This article is part of the Research Topic Decision Making Across the Life Span

Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Neurosci., 21 November 2011 | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2011.00129

Positive outcomes enhance incidental learning for both younger and older adults

  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Previous studies suggest that memory encoding is enhanced when people are anticipating a potential reward, consistent with the idea that dopaminergic systems that respond to motivationally relevant information also enhance memory for that information. In the current study, we examined how anticipating and receiving rewards versus losses affect incidental learning of information. In addition, we compared the modulatory effects of reward anticipation and outcome on memory for younger and older adults. Forty-two younger (aged 18–33 years) and 44 older (aged 66–92 years) adults played a game involving pressing a button as soon as they saw a target. Gain trials began with a cue that they would win $0.25 if they pressed the button fast enough, loss trials began with a cue that they would avoid losing $0.25 if they pressed the button fast enough, and no-outcome trials began with a cue indicating no monetary outcome. The target was a different photo-object on each trial (e.g., balloon, dolphin) and performance outcomes were displayed after the photo disappeared. Both younger and older adults recalled and recognized pictures from trials with positive outcomes (either rewarding or loss avoiding) better than from trials with negative outcomes. Positive outcomes were associated with not only enhanced memory for the picture just seen in that trial, but also with enhanced memory for the pictures shown in the next two trials. Although anticipating a reward also enhanced incidental memory, this effect was seen only in recognition memory of positive pictures and was a smaller effect than the outcome effect. The fact that older adults showed similar incidental memory effects of reward anticipation and outcome as younger adults suggests that reward–memory system interactions remain intact in older age.

Keywords: aging, reward outcome, incidental memory and learning, monetary incentive delay task, valence, picture recognition

Citation: Mather M and Schoeke A (2011) Positive outcomes enhance incidental learning for both younger and older adults. Front. Neurosci. 5:129. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2011.00129

Received: 11 September 2011; Paper pending published: 21 September 2011;
Accepted: 01 November 2011; Published online: 21 November 2011.

Edited by:

Gregory R. Samanez-Larkin, Vanderbilt University, USA

Reviewed by:

Alan Castel, University of California Los Angeles, USA
Stefanie Brassen, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany

Copyright: © 2011 Mather and Schoeke. This is an open-access article subject to a non-exclusive license between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and other Frontiers conditions are complied with.

*Correspondence: Mara Mather, 3715 McClintock Ave., University of Southern California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA. e-mail: mara.mather@usc.edu

Back to top