Risky Business

Adolescents choose the unknown over risky situations

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When you think of risk-taking behavior, many of us remember our teenage years. For many, that’s when we pushed the envelope, making “unfavorable” decisions, while feeling invincible.

But it all comes at a cost; adolescents experience twice the risk of mortality than their younger peers, and also have the highest rates of STDs, criminal behavior and reckless driving.

Are teens really that interested in risky behavior, or is it something else?

"Talk to your teen about the consequences of risky behavior"

Agnieszka Tymula, PhD at the Center for Neural Science at NYU led a team of researchers from NYU, Yale and Fordham University in search of the reasons for an adolescent’s risk-taking.

For the purpose of the study, 65 individuals ranging in age from 12 to 50 were assessed based on their attitudes toward risk, as well as ambiguity, or the unknown.

Of the 65 individuals, 33 were adolescents and 32 were adults over the age of thirty. The participants were recruited through fliers and emails, and were then subjected to a series of tests to make sure they qualified for the study.

In order to assess a person’s attitudes toward risk and the unknown (ambiguity), the researchers created a lottery on which the participants placed bets. Each individual responded to 160 choice situations between two scenarios.

In one scenario, the participants were given clear details about the risk that was involved in the lottery, each individual was aware of their small chance of winning before betting. In the second scenario, the risks were not clearly stated; the chances for winning were unknown.

The researchers then graphed the results of the participant’s choices to compare the age groups. The graphs revealed which individuals were more tolerant of clearly stated risk and which were more tolerant of the ambiguity of the unknown risk.

They found that the teens fell most often to the side of ambiguity. These results mean that the teens preferred the choice with the unknown risk and actually avoided the clearly risky bet.

The adults, on the other hand, fell more often to the risk-taking side, meaning they chose a clear risk over the unknown.

The graphs showed that the teens were actually more risk-averse than the adults, but were willing to gamble with incomplete knowledge.

The researchers suggest, in day-to-day life teens aren’t necessarily seeking out risks, they are simply more tolerant of the unknown. Developmentally, an adolescent’s tolerance for the unknown is helpful. It allows them to explore the world and learn.

These results could mean that educating teens on the real consequences of risky behavior might help to steer them away from it, because according to the study, the teens mostly avoided high-risk situations.

This research was published online in October by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and was funded by the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Aging. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 11, 2012
Last Updated:
October 12, 2012