Adolescents’ Impulsive and Risky Behaviors

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Teenagers seem to like risky behaviors. Sometimes, they act as if they simply do not see the dangers involved in an activity. Adults try to warn them by providing information on how, for instance, drugs can hurt one’s health and life, but some teenagers still do drugs. Obviously, not knowing the dangers is not the problem. Teenagers seek something bigger in danger.

Teen boy smoking a cigarette.
Adolescents choose risky behaviors because of a brain function that dominates their decisions: socioemotional network. (Image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

Impulsive and risky behaviors are commonly associated with adolescence. In the United States and most other Western countries, people in their teens and early twenties show the highest rates of risky behaviors. Risky behaviors range from alcohol and drug abuse to criminal actions.

Perceiving Risks

The common belief is that adolescents think of themselves as invulnerable. However, research shows that adolescents perceive risks not that differently from adults. They also have almost equal judgments of how much risk is involved in various behaviors, and how severe the consequences can be.

At the same time, the peak of crime, drug and alcohol use, automobile accidents and fatalities, and rates of sexually transmitted diseases are all in the late teenage years and drop sharply after the beginning of the 20s. Why do they do that, despite all the warnings and correct judgments?

Learn more about why adolescents don’t behave like adults.

The Socioemotional Network

Group of teenagers jumping off a pier into the ocean.
Something that looks dangerous when a teenager is alone can look cool when the same teenager is in a group of peers, due to the social reward that follows the action. (Image: YanLev/Shutterstock)

The socioemotional network is a part of the brain concerned with processing information about rewards, and especially social rewards. The socioemotional and reward system are located in the areas of the brain that handle emotion and motivation, such as the limbic system.

The hormone changes remodel the socioemotional network neurologically during puberty. When puberty begins, the reward centers in the brain change in a way that teenagers pay more attention to potentially rewarding actions. These brain changes can be seen in other mammals too.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The network becomes more active and interconnected with other parts, also the one responsible for processing social information. Thus, social factors and social rewards get highlighted in a teenager’s life.

The Cognitive Control Network

The cognitive control network plays a vital role in executive processes, which involve functions such as thinking ahead, planning, and controlling one’s impulses. The core component of this network is the prefrontal cortex, but it is distributed throughout the brain. This network takes much longer than the socioemotional network to mature.

Hormones do not change the cognitive control network as they do in the case of the socioemotional network. The cognitive control network matures gradually during adolescence and into young adulthood.

Learn more about why self-control is so hard.

Mismatch of Networks

In the bigger picture, there is one system that makes a teenager want to do exciting things that involve social reward. The other system that should stop risky or bad decisions, however, is not as mature as the first yet, and it takes longer to mature.

In other words, the first network pushes adolescents toward risky behaviors because of the social reward involved. The second network, on the other hand, is not strong enough to brake. Another interesting point is that the social and emotional factors take the lead.

Social and Emotional Stimuli

When there is no social reward, such as peer attention, teenagers can make good decisions with less risk. When the social and emotional stimuli emerge, the socioemotional system makes dangers look fun to gain social reward afterward. This explains why teenagers are mature when they are alone, but as soon as the friends come over, they turn into the reckless adolescent.

It also explains why studies showed that adults and adolescents perceive risks equally. The studies are done under conditions that do not activate the socioemotional network. As a result, teenagers are in their mature mood, and there is no social reward to hunt. So many of the adolescents’ risky behaviors occur in groups.

Learn more about why we care what others think of us.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure comes from the dominance of the socioemotional network. It is not always that teenagers do dangerous things under pressure. They are convinced by the socioemotional network that what they do is cool, not dangerous.

Young woman taking a ride on a swing at Casa Del Arbol, South America.
Peers lose influence as people grow up. Among adults, usually, the presence and absence of peers do not affect decisions about risks that much. (Image: APSPhotography/Shutterstock)

The social reward coming from committing risky behaviors in a group of peers motivates risky behavior. The maturity of the cognitive networks pushes the adolescents into the more logical phase, where the socioemotional network does not control everything anymore.

Peer influences are also affected by the growth of cognitive network and susceptibility to peer pressure change with age. Further, the influence of peer pressure changes as well. For example, in one study, teenagers took twice as many risks in a video driving game when peers were present than when they played that game by themselves. Among college students, the presence of peers increased risk-taking only half as much as it did among younger teens. And among adults, having peers present had no effect on the risks they took.

Teenagers take risks not because they are less able to analyze situations, or they feel a kind of pressure to look cool, they just have not developed the cognitive ‘brakes’ yet.

Common Questions about Risky Behaviors

Q: Do teenagers understand risks?

Teenagers know the dangers of risky behavior, yet they take more risks than adults because their cognitive control is not mature enough to help them fully perceive dangers.

Q: Why do teenagers show risky behavior?

Teenagers show risky behaviors because their cognitive control is maturing, and they cannot perceive dangers as adults do. Also, the social surrounding and social rewards always is a great incentive for them.

Q: Does informing teenagers about the dangers of risky behavior help?

No. many studies have shown that merely informing teenagers about risky behaviors and their results does not stop them.

Q: Does the environment affect teenagers’ risky behaviors?

Yes, teenagers tend to show more risky behaviors when there is social reward or attention from their peers.

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