Learning which of our behaviors benefit others contributes to forming social relationships. An important period for the development of (pro)social behavior is adolescence, which is characterized by transitions in social connections. It is, however, unknown how learning to benefit others develops across adolescence and what the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms are. In this functional neuroimaging study, we assessed learning for self and others (i.e., prosocial learning) and the concurring neural tracking of prediction errors across adolescence (ages 9–21, N = 74). Participants performed a two-choice probabilistic reinforcement learning task in which outcomes resulted in monetary consequences for themselves, an unknown other, or no one. Participants from all ages were able to learn for themselves and others, but learning for others showed a more protracted developmental trajectory. Prediction errors for self were observed in the ventral striatum and showed no age-related differences. However, prediction error coding for others showed an age-related increase in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These results reveal insights into the computational mechanisms of learning for others across adolescence, and highlight that learning for self and others show different age-related patterns.
- Cognitive empathy
- Prediction error
- Reinforcement learning
- Ventromedial prefrontal cortex