Teens and risky behavior: More complicated than it seems?

Teens may not seek risk for its own sake: their oft-cited love of danger may actually be a symptom of their tolerance for uncertainty, scientists said Monday.
(Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

When teenagers engage in dangerous behavior, adults usually chalk it up to some innate fondness for risk — the thrill of an unsafe situation.

But in fact, adolescents may be more risk-averse than adults, a new study has found. Their willingness to engage in risky behavior may have less to do with thrill-seeking per se than with a higher tolerance for uncertain consequences, researchers reported Monday.

“Teenagers enter unsafe situations not because they are drawn to dangerous or risky situations, but rather because they aren’t informed enough about the odds of the consequences of their actions,” said Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University and coauthor of a report detailing the study, in a statement.


In background information included in their research paper (abstract free, subscription required for full text) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tymula and colleagues at Fordham University in New York City and Yale University in New Haven, Conn., cited some alarming statistics about teens and risk. The adolescent mortality rate is twice as high as that of younger children. Teenagers drive faster than adults. They also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases and criminal behavior of any age group, the researchers wrote.

Scientists have pondered a number of reasons why teenagers are willing to do risky things, but according to the PNAS paper, they hadn’t yet conducted experiments in adolescents to pinpoint the role of one of those factors — a person’s tolerance for ambiguity. So Tymula and other members of the team designed an experiment that used methods from economics and neuroscience to help tease it out.

Thirty-three youths ages 12 to 17 and 32 adults ages 30 to 50 took part in a computer simulation that offered them a choice between a guaranteed payment of $5 and a chance to take part in a lottery that could pay more than $5 but also might pay nothing. In half of trials, the likelihood of winning the lottery was clear. In the other half, the risk was hidden.

Adults were more willing than teens to choose to participate in lotteries where the risk was known to be high — suggesting that they were less risk-averse than youngsters. But adolescents were more willing than adults to choose to participate in ambiguous lotteries where the risk was unclear.

“It is not that adolescents actually choose to engage in risks, but rather they are willing to gamble when they lack complete knowledge,” the authors wrote.

Co-author Ifat Levy of the Yale School of Medicine said in the statement that the teens’ tendency to embrace the unknown “biologically makes a lot of sense: young organisms need to be open to the unknown in order to gain information about their world.”


“When we see young children engaged in risky actions we do not think about them as risk-takers, but rather we see them as curious about the world that surrounds them. This process of learning continues throughout life,” the authors wrote. “Our results suggest that policies that aim to correct adolescent decision-making under risk by providing a safe and supervised environment for learning by doing so may in some cases be more effective than those that rely on prohibition.”

For example, they noted, teenagers might benefit from exposure to drink-and-drive simulators that give them experience of driving while intoxicated from a sober perspective.