Study: Brains of Children From Less Affluent Backgrounds Show Lower Response to Rewards

Findings Could Have Implications for Motivation, Academic Achievement in Youth
Student with report card and money

Spending just a few dollars has given a University of Maryland researcher a wealth of knowledge about the minds of middle school students.

New findings from a study she co-led show that youth from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds are less sensitive to monetary rewards than those from more affluent families—insight that could help explain differences in academic achievement for students from different backgrounds.

“If you’re growing up in an environment where rewards are scarce, you may be more skeptical of them,” said human development and quantitative methodology Assistant Professor Rachel Romeo, a senior author on a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience. “The environment shapes how your brain develops.”


The research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Romeo was once a postdoctoral researcher, recruited more than a hundred 12- to 14-year-olds of different backgrounds, based on household income and parental education. Each participant underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning while they played a number guessing game for money; a correct guess earned a dollar, and an incorrect guess cost them 50 cents.


When participants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds guessed correctly, a part of the brain called the striatum, which is linked to reward, lit up much more than in children from less affluent backgrounds.

Researchers controlled the game to ensure each participant had a similar experience, which included periods of abundant or few rewards. That allowed them to measure how quickly participants responded during each of these periods. When most of their responses were correct, they tended to respond more quickly—but the effect was less pronounced for children from less-advantaged backgrounds.

It’s “really striking,” said co-author John Gabrieli, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. For those youth, “you’re not as hopeful that the next response will gain similar benefits, because you may have a less reliable environment for earning rewards.”

The study is part of a larger project examining social, cognitive and neural contributions to academic achievement across the socioeconomic spectrum, especially disparities between children from differing backgrounds.

“We’re trying to understand the precursors to how youth come to be the way they are, and trying to look at what factors may drive them to respond in a certain way,” said Romeo. While these findings aren’t yet applicable to specific policy or interventions for students, they offer some perspective for educators, she said.

The study also highlights the importance of finding diverse participants for neuroscience studies, something that Romeo prioritizes in her work at UMD.

“Studies often look at a small, selective group of people and that’s taken as fact of how the brain works. But when you look at people with diverse experiences and identities, you see different patterns. You could miss out on interesting variability, and potentially make incorrect conclusions,” she said.

This story first appeared in Maryland Today and was adapted from a MIT press release.