Risky Business: The Real Reason Teens Do Stupid Things

(Image credit: Teen on cell phone via Shutterstock)

Adolescents are known to do stupid things, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're risk takers.

Instead, a team of economic researchers and psychologists explains that adolescents are more willing than adults to accept ambiguity and take action even when they don't fully understand the consequences, according to a study released today (Oct. 1).

"In risky situations where you know the outcomes and the probability of the outcome, teenagers didn't take more risks than adults," lead study researcher Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University, told LiveScience. "Teenagers went for the risky option more often when the outcome was not exactly known."

Teenagers' high tolerance to ambiguity is compounded by the fact that they often put themselves in situations where they might not even recognize the ambiguity of the full spectrum of consequences, Tymula said.

The acceptance of the unknown makes teenagers engage in riskier behavior, the researchers concluded. [10 Facts About the Teen Brain]

Risk and ambiguity may sound like ugly stepsisters, but for economists and psychology researchers, the two are separate and distinct. In risky situations, the different consequences are known whereas in ambiguous situations, all possible consequences may not be known.

The teen lottery

In the new study, the researchers had 33 adolescents ages 12 to 17 and 32 adults ages 30 to 50 play a game in which they had to choose between a payoff of $5 or a 50/50 chance of winning either $50 or zilch. In the "ambiguous" lottery, the chance to get $50 or nothing ranged from 25 percent to 75 percent, giving wiggle room and uncertainty at the betting table.

Adolescents entered fewer risky lotteries than adults when the chances of winning were known across 160 lottery trials. However, teens took part more frequently in the ambiguous lotteries where the payout probability wasn't as well known. For example, when the chance of winning $50 was 38 percent, one teen went for it 50 percent of the time during 160 trials whereas one adult went for it about 75 percent of the time.

"The important lesson we learned here is when adolescents know the risks precisely, they will be less likely to take part in the risk," Tymula said.

The situation may be more complicated than adolescents accepting more ambiguity, but may involve a whole host of other factors such as hope and optimism for good outcomes, according to Paul Slovic, founder and president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that analyzes risk and decision-making, who was not involved in the study.

"Fuzzy gambles may lead to faster, less deliberative thinking that gives rise to optimism," Slovic wrote in an email. In this case, lotteries with precise 50/50 probabilities perhaps constricted the teen's sense of hope and "reduced the positive feelings adolescents had regarding the big payoffs."

Limitations to teen findings

One expert cautioned that the results, while intriguing, are limited.

"The conclusions are certainly interesting but should be viewed with caution," Frank Farley, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email. "No direct replication and a small unrepresentative sample tested on a narrow range of behavior means 'don't over-generalize.'"

The study also didn't control for the fact that teens and adults differ in the perceived value of the money offered, Farley said.

In the future, Tymula said that the research group hopes to figure out how attitudes toward known and unknown risks develop across a life span and to relate it back to brain functioning to see how the biology drives risk attitudes.

As for now, Tymula said their results give support to simulation programs that ensure adolescents know the risks before they take action.

For example, to reduce drunken driving, "if adolescents can feel how it is to drive drunk (in a simulation), that could help minimize bad decision-making," Tymula said.

The study appeared in today's (Oct. 1) edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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