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Prioritizing memory for the information most likely to be useful in the future is critical to learning effectively in our complex world. Previous work has revealed that the ability to strategically encode high-value information may improve gradually over development, as the systems supporting cognitive control processes mature. However, studies of value-directed memory have relied on explicit cues that signal the importance of information, which are rarely present in real-world contexts. Here, we examined whether individuals across age groups could learn the relative frequency of items in their environment and prioritize memory for information associated with higher frequency items, which would ultimately enable them to earn more reward. We found that from childhood to early adulthood, individuals gained the ability to dynamically adjust memory based on the statistics of the environment, but only when item frequency signaled information value (Experiment 1). In the absence of any relation between item frequency and the reward that could be earned for encoding related information, the increased exposure to higher frequency items did not facilitate associative memory (Experiment 2). Taken together, results from our two experiments suggest that the use of past experience to prioritize memory for high-value information strengthens with increasing age and is supported by the developing ability to derive explicit knowledge of the structure of the environment from experience.
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