By guest blogger Lucy Foulkes
Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.
Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.
Ethan McCormick and Eva Telzer at North Carolina University asked 58 adolescents (aged 13 to 17) to play a game that involved risks. The researchers scanned the participants’ brains while they played, and also monitored how losing the game in one round (taking a risk that didn’t pay off) affected their behaviour in the subsequent round.
The game involved blowing up 24 virtual balloons shown on a computer screen. Each balloon started small, and the more that participants pumped it up (by pressing a keyboard key), the more points they earned. However, there was a catch: as the balloon got bigger, there was always a chance that it would pop, causing a loud explosion on the screen and losing the participant all the points they had obtained on that round. So the teenagers had to make a series of risky decisions: should they cash out and save the points they had accumulated so far, or risk the balloon popping for the chance of even more points?
On average, the outcome from one balloon affected the teens’ behaviour on the next one. After an explosion outcome (a risk that turned out badly), they tended to pump fewer times on the subsequent balloon before cashing out. Conversely, when they successfully cashed out the points before the balloon popped, the teens tended to risk more pumps the next time round. Importantly, though, this wasn’t the same for all of them: some of the teenagers continued to pump a lot even after their last balloon had just exploded.
McCormick and Telzer found that this behaviour was linked to a distinctive pattern of neural activation. Specifically, teens who were less sensitive to past explosions (i.e. less likely to change their behaviour on subsequent rounds) had reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved in decision making processes, like judging how risky we think a decision is, and how good we consider the result. These same teens also said they engaged in more real-life risk-taking, like drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
The current findings suggest that – for some teenagers at least – it’s not just about remembering the good times, it’s about forgetting the bad times, too: some teenagers are not using past outcomes to change their current behavior. It’s not clear from the brain activity differences whether this is a conscious decision, or whether this insensitivity to the past is happening outside of the person’s awareness. It’s also important to note that the study focused on teenagers only, and didn’t include a group of children or adults, so we don’t know whether the findings reported here are unique to this age group, or common to big risk-takers of all ages.
Could we use this information to reduce risk taking in teenagers? Might it be beneficial to encourage those who take risks to consider their past behavior, to remember when things turned out badly, and suggest they use this to guide their behaviour? From the present data, it’s not clear whether this is a skill that could be taught. It’s also important to consider just how much we want to reduce risk taking. Adolescence is a time of potential vulnerability, and we need to educate young people to protect them from harming themselves. But risk taking is not inherently bad. Within limits, taking risks allows us to become independent and to learn about the world around us. It’s a fundamental part of growing up. We need to walk the fine line between encouraging our young people to stay safe, whilst also allowing them to navigate the world for themselves – even when this means taking risks.
Post written by Dr Lucy Foulkes (@lfoulkesy) for the BPS Research Digest. Lucy is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate in Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s lab at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience on the MYRIAD project – a Wellcome Trust-funded project assessing the feasibility of teaching mindfulness in schools, and the ways in which mindfulness might promote mental health and resilience in adolescents.