Decision Making and Risk Taking Behaviors in Adolescence

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  • 0:03 Adolescence
  • 1:06 Brain Development
  • 3:32 Evolution & Risks
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Teenagers often behave in reckless ways. But why? In this lesson, we'll look at how brain development leads to risky behaviors in adolescence, including the brain systems involved and the evolutionary reason for risk-taking in teenagers.

Adolescence

Tommy is 17, and his parents are very worried about him. He's been in an out of trouble recently. He drinks alcohol and has done some drugs, he's gotten into several car accidents because he was intoxicated, and he's started skipping school. His parents are concerned because he's risking both his life and his future by acting so recklessly. Tommy isn't alone. Many people in adolescence, or the time between childhood and adulthood that lasts from age 13 to 20, engage in risky behavior and make bad decisions. They might drink or do drugs, like Tommy, or they might endanger their future by skipping school, shoplifting, or engaging in unprotected sex. All of these can have serious long-term consequences for the adolescent, so why would someone like Tommy engage in risky behaviors? Let's look at two reasons why adolescents tend to act recklessly: their brain development and the evolutionary theory behind risk-taking behaviors.

Brain Development

Everyone, including Tommy, knows that doing drugs and driving while under the influence can have serious consequences, including death. So why on Earth would someone engage in that type of activity? There are many, many reasons why people might engage in reckless behavior during adolescence. One of the reasons might lie inside Tommy's head. The adolescent brain is not fully developed yet. The brain is still growing and changing and that affects the way that adolescents see the world and the way that they behave.

The brain is a complex organ and many different parts of the brain can work together to help a person do or feel something. These different parts of the brain working together are called brain systems. For example, the reward system of the brain makes a person feel good. Think about a time when you felt giddy with joy. Perhaps because you just broke your diet to eat a delicious piece of chocolate cake or perhaps because you just kissed your sweetheart. That emotional high that you feel is due to the reward system of the brain. Because of the great feelings people get from the reward system, they often do things that aren't good for them. For example, a person who is diabetic might still eat chocolate or someone who should be doing something else with his time might lie around and watch television.

But in adults, the desire to feel that high that comes from the reward system of the brain is tempered somewhat by the control system of the brain, which helps control impulses by making a person realize the consequences of their actions. If that diabetic's control system reminds her that eating chocolate could have an adverse effect on her health, or if that couch potato's control system reminded him that he should get up and do some work, then they can override the reward system of the brain and do the responsible thing.

The problem is that the control system in the brain develops later in life than the reward system, so adolescents, like Tommy, end up with a reward system that is proportionately much more active than their control system. Their brain is actually making it difficult for them to think things through and make the right decision. As a result, Tommy and adolescents like him take risks because they make the brain feel good via the reward system, and because their control system isn't able to overtake the reward system.

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