoplight task followed the expected age-pattern in 4 out of the 11 countries (peaking at age 16), and in 3 out of the 11 countries for self-reported sensation seeking (peaking around age 18). However, age trends did not differ as a function of SES across the full sample or within countries. Overall, these results indicate that although there is variability in how reward-sensitivity develops across cultures, one’s socioeconomic status does not appear to influence this development worldwide.