Do teenagers really take more gambles?

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences suggests that teenagers are more willing to take gambles than other age groups. The study found this is the case because teens are more likely to accept risks when they do not know what the consequences of doing so may be, though a British psychologist has expressed scepticism about this conclusion.

Investigators from Yale School of Medicine said it is not the case - as is often assumed - that younger people behave this way because they find danger attractive.

Ifat Levy and colleagues at the learning institute discovered that while adolescents avoid risks when the negative outcomes are explained to them, they are more tolerant of these actions when they do not know the likelihood of winning or losing.

Mr Levy, Assistant Professor in Comparative Medicine and Neurobiology at Yale, noted: "Informing adolescents as much as possible about the likelihoods for the costs and benefits of risky behaviours may effectively reduce their engagement in such behaviours."

Professor Leo Hendry, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, writes in response to this research:

From a British, and a personal, and a research perspective – from all of these - I am in conflict with the interpretations of the findings of the study from the Yale School of Medicine. 

I thought we had dispelled this 'demonising' of young people and risk in a recent book. Obviously, the ‘message’ hasn't reached Yale yet! Actually, we've dismissed such claims as theirs in earlier publications we’ve written….

To comment more critically, and specifically: First, one has to ask just how generalisable to real-life situations is a laboratory study that is based on gambling, where, I guess, there wouldn't be a genuine loss of cash to any of the participants? Thus, one has to question both participant-motivation and the relationship of gambling in such a context to the researchers’ sweeping generalizations about sex, crime and fast driving! Second, one variable explanations (e.g. age) fly in the face of the many interacting factors involved in sexual encounters that make comparisons between adolescents and mid-life adults invidious in 'explaining' STDs (e.g. relational/marital status, lifestyle, susceptibility to sexual approaches, opportunity and availability of potential partners, frequency of sexual intercourse, and immunity-tolerance to name but a few). 

Then, there is evidence that young people’s driving – and accident rates – owe much to social background effects, such as poor roads locally, driving less road-worthy vehicles, having fewer services and repairs, poor quality tyres and so on as well as their as-yet possibly under-developed motoring skills. 

Turning now to crime: Both Coleman and Steinberg, for instance, do support the view of the peaking of criminal activities in adolescence. I simply ask: why it is never mentioned in the literature that crime peaks again in mid-thirties adults? (McVie).

Hence, I query adult society’s attitudes towards our young people as being a projection of self-blame, ignoring their own behaviours and focussing on ‘other-blaming’ in a kind of ‘societal moral panic’ (see, for example, police reactions to youth in various contexts). Additionally, crime statistics are often based on ‘cautions’ or ‘arrests’ (sometimes individuals, sometimes number of arrests [i.e. the same person arrested several times]). Further, crime statistics do not discriminate between types of crime and are usually presented separately (McVie): criminal damage, theft, violence, public order and motoring offences are the most frequently listed, yet if we look a little deeper to ask such questions as how do we qualitatively equate graffiti with assault and murder as crimes? Then, who but adolescents could be charged with under-age drinking? And, please note, physical aggression peaks at two and decreases thereafter (Tremblay et al.) It does not peak in adolescence. 

Distorting the picture further, there are offences of great significance that are beyond the scope of any teenager. Corporate fraud, ethnic cleansing, global banking scams, environmental destruction, large-scale tax evasion are examples that spring to mind. Again, only about 20 per cent of adolescents fit the description of being ‘wild and reckless' (Roe & Ashe); and of these, many become law-abiding as adulthood approaches (adolescence-limited antisocial behaviour), while the relatively minor number of ‘life course persistent offenders’ continue what they started in their teenage years. – or even earlier.  

Finally, as in all species, experimentation and ‘trial and error’ learning are vital developmental processes to undergo as one grows up. So, we should not be too surprised if adolescents – like all other age-groups – reach better decisions with more information, rather than with less! 

To sum up: This seems to be a rather limited study, which interprets laboratory findings in exaggerated fashion and over-generalises wildly to the real world in the face of what we know, empirically, theoretically, and in an unbiased fashion, about adolescents in modern society. This study provides some academic concerns mainly because it highlights these adult researchers as somewhat reckless interpreters of reality!

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