Risky Behavior Among Teenage Boys May Be Contagious

Teenage boys who see risky behavior by other teens get more risky themselves.

Posted Nov 12, 2019

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

The stereotype for teenagers (particularly teenage boys) is that they engage in risky behavior. For example, teenage drivers are far more likely to get in car accidents than older drivers.

A central question is the role of social influences on this risky behavior. Does the behavior of teens get riskier when they are in the presence of others who are taking risks? If so, is this influence purely unconscious, or are teens reflecting on their behavior?

This issue was explored in a study by Andrea Reiter, Shinsuke Suzuki, John O’Doherty, Shu-Chen Li, and Ben Eppinger in the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

This study focused on teenage boys and young adult males. Participants came to the lab in groups for two different sessions. In one session, they were led to believe that they would be participating with a teenager, while in another session they were led to believe that they would be participating with an adult.

After meeting other potential participants in the study, participants were led to a room where they did the study on a computer. They were shown a picture of the person they were supposed to be matched up with, though in actuality the entire study was controlled by the computer.

Participants did three different tasks in each session of their study. In one task, they had a chance to make bets in which they took a sure option (€5 for certain) or a risky option (more money with some probability). In this study, risky behavior involved selecting the risky option rather than the sure option.

In a second task, they had a chance to observe what their partner was doing in the gambling task. In a third task, they had to predict what their partner was likely to do after observing him.

In each session, participants were paired with two different partners. One generally picked the safe bet. One generally picked the risky bet. Participants were good at predicting what their partner would do after having a few opportunities to observe their behavior.

The big question is how other people’s behavior influenced the behavior of the participant. The gambling of the adult participants was not strongly affected by what they observed their partner do. The gambling behavior of the teens was not affected by what an adult partner was doing. However, teens were riskier in their bets when paired with a teenager taking risks than when paired with a teenager making safe bets. That is, the bets that teens made only got risky when their partner was also taking risky bets.

There are two additional interesting findings here. First, the teens responded most slowly in the condition in which they were paired with a risky teen. Second, the teens who were riskiest were those who best predicted the behavior of their risky partner.

What does this mean?

Overall, teens didn’t select the risky option that often (only about 20% of the time in the other conditions, but about 60% of the time when paired with a risky teen). That means that selecting the risky option was probably a little stressful for the teens.

One way to think about these results is that the teens had a tendency to avoid risk in the task. However, when they saw their partner engage in risky bets, it suggested to them that they try the same tactic. However, they knew that this bet was risky and so they did it only after deliberation.

Were adults also affected by being paired with a risk-taking adult? The data suggests that they were not. Adults responded quickly to the gambles (and also tended to avoid the risky gamble). In addition, adults paired with a risk-taking adult were not more likely to gamble when they were able to predict that adult’s behavior well. This finding suggests that adults in this task were not strongly swayed by the behavior of their partner.

Obviously, there are many kinds of risky behavior, and this one study will not tell us everything we need to know about what affects whether teens take risks. But, this study suggests that teenage boys are affected by the risky behavior of their peers. They don’t take these risks blindly, though. They seem to recognize that they are engaging in risky behavior—but they do it anyway.

References

Reiter, A.M.F., Suzuki, Shinsuke, O'Doherty, J.P., Li, S.C., & Eppinger, B. (2019). Risk contagion by peers affects learning and decision-making in adolescents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9), 1494-1504.