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Published August 16, 2023 | Published
Journal Article Open

Novelty and uncertainty differentially drive exploration across development


Across the lifespan, individuals frequently choose between exploiting known rewarding options or exploring unknown alternatives. A large body of work has suggested that children may explore more than adults. However, because novelty and reward uncertainty are often correlated, it is unclear how they differentially influence decision-making across development. Here, children, adolescents, and adults (ages 8–27 years, N = 122) completed an adapted version of a recently developed value-guided decision-making task that decouples novelty and uncertainty. In line with prior studies, we found that exploration decreased with increasing age. Critically, participants of all ages demonstrated a similar bias to select choice options with greater novelty, whereas aversion to reward uncertainty increased into adulthood. Computational modeling of participant choices revealed that whereas adolescents and adults demonstrated attenuated uncertainty aversion for more novel choice options, children's choices were not influenced by reward uncertainty.

Copyright and License

© 2023, Nussenbaum, Martin et al. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


We thank May Levin for help with task design. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (Grant No. 1654393 to CAH), the NYU Vulnerable Brain Project (grant to CAH), the Department of Defense (NDSEG fellowship to KN), the National Institute of Mental Health (F31 MH129105 to KN; T32 MH019524 to REM), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (F31 HD097873 to REM), the Leon Levy Fellowship in Neuroscience (to REM), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (F32 DA047047 to GMR). This work was supported in part through the NYU IT High Performance Computing resources, services, and staff expertise.


Research procedures were approved by New York University's Institutional Review Board (IRB-2016-1194 and IRB-FY2021-5356). Adult participants provided written consent prior to participating in the study. Children and adolescents provided written assent, and their parents or guardians provided written consent on their behalf, prior to their participation. All participants were compensated $15/hr for the experimental session.

Data Availability

The study task code, data, and analysis code are publicly accessible on the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/cwf2k/.

The following data sets were generated

Nussenbaum K, Martin R, Maulhardt S, Yang Y, Bizzell-Hatcher G, Bhatt N, Scheuplein M, Rosenbaum G, O'Doherty J, Cockburn J, Hartley C (2022) Open Science Framework Data from: Novelty and uncertainty differentially drive exploration across development. https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/CWF2K

Conflict of Interest

Catherine A Hartley: Reviewing editor, eLife. The other authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Kate Nussenbaum, Data curation, Software, Formal analysis, Validation, Investigation, Visualization, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Project administration; Rebecca E Martin, Conceptualization, Software, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Writing – review and editing; Sean Maulhardt, Yi (Jen) Yang, Greer Bizzell-Hatcher, Naiti S Bhatt, Maximilian Koenig, Investigation, Writing – review and editing; Gail M Rosenbaum, Software, Investigation, Writing – review and editing; John P O'Doherty, Conceptualization, Supervision, Methodology, Writing – review and editing; Jeffrey Cockburn, Conceptualization, Software, Methodology, Writing – review and editing; Catherine A Hartley, Conceptualization, Supervision, Funding acquisition, Project administration, Writing – review and editing


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Additional details

November 10, 2023
November 10, 2023