Taking Risks

Why do we take more risks as adolescents than we do when we get older?

Posted Sep 16, 2013

Did you do anything risky when you were younger? (be honest, now!)   Risky behaviour, whether it involves binge drinking, drug use,  breaking rules (including legal ones), or practicing unsafe sex, seems to increase as adolescence ends and as adulthood begins.   The various biological and psychological changes that mark emerging adulthood can lead to considerable emotional distress and young people often find that they have difficulty handing the new social roles that come with growing older.

According to the psychosocial stress model, adolescents take risks due to the interaction of the various psychosocial stressors they face on becoming adults combined with the lack of good coping strategies to deal with stress.    Much like everything else, adolescents take risks for what appear to be good reasons.  These can include establishing themselves as individuals, showing independence from their parents,  gaining new experiences, or winning the respect of people in their peer groups.     For instance, certain in-groups such as fraternities or sororities can use “hazing” rituals for prospective members to “prove” themselves.  Also, taking risks are often seen as a way for adolescents and young adults to demonstrate to others (or even to themselves) that they are “not kids any more”.

Of course, once adulthood kicks with all the responsibilities that go with it, including employment, marriage, and so on, those risk behaviours lose their appeal (for the most part).    While some risky behaviours can lead to long-term behaviours that persist over time, including substance abuse, adults make more of an effort to “tone down” the risks they take, if only for the sake of appearances. 

For many risky behaviours, there seems to be a developmental pattern with the greatest risk-taking occurring during adolescence and declining afterward.   In a national longitudinal study of drinking, smoking and cannabis use that was released last year,   substance use began in late adolescence and peaked in the early twenties before declining as the sample subjects grew older.   This same “inverted U” pattern was found by researchers looking at other forms of substance abuse and even risky sexual behaviour.

In a recent study published in Developmental Psychology, Jeannette Brodbeck of the University of Cambridge and her fellow researchers examined different types of risky behaviour in a large sample of Swiss research subjects over a five-year period.   Using 2,844 adolescents and young adults ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-four, Brodbeck and her colleagues conducted telephone interviews with survey questions relating to substance use, episodes of drunkenness, HIV-related sexual behaviour, as well as criminal acts (theft, violence, blackmail or vandalism).    As expected, the study results showed the same “inverted U” pattern seen in other studies with smoking and excessive drinking accelerating in frequency throughout adolescence, hitting a peak at twenty-two or twenty-four, then decreasing.   Since the legal drinking age in Switzerland is sixteen, this pattern may vary in countries such as the United States with a higher drinking age.

For cannabis use, however, the pattern is less clear.  Cannabis use was highest for sixteen-year olds (twenty-six percent) and declined to thirteen percent at the age of twenty-nine but there was no “inverted U” such as with drinking.    As for criminal behaviour,  the pattern was similar to cannabis use and went from 40 percent of 16-year-old respondents reporting one or more criminal acts to only 11 percent of 29-year-olds.  Gender differences were also extremely strong with young men reporting significantly greater risky behaviour than females in all age groups.  For those females who engaged in risky behaviours though, the pattern of decline was similar to males.

As for high-risk sexual behaviour (unprotected sex with a new partner),  the same “inverted U” seen with substance abuse does not seem to apply.   Though previous studies showed unprotected sex peaking around the age of twenty and declining slowly afterward, the study by Brodbeck and her colleagues showed only a mild decrease over time    

But what about risk-takers who fail to curb their high-risk behaviour?   As expected, people who are unable to control high-risk behaviours develop long-term health problems as well as greater likelihood of medical crises relating to their behaviour.  That includes drug or alcohol overdoses, high likelihood of serious accidents, or sexual infections. 

The changing popularity of  specific high-risk behaviours over time might make treatment programming more effective by targeting young people at an age where the programming might be most effective.   Still,  Jeannette Brodbeck and her fellow researchers were careful in stating that their study had some limitations, including how different kinds of risky behaviour interacted with each other, e.g., substance use being linked to criminal behaviour.   Also, they recognized that their study failed to consider those early lifestyle factors that might make certain risky behaviours more likely to happen. 

The “inverted U” pattern that many risky behaviours tend to follow as adolescents become adults seems very similar despite differences in the age at which those behaviours start to decline.   Understanding why we behave in risky ways and what motivates us to stop can be an important clue in developing better treatment programs and reducing the social costs that comes with taking foolish chances.