The Terrible Teens

Adolescence doesn’t have to be a time of turbulence.

Posted Jan 18, 2016

If you’re a parent of teens, you’re sure to agree with American humorist Sam Levenson, who famously quipped: “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.” We tend to think of adolescence as a time of turbulence, a roller-coaster ride of emotions that drive teenagers to poor decisions and risky behavior. But do the post-pubescent years have to be that way?

Over the last couple of decades, neuroscience has come to dominate psychology. So recent explanations of teenage turmoil are frequently couched in terms of brain maturation. One example is the “imbalance model,” as outlined in a recent article by psychologist Valerie Reyna and her colleagues at Cornell University.

According to the imbalance model, the “lower levels” of the brain develop before the “higher levels.” The lower levels are responsible for emotional processing, including rewards. As the reward center matures in early adolescence, teenagers become especially sensitive to the powerful rewards provided by social interaction with peers. Furthermore, the thrill of risky behaviors such as drugs, fast driving, and unprotected sex become especially appealing because of the way they tickle the brain’s reward center.

What’s missing from the teen-aged brain is a well-developed impulse control center in the “higher brain.” There’s nothing up there to remind them that the risks are real and potentially life threatening. So even when teens know the risks, they downplay them. To their minds, the thrill of the moment is worth the risk involved.

There’s a certain allure to this theory of adolescence. We know that early childhood unfolds in a series of milestones that are roughly similar in age and sequence for all children. There’s little you can do to speed up the process, despite all the “Baby Genius” products for sale on the internet. Perhaps the same is true for the teen-age years.

The imbalance model is comforting as well. Adolescents can evade taking personal responsibility for their poor decisions and risky behaviors, blaming these instead on raging hormones and an underdeveloped brain. Likewise, beleaguered parents can at least take solace in the knowledge that their troubled teens will eventually outgrow the perils of puberty.

As appealing as the imbalance model may be, the evidence certainly doesn’t support it. Although neural development is driven by genetic factors in the womb, after birth brains are mostly shaped by the environment in which the child is growing up. In fact, the reason for having a big brain is to enable the organism to adapt to local circumstances, as opposed to behaving according to inflexible instincts.

Reyna and her colleagues present the imbalance model in their article as a counterpoint to their preferred explanation for adolescent risk-taking. In their view, teens engage in risky behaviors not because of a lack of impulse control but because of the way they habitually store information in memory.

During the transition from childhood to adulthood, there’s a shift in the way people use their long-term memory. Children tend to store and recall information in a “verbatim” format. That is, they focus on the superficial details. For instance, a first-grader can recite the Pledge of Allegiance without understanding what it means.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to store and recall information in a “gist” format. That is, they focus on the underlying meaning of the information rather than the surface details. Novices and experts in a particular domain show this same verbatim-gist distinction. For instance, novice chess players focus on the specific positions of the pieces, while the expert sees a particular configuration as part of a larger game.

Reyna and colleagues report on a study looking at the effectiveness of sex education programs. In one study, all teens went through the same instructional program. At the end of the session, one group received a study guide containing verbatim statements from the program, such as: “There’s a 1-in-12 chance of getting pregnant from a single instance of unprotected sex.” The other group also received a study guide presenting the same information but in a “gist” format, such as “Unprotected sex leads to pregnancy.”

You might think that more information is better. However, ample research shows that information overload leads to worse decision making. Instead, people tend to make better decisions when the information is simplified—that is, put in gist format.

In a survey a year later, students in the “gist” group reported more adult-like attitudes toward unprotected sex, agreeing to statements such as “better safe than sorry” and “it only takes once.” Students who’d received verbatim information such as “1-in-12 chance” were more likely to consider unprotected sex worth the risk.

This finding accords with new trends in adolescent psychology. For example, psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn at the University of California, Davis studies how personality develops during adolescence. It’s well known that people tend to become more conscientious as they get older. They become more reliable and dependable, and they take better care of their personal affairs.

In a cross-cultural study, Bleidorn found that the turning point in conscientiousness wasn’t age but the start of a career. In other words, adolescents began acting like adults once they were expected to.

Adolescence is a social fiction created by modern civilization. Before the industrial era, children transitioned into maturity after puberty as they took on adult roles. Nowadays, entry into adulthood is delayed by a decade or more. Perhaps, then, the root of troubled teen-hood isn’t underdeveloped brains but rather lowered social expectations.

References

Bleidorn, W. (2015). What accounts for personal maturation in early adulthood? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 245-252.

Reyna, V. F., Weldon, R. B., & McCormick, M. (2015). Educating intuition: Reducing risky decisions using fuzzy-trace theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 392-398.

Sam Levenson. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/samlevenso106992.html
 

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).