Why Adolescents Make Riskier Choices When With Their Peers
Even the most responsible teen may make poor choices when with their friends.
Posted Jan 31, 2020
For most parents with teenage children, letting them go out into the world can be scary. Will they make good decisions? Will they be safe?
Adolescents are often portrayed in the media as being notorious for making poor decisions, whether it be about substance use, sex, or other potentially dangerous activities. In fact, research does show that teenagers tend to make riskier choices than children and adults with respect to drinking, smoking, sexual activity, violence, crime, and car accidents (Steinberg, et al., 2008).
It's likely that you've heard many different explanations for this. Some experts attribute teens’ risky behavior, for instance, to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s “in charge” of planning, regulating, and helping us stop and think before we act. The prefrontal cortex undergoes substantial changes during adolescence, which could be one reason for lower impulse control that characterizes adolescent behavior (Somerville, et al., 2010).
Another reason teens tend to make riskier decisions is likely related to the fact that they have heightened reward sensitivity (Galván, 2013). Reward sensitivity is the degree to which we enjoy getting a reward—be it food, money, or a compliment. The part of the brain underlying the reward system (the striatum) also changes dramatically during adolescence.
Brain changes are important, but it's not just the brain that changes. A factor that isn't always focused on is the heightened influence of peers during adolescence.
Chein et al. performed a study that aimed to examine how peers influence adolescents’ risky decision-making. The researchers compared adolescents (14-18 years old), young adults (19-22 years old), and adults (24-29 years old). The study’s goal was to simulate real-world decision-making while driving.
To do that, they used a simulated driving task known as the Stoplight task. In the Stoplight task, the subject is driving a simulated car on a straight road. While driving, the subject passes through 20 intersections, each of which has a stoplight that turns yellow as the subject is approaching it. Every time, the subject must choose whether to go through the yellow light or to brake at each intersection. Sometimes, if the subject chose to go through the yellow light, their vehicle would crash into another vehicle.
To make going through a yellow light more appealing, participants were told in advance that there was a monetary reward offered based on how quickly they completed the course. However, if they crashed, they would incur a larger penalty than they would have if they would've waited for the light to turn back to green.
Subjects were tested both alone and in a peer environment. They were instructed to bring friends with them to the lab. However, to ensure that explicit "peer pressure" was not a factor, such as the friend egging them on to go through the yellow light, the subject was told that their peer would be watching their actions from a screen in another room. This way, it was simply the "presence" of a peer that would have the effect.
When they were "in the car" alone, adolescents performed very similarly to young adults and adults. However, when a peer was present, adolescents were much more likely to make risky decisions and to crash their car, while young adults and adults did not behave any differently (Chein, et al., 2011). If this is the influence of peers when they are only watching, it's possible that when peers are actually present, the need to impress them or to do as they say may further increase the likelihood of taking risks.
What does all of this mean? It means that it is true that teens are particularly sensitive to reward—particularly social reward. Even if you have a child whom you know to be careful and safe, their brain might make it more difficult for them to make safe decisions when they around their friends. The social reward perceived from making risky choices is very important to teens and may have the power to override their impulse control.
So, what should you take from this? First, don’t assume that your teenager can’t make any good decisions simply because they are a teenager. In fact, there have been studies in which adolescents show greater impulse control than their adult counterparts (Teslovich, et al., 2013) and in which adolescents are more risk-averse than adults when the exact risks are known (Tymula, et al., 2012 ). But it's important to keep in mind that their impulse control may weaken in social situations (Somerville, 2011).
In short, don’t completely lose faith in your teenagers' ability to be safe and make good decisions—but it may be wise to have a quick conversation with them before they ride off in a car full of friends.
Julia Chertkof (undergraduate student at Yale) and Reuma Gadassi Polack (postdoctoral fellow at Yale) also contributed to this article.
Facebook image: MJTH/Shutterstock
Chein J, Albert D, O’Brien L, Uckert K, Steinberg L (2011) Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Dev. Sci. 2011 Mar; 14(2): F1-F10.
Galván, A (2013) The Teenage Brain: Sensitivity to Rewards. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2013; 22(2): 88-93
Gardner M, Steinberg L (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: an experimental study. Dev Psychol. 2005 Jul; 41(4):625-35.
Steinberg L, Albert D, Cauffman E, Banich M, Graham S, Woolard J. (2008) Age differences in sensation seeking and impulsivity as indexed by behavior and self-report: evidence for a dual systems model. Dev Psychol. 2008 Nov; 44(6):1764-78.
Teslovich T, Mulder M, Franklin N, Ruberry E, Millner A, Somerville L, Simen P, Durston S, Casey BJ (2013) Adolescents let sufficient evidence accumulate before making a decision when large incentives are at stake. Dev. Sci. 2013 Sep; 17(1): 59-70.
Tymula A, Rosenberg Belmaker L, Roy A, Ruderman L, Manson K, Glimcher P, Levy I (2012) Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012 Oct; 109(42): 17135-17140.
Somerville, L. H., Jones, R. M., & Casey, B. J. (2010). A time of change: behavioral and neural correlates of adolescent sensitivity to appetitive and aversive environmental cues. Brain and cognition, 72(1), 124-133.