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Teens 'programmed' to take risks

26 March 2010

A teenager performs stunts on a BMX bike at a skate park
Risk-taking behaviour is at its peak during adolescence, according to a study.

Researchers at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that teenagers took the most risks in a gambling game compared with other groups, with the most risky behaviour seen in 14-year-olds.

The results suggest that although teenagers are good at weighing up the pros and cons of their decisions they take risks because they enjoy the thrill of a risky situation the most - particularly when they have a 'lucky escape'.

"The reason that teenagers take risks is not a problem with foreseeing the consequences. It is more because they choose to take those risks," said Dr Stephanie Burnett from UCL and lead author on the paper.

"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 like drug use and unsafe sex."

The study involved 86 boys and men between nine and 35 years old who were asked to play computer gambling games where they made decisions in order to win points. Participants were asked to choose between risky and safe options in the game. 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.

"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," said Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from UCL and co-author on the paper.

"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."

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.

Image: A teenager performs stunts on a BMX bike at a skate park. Credit: Saunderses on Flickr


Burnett S et al. Adolescents' heightened risk seeking in a probabilistic gambling task. Cog Dev 2010 [Epub ahead of print].

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