According to popular stereotype, young teenagers are shortsighted, leaving them prone to poor judgment and risky decision-making when it comes to issues like taking drugs and having sex. Now a new study confirms that teens 16 and younger do think about the future less than adults, but explains that the reasons may have less to do with impulsivity and more to do with a desire to do something exciting.
The study, by scientists at Temple University, the University of California, Los Angeles, Georgetown University, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Colorado, is published in the January/February 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.
The researchers looked at more than 900 individuals ranging in age from 10 to 30 and from an ethnically and socio-economically diverse group to determine how people of different ages think about the future consequences of their decisions. They used a new questionnaire and an experimental task called delay discounting, which measures the extent to which people prefer immediate but smaller rewards over delayed but larger ones.
Compared with adults, the researchers found, teenagers consider the future less and prefer immediate rewards over delayed ones (for example, $700 today versus $1,000 a year from now). But it may not be impulsivity that guides their lack of forethought. Instead, the study found that teens are shortsighted more due to immaturity in the brain systems that govern sensation seeking than to immaturity in the brain systems responsible for self-control.
Brain systems governing sensation seeking are very active between the ages of 10 and 16, while brain systems governing self-control continue to mature beyond age 16. In this study, the researchers saw few changes in teens' concepts about the future after age 16.
"Those who wish to use research on adolescent decision-making to guide legal policies concerning teenagers' rights and responsibilities need to be more specific about which particular capacities are being studied--sensation seeking or self-control--since they don't all mature along the same timetable," concludes Laurence Steinberg, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University and the study's lead author.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 1, Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting by Steinberg, L (Temple University), Graham, S (University of California, Los Angeles), O'Brien, LO (Temple University), Woolard, J (Georgetown University), Cauffman, E (University of California, Irvine), and Banich, M (University of Coloarado). Copyright 2009 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.