While many teens engage in reckless behaviours such as driving fast or experimenting with alcohol, a new study suggests that adolescents aren't actually drawn to danger - it's just that they have a high level of tolerance for situations in which the degree of risk is uncertain.
"Adolescents are ambiguity tolerant rather than risk seeking," said Agnieszka Tymula, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. "We found that teenagers get involved in unsafe situations not because they are innately drawn to dangerous situations but because they don't know enough about the odds," Tymula explained.
Far from being thrill seeking, when the risks are clearly spelled out, teens are turned off, she added.
To better understand the underpinnings of adolescent decision-making, the researchers performed experiments with 33 teens (12 to 17 years old) and 32 adults (30 to 50 years old), accounting for differences in education, personality, gender and intelligence.
The study participants were asked to make a series of financial decisions, each with a different degree of associated risk. Individuals could choose between a guaranteed pay-off of $5 or opt for a lottery, in which the potential ranged from nothing at all to some multiple of $5.
In the lotteries considered high risk, participants were told the exact probabilities of winning, ranging from 13% to 75%. In the other lotteries - considered "ambiguous" - the possibilities were not made clear. The researchers were surprised at the results, Tymula said. Teenagers joined significantly fewer risky lotteries than did the adults. "They were more risk averse when they understood the risks," she said.
Feeling the risks first-hand
But the teens were far more likely than the adults to participate in the ambiguous lotteries in which the possibilities were not revealed. In other words, they opted for potentially riskier financial gains when they didn't have good information about the risks they faced. The research was in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Paul Atchley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas who is not associated with the research, said the study conclusions make sense. "It gives nice behavioural insight into why young adults make decisions they know are risky," he said.
The researchers suggest that efforts at improving adolescent decision-making should focus on creating learning environments in which teens can learn about risk through systems like drink-and-drive simulators that allow kids to experience what it would feel like to drive inebriated. They say such programs may be more effective than efforts that rely on prohibition.
"They'll learn how likely the consequences are, by feeling the risks first-hand," said Tymula.
The key, said Atchley, who researches the propensity of teens to text while driving, is to change the norms of what adolescents believe is appropriate behaviour. "These kinds of studies can tell us where to focus our [education] efforts," he said.
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Learn more about adolescent development from the US National Library of Medicine.
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