For one, adults are better than their younger counterparts at learning to modify their choices to avoid punishment. Instead, it was reward-based learning that adolescents responded well to.
In other words, it seems that adolescents much prefer carrots to sticks.
The study compared how adolescents and adults learn to make choices based on the available information.
It involved 18 volunteers aged 12-17 and 20 volunteers aged 18-32 performing tasks in which they had to choose between abstract symbols.
Each symbol was consistently associated with a fixed chance of a reward, punishment or no outcome. During the trial, participants learnt which symbols were likely to lead to each outcome and adjusted their choices accordingly.
Youths and adults were equally good at learning to choose symbols associated with reward, however the adolescents were not as good at avoiding symbols associated with punishment.
Adults were also significantly better when they were told what would have happened if they had chosen the other symbol after each choice, whereas adolescents did not appear to take this information into account.
"From this experimental lab study we can draw conclusions about learning during adolescence. We find that adolescents and adults learn in different ways, something that might be relevant to education," said lead author Dr Stefano Palminteri, who conducted the study at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and now works at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
"Unlike adults, adolescents are not so good at learning to modify their choices to avoid punishment. This suggests that incentive systems based on reward rather than punishment may be more effective for this age group.
“Additionally, we found that adolescents did not learn from being shown what would have happened if they made alternative choices."
The senior author Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience added that the study suggests adolescents are more receptive to rewards than they are to punishments of equal value.
Blakemore said that people who are coaching adolescents would be wise to frame things in more positive terms.
For example, saying 'I will give you a pound to do the dishes' might work better than saying 'I will take a pound from your pocket money if you don't do the dishes'.
"In either case they will be a pound better off if they choose to do the dishes, but our study suggests that the reward-based approach is more likely to be effective," said Blakemore.
The study is published in PLOS Computational Biology.
Organisations that employ both adults and adolescents would be interested to know that the two groups learn in much different ways, according to new neuroscientific research.