Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

February 4, 2011 -

A new study from Temple University finds that teens are highly susceptible to peer pressure, or peer acceptance - even if it means taking extreme risks. Researchers used "functional magnetic resonance imaging scans" on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there were differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone compared to when they are with their friends. The study found that teenage peer pressure has a clear effect on brain signals related to risk and reward.

Researchers selected 14 teenagers (ages 14 - 18), 14 college students, and 12 young adults for the study. All were asked to play a six-minute driving game while in a brain scanner. Participants were offered cash prizes for completing the game in a certain amount of time, but had to make decisions about stopping at yellow lights, being delayed, or racing through them to save time. Naturally blowing through these lights meant a faster time and a bigger prize, but it also could mean a higher risk for crashes or longer delays. The teens and adults played four rounds of the game while undergoing the brain scan. Half the time they would play the game alone, and half the time they were told by researchers that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching them play in the next room.

The adults and college students in the tests were not affected by having their peers watch them play or playing alone. But the young teenagers in the tests were greatly affected by their peers' presence. Researchers found that they ran 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when told that their friends were watching. The regions of the brain associated with reward also showed greater activity when friends watched, but it was if that activity was drowning out any warnings about risks.

"The presence of peers activated the reward circuitry in the brain of adolescents that it didn’t do in the case of adults," said Laurence Steinberg, one of the authors of the study and a psychology professor at Temple. He is also the author of the book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25.

Steinberg believes that this study has uncovered a concrete reason why adolescents do "stupid things" with their friends that they would not do when they are solo. He adds that, because the subjects were inside a scanner, their friends could not directly pressure them, but that did not seem to matter. Just knowing that their peers were watching them was enough to make them do things that would be considered dangerous or risky.

Steinberg says that the brain system involved in reward processing is also involved in processing social information. This would explain why peers could have such a profound effect on a person's decision-making process. The effect is stronger in teens, says Steinberg, because of brain changes shortly after puberty.

"All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends," Steinberg said. "The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that."

Read more about the study here.

Source: NYT


Comments

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

Participants were offered cash prizes for completing the game in a certain amount of time...

Researchers found that [young teenagers] ran 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when told that their friends were watching.

Just knowing that their peers were watching them was enough to make them do things that would be considered dangerous or risky.

Either that or kids just don't generally perform as well under pressure.

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

That's actually a reasonable counter-argument.  Hmmm....

I've been tempted to "defend" the study from the knee-jerk reactivity (Laurence Steinberg is a well-respected researcher for what it's worth).  This study has more to do with investigating brain circuitry involved in risky decisions than simply saying "the sky is blue" as some suggested.

That said, Andrew's counter is also valid...we still don't know the "why" of the risky decisions, and I'm not sure this study quite uncovers it.  I'm also a little hesitant to endorse fMRI studies, as they've been misused in the past (although Steinberg is not known for such overblown statements as others).  However Vuls, Paschler and others have published criticisms of fMRI research that, while controversial, have some merit. 

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

I, too, would be interested to know why the mere presence of other people influences how our brain works when we perform an action.

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Living in Canada can be a very good thing, you know. We enjoy the universal healthcare and gun-free environment of an European country while getting all of our games released at the same time as in the US.

Living in Canada is awesome. We enjoy the universal healthcare and gun-free environment of a European country while getting all of our games released at the same time as the US.

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

The need to impress would play a role, I would think. When you are a teenager, you are attempting to establish your position in the social 'pecking order', it's part of our tribal mentality, that means that if you risk something and succeed whilst your peers are watching, it moves you up in that pecking order. When you are on your own, you are less concerned about that and therefore are less likely to take that risk.

That's my thoughts on the matter anyway.

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

Did we really need a study that explains "mob mentality" for teens? Isn't that kind of known by everyone since like the dawn of humans on earth?

The idiom "If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?" comes to mind.

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

Yeah. It's like a study that proves scientifically that the sky is blue. Surely there are more important things - things we DON'T know - that need studying.

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

Actually I disagree with this, understanding with clarity, even if we already accept this behaviour as a general rule, is knowledge worth having.

Last I checked general assumptions without a basis in science have also lead to plenty of anti video game legislation.

Re: Study: Teens Take More Risks When in Groups

my thought exactly, you just beat me to posting it.

 
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