Researchers believe that adolescent risk-taking is driven by a willingness to take risks when consequences are unknown.
The Yale School of Medicine finding comes as a surprise; many experts had believed risk-taking was associated with teen’s attraction to danger.
Researchers have long known that adolescents take disproportional risks to the rest of the population as the group has the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases and criminal behaviors of any age group in addition to driving at speeds faster than adults.
The death and injury rate of adolescents is 200 percent greater than for their younger peers, according to research cited in the study.
For the study, researchers explored risk-taking by studying a group of adolescents and a group of mid-life adults who were asked to make choices that involved known and unknown risks.
The 65 study participants, who ranged in age from 12 to 50, were asked to make a series of financial decisions in a lottery, each with varying degrees of risk.
In some trials, subjects were told the exact probabilities of winning a lottery. In separate, ambiguous lotteries, they were not given the precise probabilities of winning, making the level of risk uncertain.
Ifat Levy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale, and colleagues found that when risks were precisely stated, adolescents avoided them at least as much — and sometimes more — than adults.
But adolescents were much more tolerant of ambiguity in situations where the likelihood of winning and losing was unknown.
When the risk involved was not precisely known, they were more willing to accept them, compared to adults. Levy and her team say that this behavior makes sense biologically.
“Young organisms need to be open to the unknown in order to gain information about their world,” she said.
“From a policy perspective it means that informing adolescents as much as possible about the likelihoods for the costs and benefits of risky behaviors may effectively reduce their engagement in such behaviors.”
Levy said it is not that adolescents lack the cognitive ability to understand their actions—adolescents are just as smart as adults.
“Behavioral economics tells us that risk-taking is not a simple process,” she said. “It is affected by our attitudes toward known risks, but also by our attitudes toward unknown or ambiguous situations, in which the likelihoods for positive and negative outcomes are not known.”
The bottom line for parents is to inform their teen as much as possible because a lack of information on outcomes will not stop a teen from participating in a behavior or performing an action.
The study findings are presented in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.
Source: Yale University