The great unknown—risk-taking behaviour in adolescents

January 19, 2017, Max Planck Society
Young people are seeking new experiences, and in doing so, are often unable to gauge the risks of their behaviour. Credit: Jörg/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Adolescents are more likely to ignore information that could prompt them to rethink risky decisions. This may explain why information campaigns on risky behaviors such as drug abuse tend to have only limited success. These are the conclusions of a study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, which has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Reckless driving, binge drinking, drug taking—it is well known that adolescents are more likely than adults to engage in risky and impulsive behavior. A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development provides new insights into these . The findings show that, relative to children and adults, adolescents are less interested in information that would help them to gauge the risks of their behavior. They are less motivated to seek out such information and better able to tolerate a lack of knowledge. "It's not that they are cognitively incapable of processing the issues. They are simply driven to seek new experiences and try out new things," says lead author Wouter van den Bos, researcher in the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The patterns of adolescent risk-taking behaviors observed in previous experimental studies deviate sharply from those seen in real life. In these earlier laboratory experiments, participants were often given all the information they needed to make a decision. When adolescents test their luck by experimenting with drugs or having unprotected sex, however, they may have only a vague idea of the possible consequences of their actions and the likelihoods of those consequences. But they often have the opportunity to learn more about those consequences before making a decision—metaphorically speaking, they can look before they leap. "Ours was the first developmental study to use experimental tasks that afforded decision makers this opportunity to reduce uncertainty by searching for more information," adds van den Bos.

In the study, 105 children, adolescents, and young adults aged 8–22 years old played various lotteries, each offering a chance of winning a certain amount of money. Players either had full information on the value of the prize and the probability of winning it (choices under risk), or they were told the value of the prize but had incomplete information on its probability (choices under ambiguity), or they were not told the value of the prize or its probability but had the opportunity to access further information (choices under uncertainty). Additionally, participants were asked about their real-life risk-taking behavior.

It emerged that teenagers were more ready to accept ambiguity and also searched for less information in the context of uncertainty. This tolerance of the unknown peaked around age 13-15 years. Unlike adolescents' choices in the context of full information, their behavior under ambiguity and uncertainty also correlated with their self-reported risk-taking in the real world.

The study findings could also explain why information campaigns designed to educate young people about the risks of certain behaviors—such as drug abuse—often fall on deaf ears. Even when information is easily available to young people, they show little motivation to engage with it. "If we really want to get through to , we need to take these insights into account when designing interventions," says coauthor Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. "A promising alternative to campaigns would be to give the opportunity to experience the consequences of their risky behavior—in virtual environments, for example," adds Hertwig.

Explore further: Adolescents do not 'get the gist' when it comes to making risky decisions online

More information: Wouter van den Bos et al. Adolescents display distinctive tolerance to ambiguity and to uncertainty during risky decision making, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/srep40962

Related Stories

Adolescents do not 'get the gist' when it comes to making risky decisions online

October 25, 2016
Adolescents are more likely than adults to take online risks, regardless of the gamble involved, according to new research by the University of Plymouth.

Teens don't like danger, just don't understand consequences, study shows

October 12, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—A new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers and their colleagues finds that adolescents commonly take more risks than younger children and adults because they are more willing to accept risks when ...

Study: Tolerance for ambiguity explains adolescents' penchant for risky behaviors

October 1, 2012
It is widely believed that adolescents engage in risky behaviors because of an innate tolerance for risks, but a study by researchers at New York University, Yale's School of Medicine, and Fordham University has found this ...

Adolescents more economically rational than young adults, researchers find

September 8, 2015
Teenagers are irrational and make bad decisions. Or do they? A new Duke study finds that adolescents ages 10 to 16 can be more analytical in their economic choices than many slightly older young adults.

Study finds link between marriage attitudes and risky sexual behaviors

October 13, 2016
Risky sexual behaviors among adolescents and young adults has long been a major public health concern, due to their prevalence and negative consequences for health, such as increased risk for sexually transmitted infections, ...

Teenagers shape each other's views on how risky a situation is

March 27, 2015
Young adolescents' judgements on how risky a situation might be are most influenced by what other teenagers think, while most other age groups are more influenced by adults' views, finds new UCL research.

Recommended for you

Depression speeds up brain aging, find psychologists

May 24, 2018
Psychologists at the University of Sussex have found a link between depression and an acceleration of the rate at which the brain ages. Although scientists have previously reported that people with depression or anxiety have ...

People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

May 23, 2018
People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain's main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without ...

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

May 23, 2018
Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is "extremely repetitive" say psychologists.

Study confirms that men and women tend to adopt different navigation strategies

May 23, 2018
When navigating in a known environment, men prefer to take shortcuts to reach their destination more quickly, while women tend to use routes they know. This is according to Alexander Boone of UC Santa Barbara in the US who ...

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.