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Motivating the Mind

MIT scientists found reward sensitivity varies by socioeconomic status

Behaviour is believed by many, including the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner, to be reinforced by rewards and the degree to which an individual is motivated by rewards is called reward sensitivity. Another common view is that behaviour is influenced by the environment, nowadays including socioeconomic status (SES). People with low SES encounter fewer rewards in their environment, which could affect their behaviour toward pursuing rewards due to their scarcity- Farah 2017.

Thus, a study by Decker (2024) investigates the effect of low SES on reward sensitivity in adolescents through a gambling task, using fMRI technology to measure response times, choices and activity in the striatum – the reward centre of the brain. The researchers hypothesised that response times to immediate rewards, average reward rates and striatal activity would differ for participants from high compared to low SES backgrounds. See Figure 1.

The study involved 114 adolescents whose SES was measured using parental education and income. The participants partook in a gambling task involving guessing if numbers were higher or lower than 5, the outcomes of which were pre-determined to create blocks with reward abundance and reward scarcity.

Low and high SES background teenagers gave faster responses and switched guesses when the rewards were given more often. Also, immediate rewards made the participants repeat prior choices and slowed response times. In line with the hypothesis, fewer adolescents with lower SES slowed down after rare rewards. Moreover, it was found that lower SES is linked with fewer differences between reward and loss activation in the striatum, indicating experience-based plasticity in the brain. See Figure 2.

Therefore, the research by Decker (2024) has numerous implications for the real world. As adolescents with lower SES displayed reduced behavioural and neural responses to rewards and, according to behaviourism, rewards are essential to learning, attention and motivation, it can be assumed that SES plays a role in the inequality in many cognitive abilities. This critically impacts the understanding of socioeconomic differences in academic achievement, decision-making and emotional well-being, especially if we consider that differences in SES contribute to prejudice based on ingroups and outgroups. Interventions to enhance motivation and engagement with rewarding activities could help buffer against the detrimental impacts of low SES environments on cognitive and mental health outcomes. Overall, this research highlights the need to address systemic inequities that limit exposure to enriching experiences and opportunities during formative developmental periods.

Written by Aleksandra Lib


Decker, A. L., Meisler, S. L., Hubbard, N. A., Bauer, C. C., Leonard, J., Grotzinger, H., Giebler M. A., Torres Y C., Imhof A., Romeo R. & Gabrieli, J. D. (2024). Striatal and Behavioral Responses to Reward Vary by Socioeconomic Status in Adolescents. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 44(11).

Farah, M. J. (2017). The neuroscience of socioeconomic status: Correlates, causes, and consequences. Neuron, 96(1), 56-71.

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