National Geographic : 2011 Oct
• Also peaking during adolescence (and per- haps aggrieving the ancientry the most) is risk- taking. We court risk more avidly as teens than at any other time. is shows reliably in the lab, where teens take more chances in controlled experiments involving everything from card games to simulated driving. 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. is age group dies of ac- cidents 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 o en drink too much as teens. Especially in cultures where teenage driving is common, this takes a gory toll: In the U.S., one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol. Are these kids just being stupid? at's the conventional explanation: ey're not thinking, or by the work-in-progress model, their puny developing brains fail them. Yet these explanations don't hold up. As Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psycholo- gist specializing in adolescence at Temple Uni- versity, points out, even 14- to 17-year-olds---the biggest risktakers---use the same basic cogni- tive strategies that adults do, and they usually reason their way through problems just as well as adults. Contrary to popular belief, they also fully recognize they're mortal. And, like adults, says Steinberg, "teens actually overestimate risk." So if teens think as well as adults do and rec- ognize risk just as well, why do they take more chances? Here, as elsewhere, the problem lies less in what teens lack compared with adults than in what they have more of. Teens take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward di er- ently (see chart, page 49): 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 tra c lights. As in real life, the tra c 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. us the game rewards you for taking a cer- tain 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, howev- er, 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 di erently with a friend watching. To Steinberg, this shows clearly that risk- taking rises not from puny thinking but from a higher regard for reward. " ey didn't take more chances because they suddenly downgraded the risk," says Steinberg. " ey did so because they gave more weight to the payo ." Researchers such as Steinberg and Casey be- lieve 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 In scientific terms, teenagers can be a pain in the ass. But they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around.