Why Teens Do Stupid Things

Teenagers do crazy things. They take drugs, have unprotected sex, ride with drunken drivers, and pretend to be asleep when it's time to do the dishes.

But it's not that they don't ponder the the potential consequences. In fact, a new study finds teens spend more time weighing risk than adults and in fact often overestimate the odds of a bad outcome. But the desire for acceptance among peers wins out in the decision-making process of a young mind.

Cornell University researcher Valerie Reyna and Frank Farley of Temple University conducted a review of scientific studies on the topics.

Compared to adults, teens take about 170 milliseconds more weighing the pros and cons of engaging in high-risk behavior, the researchers conclude. Adults scarcely think about risk, perhaps because they think they recognize risk intuitively. Teens, on the other hand, take time to mull the risk vs. benefit equation.

"In other words, more experienced decision-makers tend to rely more on fuzzy reasoning, processing situations and problems as gists [the essence of their actions] rather than weighing multiple factors," Reyna said.

Teens often decide that the benefits of risky behavior immediate gratification or peer acceptance—outweigh the risks, Reyna said. She figures its better to teach teens some "gist-based" thinking skills, such as putting risks into general categories rather than lecturing with specific data and details.

The results, announced this week, were published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.