Friends might not let friends drink drunk…but they do seem to spur more risk taking in general.

I’ve looked at how different cultures/countries approach risk, but what about different ages. National Geographic’s piece on ‘Teenage Brains’ explains that human brains go through a development cycle in their inherent attitudes to risk and hypothesizes a number of evolutionary reasons why this might be the case (thanks Mom).

  • Impulsivity generally drops throughout life, starting at about age 10, but this love of the thrill peaks at around age 15. And although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones: The urge to meet more people, for instance, can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer, and more successful. This upside probably explains why an openness to the new, though it can sometimes kill the cat, remains a highlight of adolescent development. A love of novelty leads directly to useful experience. More broadly, the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to ‘get you out of the house’ and into new terrain, as Jay Giedd, a pioneering researcher in teen brain development at NIH, puts it…And it shows in real life, where the period from roughly 15 to 25 brings peaks in all sorts of risky ventures and ugly outcomes. This age group dies of accidents of almost every sort (other than work accidents) at high rates. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens…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.”

One of these things that adolescents want strongly is peer and social approval. Lawrence Steinberg notes in the article that ‘in an empty room’, teens adopt a risk propensity closer to adults. But when friends are added to the room, the risk propensity doubles (measured through a driving simulation). Everyone blame teenage frailty on hormone imbalance, but it appears to be as much an example of leadership (risk taking for an upside reward) without management (heed for downside risks) imbalance.

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