When teenagers engage in dangerous behavior, adults usually chalk it up to some innate fondness for risk – the thrill of an unsafe situation.
But in fact, adolescents may be more risk-averse than adults, a new study has found. Their willingness to engage in risky behavior may have less to do with thrill-seeking per se than with a higher tolerance for uncertain consequences, researchers reported last week.
“Teenagers enter unsafe situations not because they are drawn to dangerous or risky situations, but rather because they aren’t informed enough about the odds of the consequences of their actions,” said Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University and co-author of a report detailing the study.
In background information included in their research paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tymula and colleagues at Fordham University and Yale University cited some alarming statistics about teens and risk. The adolescent mortality rate is twice as high as that of younger children. Teenagers drive faster than adults. They also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases and criminal behavior of any age group, the researchers wrote.
Scientists have pondered a number of reasons why teenagers are willing to do risky things, but according to the PNAS paper, they hadn’t yet conducted experiments in adolescents to pinpoint the role of one of those factors: a person’s tolerance for ambiguity. So Tymula and other members of the team designed an experiment that used methods from economics and neuroscience to help tease it out.
Thirty-three youths ages 12 to 17 and 32 adults ages 30 to 50 took part in a computer simulation that offered them a choice between a guaranteed payment of $5 and a chance to take part in a lottery that could pay more than $5 but also might pay nothing. In half of the trials, the likelihood of winning the lottery was clear. In the other half, the risk was hidden.
Adults were more willing than teens to choose to participate in lotteries where the risk was known to be high – suggesting that they were less risk-averse than youngsters. But adolescents were more willing than adults to choose to participate in ambiguous lotteries where the risk was unclear.
“It is not that adolescents actually choose to engage in risks, but rather they are willing to gamble when they lack complete knowledge,” the authors wrote.