According to B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”
A New Look at Teenage Risk
Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.
A video game Steinberg uses draws this out nicely. In the game, you try to drive across town in as little time as possible. Along the way you encounter several traffic lights. As in real life, the traffic lights sometimes turn from green to yellow as you approach them, forcing a quick go-or-stop decision. You save time—and score more points—if you drive through before the light turns red. But if you try to drive through the red and don’t beat it, you lose even more time than you would have if you had stopped for it. Thus the game rewards you for taking a certain amount of risk but punishes you for taking too much.
When teens drive the course alone, in what Steinberg calls the emotionally “cool” situation of an empty room, they take risks at about the same rates that adults do. Add stakes that the teen cares about, however, and the situation changes. In this case Steinberg added friends: When he brought a teen’s friends into the room to watch, the teen would take twice as many risks, trying to gun it through lights he’d stopped for before. The adults, meanwhile, drove no differently with a friend watching.
To Steinberg, this shows clearly that risk-taking rises not from puny thinking but from a higher regard for reward.
“They didn’t take more chances because they suddenly downgraded the risk,” says Steinberg. “They did so because they gave more weight to the payoff.”
Researchers such as Steinberg and Casey believe this risk-friendly weighing of cost versus reward has been selected for because, over the course of human evolution, the willingness to take risks during this period of life has granted an adaptive edge. Succeeding often requires moving out of the home and into less secure situations. “The more you seek novelty and take risks,” says Baird, “the better you do.” This responsiveness to reward thus works like the desire for new sensation: It gets you out of the house and into new turf.
Read the entire article at the National Geographic website.