UK and French researchers investigating how boys and men aged from 9 to 35 chose between risky and safe options in a computer gambling game concluded that adolescents took the most risks, with 14 year olds showing the most risk-taking behaviour.

You can read about the study by researchers at University College London, UK, and the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Bron, France, in the journal Cognitive Development, where an in press corrected proof has been available online since 26 March.

Lead author Dr Stephanie Burnett from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and colleagues, wanted to investigate why the onset of adolescence marks such an explosion in risk-taking, such as dangerous driving, unsafe sex, poor dietary habits, physical inactivity and experimenting with alcohol.

They found that teenage boys, unlike children, are quite good at weighing up the pros and cons of decision options, but take risks because they enjoy the thrill of risk taking more than other age groups: they seemed particularly to enjoy it when they had 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,” Burnett told the media, explaining that their study offers the first lab-based evidence 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.

For the study, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, Burnett and colleagues recruited 86 boys and men aged from 9 to 35 and invited them to play a computer game based on a “probabilistic gambling task” where they had to make decisons to win points and that enabled the researchers to measure how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with the result afterwards.

They found that the ability to maximize expected value of a decision improved with age, but there was an “inverted U-shaped” pattern for risk-seeking that peaked at 14.4 years, and that the onset of teenage years marked an increase in how much they enjoyed winning games that involved a “lucky escape”.

This could explain why teenagers are more likely to take big risks.

“Although emotion ratings overall did not differ across age, there was an increase between childhood and young adolescence in the strength of counterfactually mediated emotions (relief and regret) reported after receiving feedback about the gamble outcome,” wrote the authors, concluding that this suggests:

“Continuing development of the emotional response to outcomes may be a factor contributing to adolescents’ risky behaviour.”

Co-author Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, also from the UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, said:

“Understanding why adolescents take such risks is important for public health interventions and for families.”

“Adolescents’ heightened risk-seeking in a probabilistic gambling task.”
Stephanie Burnett, Nadège Bault, Giorgio Coricelli, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
Cognitive Development, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 26 March 2010.

Source: UCL.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD