Why the Teen Brain is Drawn to Risk
If you’re the parent of a tween, be warned: your cautious 10-year-old is bound to turn into a wild child in a few short years, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for safety. Indeed, teenagers have the double the risk of dying compared to their preteen selves.
Adults have long reckoned with ways to protect adolescents from their own misjudgments. Only recently, however, have researchers really begun to understand how the teen brain is wired and that some of what appear to be teens’ senseless choices may result from biological tendencies that also prime their brains to learn and be flexible.
Take teens’ perception of risk. It’s certainly different from that of adults, but not in the ways you’d expect. Research shows, for instance, that teens tend to wildly overestimate certain risks — of things like unprotected sex and drug use — not to lowball them as one would predict. So, it may be that teens’ notorious risk-taking behavior stems not from some immunity to known risks, but rather, as a new study now suggests, from their greater tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity — that is, unknown risks.
“Relative to adults, adolescents engage more in unknown risks than they do in known risks,” says Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral student at New York University and the lead author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Teens, it seems, love the unknown.
To examine the differences in risk-taking between teens and adults, researchers studied 33 healthy adolescents aged 12 to 17, along with 30 normal adults aged 30 to 50. They all engaged in a gambling game, in which they could take a definite $5 reward or choose between the possibility of getting a much larger payout or nothing at all. The payout was based on whether there was a greater number of red or blue poker chips in a stack of 100; to vary the ambiguity, larger or smaller portions of the stacks were hidden from view.
In this way, the trials provided different amounts of information about the risks involved: for example, in some trials, participants could choose between the $5 and a clear 50% chance of winning $50. In others, however, they had a choice between $5 and varying amounts of money, up to $125, but the probability of winning appeared to vary from 25% to 75%. In reality, they always had a 50% chance of winning, but were led to believe their odds varied, which allowed researchers to look at how participants thought about ambiguity.
“If the risks are known, adolescents engage [in risk-taking] less than adults do, but if they are unknown, this is reversed,” Tymula says. In fact, when the payout was known to be $125, adults always gambled — but this was not so for teens.
“I think [the finding] adds very nicely to the literature,” says Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University, who was not associated with the research. “The new breakthrough here is that it extends our knowledge about adolescent risk-taking into the realm of ambiguity aversion.”
Reyna’s own research has shown how excessively teens tend to overestimate risk: for example, when asked about the risk of AIDS in one study, adolescents estimated that a teenage girl who is sexually active has a 60% chance of contracting HIV. (The actual odds are miniscule for most Americans.)
This perception, however, doesn’t prevent teens from engaging in risky behavior. Why? Because teens have a different style of information processing, Reyna argues. They may get lost in the details about specific risks and overly focused on possible rewards, while ignoring the overall “gist” of the problem — i.e., the ultimate consequences. In the case of unprotected sex, for example, even if the odds of contracting HIV are low, a bad outcome would be irreversible. Unlike teens, adults tend to focus on the end result and the consequences.