Risky Business: Why teens love taking risks

I n the span of one day, Ferris Bueller lied about:



  • Being sick;
  • The death of his girlfriend’s grandma;
  • His school attendance record; and
  • His own identity

all while forcing his best friend to take his dad’s antique Ferrari for a day-long GTA V-inspired joyride.

Not to be outdone, Michael Squints” Palledorous masterfully executed his own simulated drowning at the neighborhood pool in The Sandlot in exchange for a fleeting kiss from then-heartthrob and cougar-in-training Wendy Peffercorn.

This is to say nothing of the “with parents away, children will play” house party trope that has a funny way of resurfacing every few years as a cautionary tale to parents everywhere that when it comes to bang for your buck, there’s no investment quite like a good babysitter and homeowner’s insurance.

From the boys will be boys, raunch-tinged 80s classic, Risky Business, featuring celebrity guest cameos by:

  • Perfect stranger-turned-confidant-and-business-partner prostitutes;
  • Trading Spaces-inspired house-to-brothel overnight transformations, and
  • High-speed car chases with pistol-brandishing pimps in a sports car that doesn’t belong to me;

to the 90-minute debauchery-infused wet dream of teens everywhere that was Project X, adolescents have been routinely painted as perennial dice-rollers, insatiable in their pursuit of novel, risk-taking opportunities.
The point of all this is that you don’t have to look far to find some version of the age-old portrayal of adolescents as hedonists that are more concerned with instant gratification than long-term wellbeing.

Until recently, I always accepted that portrayal as a fatalistic explanation for why my peers and I did things that, in retrospect, might be euphemistically termed “inexplicable” in our younger years.

“I’m a teen, society and history tell me I’m supposed to do things impulsively, so pardon me while I go see a man about my mom’s car keys and that half-finished Tanqueray bottle in dad’s liquor cabinet.”

As it turns out, though, I was right: it is all a bit fatalistic.

The science behind teen risk-taking

Let’s begin by taking a look at the mind of an adolescent; not in terms of what they’re thinking when they do what that they do–we’ve established that to be an exercise in futility–but rather, the actual function of the brain.

We know that the brain contains different regions that are responsible for different functions. Among the oft-studied and, consequently, talked about functions that the brain is responsible for is reward and pleasure seeking. Both of these are activities controlled by the brain’s limbic system.

A critical piece in the subcortical portion of the brain, the limbic system is made up of a number of intricate cogs, including–most notably in the interest of a discussion about teenagers doing dumb shit–a piece known as the ventral striatum. The ventral striatum is responsible for decision-making and reward-driven behaviors and is something we’ll expand on in just a moment.

Another important region of the brain in explaining risks teenagers take is the prefrontal cortex. It’s much larger than the ventral striatum and manages impulse control, making sure that we don’t immediately act on every emotion-driven urge that pops up throughout the day. It is notably absent in the brain structure of roadrunner-chasing coyotes and prominent American elected officials from 3 am onward.

The interplay between the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum is critical for reasons that shouldn’t be all too difficult to grasp. Effectively, one says “Go!” while the other says “Stop!” and together, they orchestrate a delicate tightrope act that keeps us just aggressive enough to get what we need in order to survive and reproduce. This, at least, is the script for adults.

Over the past decade, countless psych studies have contributed to the tremendous headway that’s been made in mapping the developmental track of the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum. Charting these two parts of the brain, while observing corresponding behavior at various developmental stages in youth has served as an immensely valuable tool in explaining the actions that might observe in adolescents.

On the whole, the studies highlight the exponentially faster rate at which the ventral striatum develops relative to the prefrontal cortex during adolescence. This, in turn, leads to a major imbalance between the impulses a teen experiences in seeking rewards and the control mechanism, which ensures nothing crazy is done in pursuit of them.

Other studies indicate that considering how much the prefrontal region controls impulsive behavior, the delayed development of that part of the brain greatly hinders teens’ ability to estimate future outcomes accurately and evaluate risky choices– a pattern that’s played out over and over when decisions are biased by immediate over long-term gains.

Perhaps you’re starting to pick up on some of the fatalism we alluded to previously. The way that the adolescent brain grows stacks the deck against a kid that might otherwise make good decisions. Not only does their penchant for reward-seeking behavior vastly outstrip their brain’s ability to think before acting, but they’re also incapable of accurately evaluating whether a decision is even risky in the first place.

In 2007, researchers conducted a study that would further support this notion. The scientists wanted to examine individual differences in risky behavior as they relate to activity in parts of the brain– like the ventral striatum–that are associated with reward-seeking. They did this by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on test subjects between the ages of 7 and 29 to look at how relevant brain regions responded to large monetary rewards while assessing their reactions in the context of risk-taking and impulsivity as personality.

What they found was a positive association between activity in the ventral striatum and the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. Interestingly though, the nature of the behavior varied based on how the subject viewed the risk.

Those that thought a risky behavior would lead to negative consequences–typically children–tended to avoid the behavior altogether. Those who thought the risky behavior would yield rewards or positive outcomes were much less tentative.

Because adolescents make for poor actuaries, it should come as a surprise to no one that the study revealed a tendency among that age group to helplessly gravitate towards risky behaviors in much the same way unsuspecting prey drunkenly float toward the fluorescent glow of an angler fish.

Another interesting finding brought to light by the study was the notion that the behaviors we see from adolescents aren’t necessarily impulsive. The reward system of the brain and impulsivity, aren’t related at all but are actually two distinct operating systems meant to function simultaneously. Put another way, reward-seeking increases exponentially during adolescence, while impulsivity decreases linearly during the same time frame.

For those–like me– who struggled through the harrowing travails of 7th grade Algebra, this means that “Go!” dramatically outpaces “Stop!” for a long time during a child’s neurological development, leading to the spate of incomprehensibly risky actions that all of our favorite teen cult films so tritely depict.

Evolution’s role in teen risk-taking

Believe it or not, neurological development doesn’t serve as a standalone in explaining why kids like to do hoodrat things. In the 1988 movie License to Drive–while we’re on the subject of teen cult films–Les Anderson takes his grandfather’s car out on a Saturday night–after being grounded by his parents–despite the fact that he’s just failed his driver’s test. In legal terms, he should’ve been nowhere near any kind of operable heavy machinery–especially not a prized 1972 Coup de Ville–but Les, under the assumption that he would pass his driver’s test, had already made plans to take a young lady out on a date that evening. And that’s the bit that matters in explaining his behavior.

Evolutionarily speaking, adolescence is characterized by a period of gaining independence from the protection of the family. Independence-seeking behavior isn’t limited to humans–all mammals do it–and is manifested in an intensified need for social interaction and new experiences. These needs result in a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, which while partly attributable to the aforementioned developmental imbalance between different parts of the adolescent brain, also coincides with a time in which hormones drive teens to look for sexual partners.

The theory thus goes that taking risks is reflective of an evolutionary developmental pattern, which requires adolescents to abandon a safe and familiar place in order to find a mate and reproduce. As leaving the protection of family is a massive risk in and of itself, one would argue that over time, teens have become hardwired to approach other risky behaviors too, as the novel sensations that they generate provide positive feedback to the brain’s reward system.

Les was in over his head. Hormones, neural development, a deliciously risky proposition–there was no way he wasn’t stealing that car when all was said and done. This isn’t to say, however, that he couldn’t have exercised good judgment and left the car in the garage that night. In fact, teens are, despite what decades of opprobrious film and literature would have you believe, quite capable of making rational, risk-averse decisions.

If we removed the girl or perhaps the motley crew of ne’er-do-well friends from Les’ scenario, the likelihood of a joyride that night plummets. Les, however, fell prey to what’s called an ‘emotionally salient’ situation, under whose veil risky behaviors will always win out over sound decision-making because of the developmental imbalance we’ve addressed.

reward activity
Activity in the ventral striatum to anticipated reward as a function of age, for each individual subject, showing enhanced activity between roughly 13 to 18 years.

The social explanation of teen risk-taking

If adolescents have no say in their deviancy, how do you explain the goody-two-shoes kid we all went to school with that seemed to never get in trouble, was always home before curfew, and consequently ended up on the receiving end of more peer-generated vitriol than a Congolese warlord at a UN human rights hearing? Here, there are a number of external factors that could, in theory, have something to do with the child’s sterling behavioral record:

  • Really intimidating parents;
  • Dull social life; and
  • The absence of opportunity for risky behavior

immediately come to mind. All else being equal, though, low risk-taking appetites during adolescence are also something that could be out of a teen’s control.

You may be familiar with a series of delayed gratification experiments conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 60s and early 70s. In them, three and four-year-old children were brought into a room with minimal external distractions, seated at a table, and presented with one marshmallow. The children were told that they could either eat the marshmallow immediately or could wait 15 minutes and would receive a second marshmallow as a reward for their discipline.

The study revealed that children typically react in one of two ways: they either devour the marshmallow immediately, incapable of delaying and doubling their reward, or they hold out for the allotted time and optimize their reward. There weren’t many children that waited like seven minutes and then caved.

This experiment proved significant in suggesting that some kids possess greater impulse control in the face of immediate rewards than others, which winds up being a trait that remains with them over the course of their lives.

Theories explaining the neurological basis for this phenomenon point to functional differences in the circuitry of a child’s mesolimbic system, the part of the brain responsible for transmitting dopamine. Dopamine, in turn, controls reward-motivated behavior, and can drastically affect the amount of risk that someone is willing to take on in the interest of said reward.

A 2004 review noted that differences in mesolimbic circuitry from one individual to the next can cause different amounts of dopamine to be transmitted to the reward center of the brain. That, in turn, could be directly linked to an adolescent’s likelihood to take risks. Explained another way, the kid that has less dopamine being pumped to the reward center of his brain is more likely to also be the risk-averse wet blanket you hated in high school.

Turning the Les scenario on its head, this doesn’t mean that the model citizen teenager is completely infallible. A 2005 study that broke 306 test subjects into adolescent (13-16), youth (18-22) and adult (24+) groups found that when participants were asked to complete a behavioral task amongst peers in their age bracket, they were much more likely to make risky decisions than when completing the tasks by themselves–particularly if they fell within the adolescent or youth age brackets. So, in the same way that research has demonstrated a child’s ability to make sound decisions given the removal of “appetitive cues” and “emotional salience,” the possibility remains that under the influence of peers, even the best-behaved teen can be vulnerable to highly risky decision making.

“Every now and then, say ‘what the fuck.’ What the fuck gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future.”

Hollywood isn’t wrong; Adolescents make bad decisions all the time. That obscure alcohol and car keys reference made at the outset of this was based on an actual event… when I was 13. Looking back on it years later, it’s certainly not the well thought out thing I’ve done, and I’m undoubtedly lucky that the combination of my inexperience behind the wheel and general inebriation in those early morning hours prevented me from even getting the car out of the driveway.

In a way, though, my idiocy that night can be explained away–at least partially–by a lot of what we touched on here. My age put me in a developmental sweet spot to do something that offered very little reward and considerable risk without the inhibitory tools to stop myself. What’s more, having older accomplices–individuals that I looked up to–providing encouragement to participate in the hijinks proved an absolute shot in the arm in getting my risk glands salivating. This is neither meant to place the blame at their feet nor in anyway exculpate myself–I was hardly a golden child in those days. Rather, this is noted merely in the interest of context. Most adolescents don’t intentionally dive head-first into a pool of risk. They’re conditioned to do so through millennia of evolution and fight an uphill decision-making battle at every turn as a result of the way that their brains develop.

Though it’s certainly not advisable to leave them to their own devices, there is something to be said for developing an appreciation for their devil-may-care approach to doing things. Sage advice from one of Les’ friends is proof of this: “Every now and then, say ‘what the fuck.’ What the fuck gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future.”

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