The Role of Risk-Taking in the Teenage Mind

The Role of Risk-Taking in the Teenage MindMany factors interact to determine when and how a given teen decides to take various types of risk, recent studies have found.

Teen Risk-Taking Basics

Risk-taking is a natural character trait that appears in children and teenagers as they grow and develop. This trait is especially evident in teenagers, who engage in risky behaviors more often than younger children or adults, and therefore involve themselves disproportionately in such activities as driving at dangerous speeds, participating in criminal conduct, and engaging in unprotected sex. In part because of the risky choices they make, teenagers experience health problems fully twice as frequently as younger children, and also die twice as frequently. Traditionally, authorities in the United States and other countries try to limit teen participation in risky behaviors by setting legal limits on the age at which people can do things such as smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, drive a car, or make judgments regarding medical care for themselves or others.

Motivations for Risky Behavior

For a long time, the general consensus among behavioral specialists has been that teenagers typically take risks even when they know the likely consequences of their actions. However, according to the results of a study published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, teenagers are at least as likely to avoid risks as adults when they know in advance that their conduct can cause them harm. The difference between risk-taking in teenagers and adults emerges when the risks of a given behavior are unknown. While adults tend to avoid the potential consequences of unknown risks, teenagers tend to accept these unknowns and find out for themselves if they receive positive or negative results.

The Maturity of the Teen Brain

Traditionally, behavioral specialists have associated risk-taking in teenagers with emotional and physical immaturity. On a physical level, this point of view is supported by the fact that one of the last regions of the brain to mature completely is the pre-frontal cortex, which plays a critical role in the ability to think rationally, make sound decisions, and assess how one’s current conduct supports (or fails to support) long-term plans and goals. However, according to the results of a study published in 2009 in the journal PLOS ONE, teenage immaturity may not play the expected role in risk-taking.

The authors of this study compared the level of brain development in a group of teenagers to their level of involvement in such risky activities as taking drugs, drinking alcohol, and smoking tobacco. After reviewing the results of this comparison, the study’s authors concluded that the teenagers most likely to get involved in risky behaviors actually have brains that are more fully developed (i.e., adult-like) than the brains of teens who shy away from risky behaviors.

The Crucial Role of Peer Pressure

If risk-taking teenagers tend to have well-developed, mostly mature brains, what drives them to participate in risky activities? A multi-university research team attempted to answer this question as part of a study published in 2013 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. According to the authors of this study, peer pressure plays a critical role in determining whether a teenager will take or avoid a given risk. Essentially, teens are unusually sensitive to how they appear in the eyes of their close friends and acquaintances; in part, this sensitivity stems from the increasing amount of time that teenage peers spend in each other’s company. When a teen’s peers voice support for a certain type of behavior, he or she has a significantly increased chance of participating in that behavior. This peer-based support effectively overrides the teen’s long-term goals and reinforces risky, short-term-oriented thinking.

The authors of the study concluded that the influence of peer pressure actually extends into the basic ways in which the brain operates. When teens are in the presence of their peers, they experience unusual activity increases in the parts of the brain responsible for deciding whether the reward for a given behavior justifies the amount of risk involved in that behavior.