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Why Do Young Men Engage in Risky Behaviors?

It’s all about attracting mates, of course.

It's well known that adolescents are far more reckless than older adults. In fact, they even take more risks at this age than they did when they were children. What is it about the time period from the mid-teens to the early 20s that makes young people so prone to risky behavior?

You can simply dismiss it as raging hormones—and no doubt, these do play a role. However, research shows that young people aren't always risk-seeking. Instead, whether they take risks or not seems to depend on the circumstances.

For instance, young drivers are far more likely to engage in risky driving when they're with their peers than when they're driving alone. Also, young males tend to be more daring than young females, and the presence of same-sex peers can certainly goad these boys into taking risks they wouldn't take otherwise. At the same time, the mere presence of an attractive young female can also serve as a catalyst for male risk-taking.

Studies have shown that young males in stable romantic relationships are more cautious than their unattached peers. Some researchers have explained these findings by suggesting that prudent young men are more likely to attract steady girlfriends. However, psychologist Karol Silva of the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research in Philadelphia and her colleagues propose a different hypothesis, namely that their girlfriends have a calming effect on them.

To test this hypothesis, Silva and colleagues invited young men and their girlfriends into their lab to engage in a standard assessment of risk proneness known as the Stoplight Game. This is a kind of driving simulator implemented on a desktop computer. The participants are asked to navigate through a series of intersections to arrive at their destination as quickly as possible.

However, the traffic lights turn yellow as the players approach each intersection. If they run the yellow light, they get to their destination faster and hence earn more points, but they also risk a collision with other traffic, which costs them both time and points. Of course, stopping for each yellow light costs time and points, but not as much as a collision.

Participants played the Stoplight Game in one of three conditions. In the first condition, the young man played the game while his girlfriend sat next to him and watched. In the second condition, the young man and his girlfriend were sent to separate rooms, where each played the game alone. These two conditions were set up to test the hypothesis that the presence of their girlfriend has a calming effect on young men.

The researchers also included a third condition in which the male played the Stoplight Game with an attractive female watching while his girlfriend was off in a separate room. This alluring woman was actually a confederate, meaning that she was working for the experimenter, but of course, the participant didn't know that.

Just as the male was about to start the Stoplight Game, he witnessed the young lady entering the lab and explaining to the researcher that she and her boyfriend were scheduled to take part in the study. But, she said, she and her boyfriend had just broken up, and she was wondering if she could still get credit for the experiment. The experimenter relented and let her sit next to the male as he performed the task. (I love it when a psychology experiment includes a clever bit of deception!)

The first two conditions yielded results just as Silva and colleagues had predicted. That is, the young men were more cautious when their girlfriends were sitting next to them than when they were in the next room. In other words, just having a girlfriend didn't calm down these young men, but having her by their side certainly did.

What do you suppose happened when these young men played the game while an attractive and available young woman was sitting right next to them? One possibility is that the stranger would remind them of their own girlfriend, thus leading them to drive more cautiously. Another possibility is that they would act bold and daring, presumably to impress the young lady.

The results showed that the young men were just as risk-prone when the attractive stranger was by their side as when they played the game alone. In other words, the strange woman didn't have the same calming effect on them as their girlfriends did.

From an evolutionary perspective, this pattern of results makes perfect sense. Risk-taking in males is always about attracting mates. Whether the occasion is knights jousting in a tournament or stags clashing antlers on a mountaintop, the object is always the same—to attract females. In the game of life, only the bold and the beautiful get their genes into the next generation.

Once a young man is in a stable romantic relationship, there's no longer any need to take risks, at least when his girlfriend is with him. This is because he's now more interested in signaling his commitment and reliability in order to keep her in the relationship.

Then why did the young men act recklessly in front of the attractive stranger? Here we can only speculate. However, it's well known that romantic relationships in adolescence and early adulthood are especially fluid. These couples may be committed to each other—but only for the time being. Since young people have so many alternatives to choose from, they'll readily break off a "committed" relationship for a new partner that's more attractive—and this is equally true for both men and women.

At any rate, the results of this experiment clearly demonstrate that having his girl by his side has a calming effect on a young man. It makes him more cautious and prudent. But when his girl is out of sight, he's just as reckless as he was before he won her heart.

Facebook image: Dmitry Molchanov/Shutterstock


Silva, K., Chein, J., & Steinberg, L. (2020). The influence of romantic partners on male risk-taking. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407519899712

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