Good Example Of What Are The Motivations And Causes Behind Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior? Term Paper

Type of paper: Term Paper

Topic: Risk, Behavior, Brain, Adolescence, Psychology, Adolescent, Study, Reward

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/12/18

Risky behavior is defined as that which results in a situation that exposes the risk-taker to danger, harm, or loss, usually increasing morbidity or mortality (Tymula et al, 2012). Multiple hypotheses exist as to why an individual might engage in risky behavior, suggesting it may be related to psychological, biochemical, or environmental factors. It has also been found that risk-taking behavior may occur for different reasons among different age groups. In fact, in the absence of mental illness, adolescents were found to engage in risk-taking behavior on the whole more than any other age group (Tymula et al, 2012). Specifically, adolescents have higher rates of engagement in sexual risk taking and promiscuity, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, criminal activity, reckless driving, and alcohol in drug use (Tymula et al, 2012; Casey, Jones, and Somerville, 2011). Current research suggests this may be due to a host of underlying factors, including psychological, environmental, and developmental changes in brain structure with an underlying evolutionary purpose.
Recent imaging studies suggest that multiple structural factors may be responsible for risk-taking behavior (Casey, Jones, and Somerville, 2011). One of the most significant findings was an imbalance in the maturation of certain areas of the brain relative to others (Casey, Jones, and Somerville, 2011). It was observed that the subcortical regions (those which accelerate emotionally based decisions) matured faster than the top down prefrontal cortex (control) systems, creating an imbalance that was not observed in children or adults (Casey, Jones, and Somerville, 2011). Various qualitative behavioral studies indicated that adolescents are capable of rational decisions and understand the risks behind certain behavioral choices just as well as adults in most situations; however, in emotional situations, risk-taking behavior becomes more prominent as the stronger and more mature subcortical system will typically win over the smaller, less mature control systems (Casey, Jones, and Somerville, 2011). Additionally, a difference in levels of neurotransmitters was found in adolescent brains versus those of children or adults, contributing to the pleasure-reward seeking aspect of this behavior.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for pleasure, and tends to play a dominant role in reward-seeking and sensory fulfillment behavior (Steinberg, 2010). Adolescents appear to release larger amounts of dopamine within the structural pathways that connect the limbic, striatal, and prefrontal regions (Steinberg, 2010). When combined with the imbalance between the prefrontal and subcortical regions, this appears to result in emotionally driven behavior that seeks to fulfill reward and pleasure centers and engage the senses (Steinbert, 2010). This confirms the psychological hypothesis that adolescents do have a tendency to engage in pleasure and reward seeking behaviors. However, additional studies suggest there may also be environmental components that cause a tendency to utilize these areas of the brain for decision making more frequently; the most significant of which appeared to be the presence of peers.
While numerous studies have found that the reason many adolescents engage in risk-taking behavior is to fulfill pleasure and reward centers in the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex, peer influence was found to play a significant role in activation of these centers (Chein, Albert, O’Brien, Uckert, and Steinberg, 2011). A study performed using functional MRI scans of adolescent brain activity during a simulated driving task revealed that when alone, decisions were more rational and activity in the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex, while still increased over that of adults or children, was lower than in the presence of peers (Chein et al, 2011). When peers were allowed in the testing room, the same simulated driving task resulted in much riskier decision-making and higher use of the two aforementioned areas of the brain, indicating a higher propensity toward seeking pleasure and reward while in the presence of peers (Chein et al, 2011). While it is clear there may be biochemical and environmental factors at play, other studies suggest the possibility that adolescent risk-taking behavior may not always be based upon a preference for risk, but rather a tolerance to ambiguity.
One study evaluated adolescents when given a risky monetary choice, similar to a lottery (Tymula, 2012). Subjects were to choose between a flat payment of $5.00, a chance to win more than $5.00, and a chance to win nothing (Tymula, 2012). Each lottery was designed to individually assess preference or aversion for technically risky or ambiguously risky monetary choices (Tymula, 2012). Results showed that adolescents actually showed a degree of aversion to choices that they perceived as technically risky, and about which they were given extensive knowledge (Tymula, 2012). Choices that were ambiguously risky and vague (the subjects were given little knowledge of the type of choice they were making) were highly preferred by the adolescent group (Tymula, 2012). This may suggest a greater willingness to engage in risks when the consequences are more vague or unknown; thus, risk-taking behavior may not be based entirely on a preference for risky behavior itself (Tymula, 2012). It has also been suggested that there is a biological, evolutionary basis that not only explains the reason the adolescent brain develops in this fashion, but that may also explain psychological and behavioral aspects of risk-taking in the adolescent age group.
Risk-taking is a complex behavior that appears to occur in adolescents at a higher rate than any other age group. Numerous studies have been conducted with the objective of understanding psychological motivations and underlying biochemical mechanisms. It seems likely that the motivation behind this behavior is not simply confined to psychological, biochemical, or evolutionary factors. Rather, it is likely a combination of all of these. Brain scanning has revealed an imbalance in maturation of certain areas of the brain, along with an increase in dopamine, resulting in an increase in emotionally driven decisions that seek to fulfill reward and pleasure centers. Evolutionary biology suggests that the reason these structural changes occur is to purposefully promote risky behavior, for the purpose of adaptation and establishing social and sexual status. Other factors, including a tolerance to ambiguity and presence of peers may further perpetuate risk-taking behavior. It is clear that, while much has been learned about the structure and function of the adolescent brain with regard to behavioral decisions, more study is warranted in order to better understand whether these hypotheses are in fact true, and how these various factors may be interconnected.


Casey, B.J., Jones, R.M., and Somerville, L.H. (2011). Braking and accelerating the adolescent brain. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 21-33. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00712.x
Chein, J., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K., and Steinbert, L. (2011). Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14(2), F1-F10. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x
Ellis, B.J., Guidic, M.D., Dishion, T.J., Figueredo, A.J., Gray, P., Griskevicius, V.,.Sloan, D. (2011). The evolutionary basis of risky adolescent behavior: implications for science, policy, and practice. Developmental Psychology, 48(3), 598-623 doi: 10.1037/a0026220
Steinberg, L. (2010). Commentary: A behavioral scientist looks at the science of adolescent brain development. Brain and Cognition, 72(1), 160-164. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.11.003.
Tymula, A., Belmakerb, L.A., Roy, A.K., Ruderman, L., Mason, K., Glimcher, P.W., and Levy, I. (2012). Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. PNAS, 109(42), 17135-17140. doi/10.1073/pnas.1207144109

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