Cognitive Control in Adolescence: Teenagers Learn the Risks

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Hormones of puberty cannot affect cognitive control in adolescence. Thus, this system matures at a gradual upward slope, and another system that is easily affected by reactions and the presence of peers takes over, hastily. Thus, it looks as if teenagers do not understand the risk of what they do, while the reality is that they do understand. What does cognitive control do in this regard?

Teenagers riding bikes and skateboards on urban bicycle trail.
Cognitive control in adolescence grows at a slower pace compared to the socioemotional network, leading teenagers to take more risks when emotions are involved.
(Image: sauletas/Shutterstock)

Adolescents are known for taking risky decisions. Research has shown that they attempt risky behaviors to gain the social award of attention when they are among peers. Hormones at the onset of puberty change a part of the brain called the socioemotional network, which motivates any behavior that brings along rewards. The cognitive control, on the other hand, is not affected by hormones. It matures more slowly than the other network, and it takes a while for adolescents to finally be able to control their behavior among peers.

Why is there such a big gap between the maturation of these two networks?

Learn more about why self-control is so hard.

Earlier Puberty

Teenage girl on a climbing wall.
When cognitive control matures, people do not show as many risky behaviors as they did when they were teenagers. (Image: Armin Staudt/Shutterstock)

Research shows that puberty begins at least four or five years earlier in the U.S., over the last 200 years. The hormones released with puberty activate the socioemotional network. Thus, this network grows much earlier and more quickly than cognitive control, which is independent of puberty.

The period where the socioemotional section is active, and the cognitive control is not, is when teenagers make reckless decisions to impress their friends. As a result of earlier puberty, this period is prolonged today. Is it all negative?

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

Benefits of Early Socioemotional Activation

A teenager that takes risks is willing to experience new things, including forming connections with peers and becoming independent of parents. Without the reckless risk-taking, they might not leave childhood behind and enter the new stage of life.

Some scientists even believe that these characteristics emerged through evolution since they are vital for maturity and independence. The earlier puberty begins, the longer the person will show impulsive and risky behaviors because the socioemotional network is active without a mature cognitive control network to hold it back when necessary.

Learn more about why people are so full of themselves.

Can Adults Perform as Cognitive Control?

Usually, adults try to make teenagers realize the risks and change their decision. Research has so far found out the ways that never work to this end. First, providing information will seldom stop risky adolescent behavior.

Most American high-school students receive plenty of information warning them about the dangers of sex, smoking, alcohol, drugs, and dangerous driving. But many of them still have unsafe sex, binge drink, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, and drive recklessly. Teenagers will continue risky behavior until their cognitive control system matures, and there is no known way to speed that up.

What Can Be Done to Protect Adolescents?

A juvenile driver getting a driving ticket.
Putting legal restrictions on sources of risky behaviors in teenagers can be one way to protect them until their cognitive control matures and helps them decide more logically. (Image: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock)

Reducing the adolescents’ access to tools of risky behavior can be one way to reduce risky decisions. If there are stricter laws on the sale of alcohol, more access for adolescents to contraception and mental-health services, and a higher driving age, some of the risky decisions will be controlled. For example, teenagers will not be allowed to drive when they do not have active cognitive control.

It must be noted that some bad decisions can be made at any age and should not be blamed on weak cognitive control in adolescence. Risks in adolescence can be beneficial to some extent, as they allow independence and building new things in life. However, this does not mean adults never act irrationally or make risky decisions.

Learn more about why self control is so hard.

Adolescents Are Not as Bad as the Public Thinks

The common views of adolescents are usually negative. Adults commonly view teenagers as irrational, immature, overly emotional, parent-hating risk-takers. However, research does not support these ideas that much. Evidence shows adolescents do take more risky decisions, especially when emotions and social rewards are involved, but it is not because they do not understand as much as older people.

The stereotype of adolescents is negatively exaggerated. They need to take more risks to be able to let go of the safe and easy life of childhood. After all, the vast majority of teenagers do not drink heavily, drive recklessly, or become addicted to drugs as a result of their risky behaviors.

Common Questions about Cognitive Control in Adolescence

Q: What is cognitive control?

Cognitive control is what helps humans understand risks and dangers and control their behavior accordingly. Weaker cognitive control in adolescence results in more risky behaviors.

Q: Does the maturation of cognitive control start with puberty?

Cognitive control in adolescence is neither controlled nor affected by puberty. In some cases, they start at the same time, but in many cases, they do not, and that causes risky behaviors in teenagers.

Q: Can the onset of puberty change?

Yes. Research has shown that the onset of puberty has changed to four or five years earlier in the past 200 years. The reason is the development of the socioemotional network. However, that has not affected cognitive control in adolescence.

Q: Why do puberty and cognitive control grow at different paces?

Puberty is affected by many environmental conditions, such as the socioemotional network, and can happen earlier or later. On the other hand, cognitive control in adolescence is not affected by these factors and stays where it was in the growth process.

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