Risk-taking peaks in adolescence, according to scientists at UCL (University College London).
In research published today in the journal Cognitive Development, children, adolescents and adults aged 9-35 years chose between risky and safe options in a computer gambling game. Scientists found that the teenagers took the most risks compared with the other groups, with the most risky behaviour seen in 14-year olds.
The results suggest that teenagers are good at weighing up the pros and cons of their decisions (unlike children) but take risks because they enjoy the thrill of a risky situation more than other age groups - especially when they have a 'lucky escape'.
"The reason that teenagers take risks is not a problem with foreseeing the consequences. It was more because they chose to take those risks," said Dr Stephanie Burnett from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the lead author.
"This is the first evidence from a lab-based study that adolescents are risk-takers. We are one step forward in determining why teenagers engage in extremely risky behaviours such as drug use and unsafe sex," she added.
The study involved 86 boys and men who were asked to play computer games, during which they made decisions in order to win points. After each game scientists measured the participants' emotional response by recording how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with the outcome.
They found that the onset of the teenage years marked an increase in how much enjoyment resulted from winning in a 'lucky escape' situation. This could help explain why teenagers are more likely to take bigger risks.
"The onset of adolescence marks an explosion in 'risky' activities – from dangerous driving, unsafe sex and experimentation with alcohol, to poor dietary habits and physical inactivity. This contributes to the so-called 'health paradox' of adolescence, whereby a peak in lifetime physical health is paradoxically accompanied by high mortality and morbidity.
"Understanding why adolescents take such risks is important for public health interventions and for families," said Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, also from the UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, and co-author of the research.
The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.
Notes for Editors
1. For more information, or to interview Dr Stephanie Burnett, please contact Clare Ryan in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9276, mobile: +44 (0)7747 5465 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. 'Adolescents' heightened risk-seeking in a probabilistic gambling task' is published online in the journal Cognitive Development on 25 March 2010, 00:01 GMT. Journalists can obtain copies of the paper by contacting either the UCL Media Relations Office or the Elsevier press office: email@example.com.
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is the fourth-ranked university in the 2009 THES-QS World University Rankings. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 12,000 undergraduate and 8,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £600 million.
The Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charity dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk
The Royal Society
The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit, not by field. As we celebrate our 350th anniversary, we are working to achieve five strategic priorities, to:
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