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Teens Take Less Risks When Young Adults Around

Teens Take Less Risks When Young Adults Around

It is well accepted that adolescents often take risks, especially when they are accompanied by peers of a similar age. New research finds an easy way to abate the risk taking is to have a slightly older teen or young adult in the group.

University of Temple researchers discovered the additional of just one young adult makes a big difference in teen behavior.

“The take home message is that decision making in groups of adolescents and young adults is more prudent when a somewhat older adult is present,” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Laurence Steinberg of Temple University.

“The findings are important because they provide guidance to organizations that must decide on the age mix of their work teams.”

The research appears inĀ Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Steinberg and Temple University co-authors Karol Silva and Jason Chein decided to investigate the combined effects of social pressure and age on adolescents’ risk taking in an experiment funded by the US Army.

Given that many soldiers on the front lines are in their late teens or early 20s, the researchers wondered whether groups with younger soldiers might benefit from the inclusion of a slightly older soldier in his mid- to late-20s.

Some of the participants, all 18- to 20-year-old men, were randomly assigned to complete the experiment alone, while others completed the task in a group of three same-aged peers or two same-aged peers and one slightly older male. Unbeknownst to the participants, the slightly older males were actually graduate students who were part of the research team.

Researchers used a novel experiment to gauge the differences in behavior. In the experiment, participants were asked to introduce themselves to the other group members, giving their name and their year in school. These introductions served to make the participants aware of the relative ages of everyone in the group.

The participants then completed a computer-based driving game, in which one group member was tasked with driving a car along a track as quickly as possible while the others watched. At each intersection in the game, the “driver” had to decide whether to stop for a yellow light, which would incur a time penalty, or to continue driving. If the driver ran through the light, he risked hitting another vehicle, which would incur an even greater time penalty.

The drivers were offered a monetary incentive for completing the course quickly, and the observers received bonuses based on the driver’s performance.

The researchers measured drivers’ risk taking as the proportion of intersections at which they did not brake for the yellow light. They also measured participants’ preference for relatively small immediate rewards versus larger delayed rewards.

The results revealed that drivers who were observed by peers took significantly more risks and showed a stronger preference for immediate rewards than those who completed the task by themselves or in a group that included a slightly older graduate student.

Importantly, there was no difference in risk taking or preference for immediate rewards between solo drivers and drivers in mixed-age groups.

The findings do not indicate whether it was specifically the graduate students’ age, their seniority, or other aspects of their demeanor that led to differences in the drivers’ performance, and additional research will be needed to investigate whether the results apply to women and mixed-gender groups.

However, the results suggest that the presence of a slightly older adult may mitigate the effects that peers have on adolescents’ risk taking behavior.

Although the study was designed to shed light on group performance in the context of army combat teams, the researchers believe these findings are relevant across various settings, including restaurants and retail stores, which employ a relatively high proportion of adolescents.

“There is no question that late adolescents bring to work teams many desirable qualities, including spontaneity, creativity, and enthusiasm,” the researchers write.

“The key for the individuals who supervise people in their late teens and early 20s is to find a way to harness the passion of the young without permitting their readiness to take risks to endanger them and their teammates.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science
Group of young people photo by shutterstock.

Teens Take Less Risks When Young Adults Around

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Teens Take Less Risks When Young Adults Around. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.