Article looks at developmental reasons behind teen risk-taking

Group of teenagers

Teenagers often get cast as irrational risk-takers, but important developmental reasons lie behind their actions.

UO psychology professors Elliot Berkman and Jennifer Pfeifer, along with doctoral candidate Jessica Flannery, recently wrote an article for The Conversation. In it, they explain that the teenager’s developmental job is to learn and explore their environments.

Teens are as capable as adults at controlling their behaviors to achieve goals — their goals just don’t always line up with those of adults. In one study, teens were quicker and more accurate than adults at refraining from pushing a button if it meant they’d receive a reward.

“The real difference lies in what adolescents value: Gaining peer acceptance or a reward may outweigh the value adults place on delaying reward for a long-term nonsocial goal, such as financial stability,” Berkman, Pfeifer and Flannery write.

Teens are gamblers, they say. When offered a greater reward, they are more likely to choose an option with a greater uncertainty of winning or losing than a safer option with a smaller reward.

This tolerance for ambiguity is essential for teenage development because adolescence is a time for exploration of the unknown. Teens must try new things in order to learn how to navigate social relationships and develop a sense of self. 

“In the end, learning about the world necessarily involves risk,” they write. “You don’t know for sure what you might learn until you try it. This fact is reflected in the brain’s architecture, as the same regions recruited during reward processing and risk taking are also involved in learning.” 

For the full story, see “Teens aren’t just risk machines – there’s a method to their madness.”

Berkman’s research focuses on personality, social and affective neuroscience, translational neuroscience, self-regulation, goals and motivation. Pfeifer’s research interests are on adolescence, developmental social and affective neuroscience, self, social cognition and emotion. Flannery’s research interests focus on how early adverse experiences influence neuroendocrine pathways and function.