The Teenage Mind & Decision Making

One of the stereotypes regarding teenagers is that they are poor decision makers and engage in risky behavior. This stereotype is usually explained in terms of the teenage brain (or mind) being immature and lacking the reasoning abilities of adults. Of course, adults often engage in poor decision-making and risky behavior.

Interestingly enough, there is research that shows teenagers use basically the same sort of reasoning as adults and that they even overestimate risks (that is, regard something as more risky than it is). So, if kids use the same processes as adults and also overestimate risk, then what needs to be determined is how teenagers differ, in general, from adults.

Currently, one plausible hypothesis is that teenagers differ from adults in terms of how they evaluate the value of a reward. The main difference, or so the theory goes, is that teenagers place higher value on rewards (at least certain rewards) than adults. If this is correct, it certainly makes sense that teenagers are more willing than adults to engage in risk taking. After all, the rationality of taking a risk is typically a matter of weighing the (perceived) risk against the (perceived) value of the reward. So, a teenager who places higher value on a reward than an adult would be acting rationally (to a degree) if she was willing to take more risk to achieve that reward.

Obviously enough, adults also vary in their willingness to take risks and some of this difference is, presumably, a matter of the value the adults place on the rewards relative to the risks. So, for example, if Sam values the enjoyment of sex more than Sally, then Sam will (somewhat) rationally accept more risks in regards to sex than Sally. Assuming that teenagers generally value rewards more than adults do, then the greater risk taking behavior of teens relative to adults makes considerable sense.

It might be wondered why teenagers place more value on rewards relative to adults. One current theory is based in the workings of the brain. On this view, the sensitivity of the human brain to dopamine and oxytocin peaks during the teenage years. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is supposed to trigger the “reward” mechanisms of the brain. Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter, one that is also linked with the “reward” mechanisms as well as social activity. Assuming that the teenage brain is more sensitive to the reward triggering chemicals, then it makes sense that teenagers would place more value on rewards. This is because they do, in fact, get a greater reward than adults. Or, more accurately, they feel more rewarded. This, of course, might be one and the same thing—perhaps the value of a reward is a matter of how rewarded a person feels. This does raise an interesting subject, namely whether the value of a reward is a subjective or objective matter.

Adults are often critical of what they regard as irrationally risk behavior by teens. While my teen years are well behind me, I have looked back on some of my decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time. They really did seem like good ideas, yet my adult assessment is that they were not good decisions. However, I am weighing these decisions in terms of my adult perspective and in terms of the later consequences of these actions. I also must consider that the rewards that I felt in the past are now naught but faded memories. To use the obvious analogy, it is rather like eating an entire good cake. At the time, that sugar rush and taste are quite rewarding and it seems like a good idea while one is eating that cake. But once the sugar rush gives way to the sugar crash and the cake, as my mother would say, “went right to the hips”, then the assessment might be rather different. The food analogy is especially apt: as you might well recall from your own youth, candy and other junk food tasted so good then. Now it is mostly just…junk. This also raises an interesting subject worthy of additional exploration, namely the assessment of value over time.

Going back to the cake, eating the whole thing was enjoyable and seemed like a great idea at the time. Yes, I have eaten an entire cake. With ice cream. But, in my defense, I used to run 95-100 miles per week. Looking back from the perspective of my older self, that seems to have been a bad idea and I certainly would not do that (or really enjoy doing so) today. But, does this change of perspective show that it was a poor choice at the time? I am tempted to think that, at the time, it was a good choice for the kid I was. But, my adult self now judges my kid self rather harshly and perhaps unfairly. After all, there does seem to be considerable relativity to value and it seems to be mere prejudice to say that my current evaluation should be automatically taken as being better than the evaluations of the past.


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  1. One important factor that you leave out is that teenagers simply have much less life experience than adults do.

    What’s more, teenagers generally have led a fairly sheltered existence, going to school, socializing with other teenagers, family activities, but in general, they have had zero contact with society as large.

    School is far from a utopia, but in my experience at least, it is a realm of justice and fairness compared to most work situations.

    So a teenager enters the larger social world, with great expectations, including expectations that people will treat her fairly (as they did in her school and family and among close friends), that she matters to others (as occurred in school, family and other friends) and discovers that such is not the case.

    Given the disillusion and the cultural shock, the teenager makes a lot of mistakes before she learns the rules of the game or to wisely avoid the game as far as possible.

  2. s.wallerstein,

    Good point. Experience is an important factor, although some people do not learn from it.

  3. That’s why I’m interested in philosophy: to help me live more wisely, to help me face the same experiences that I dealt with so clumsily as a youth with better sense.

    I left out above one factor that leads young people to make bad decisions: they grow up in a micro-culture, heavily influenced by their parents and their immediate community.

    Many times their parents teach them ways of living that worked for them, but don’t work for their children who are often very different kinds of people than who their parents think that they are. I say “think that they are” because parents often do not know themselves well and thus, do not know their children well.

    Philosophers are supposedly lovers of wisdom and reading them one can learn new ways of dealing with one’s experiences, new values and a fresh viewpoint on what counts in life.

    For example, I have a friend whose parents taught her, consciously and unconsciously, that what matters in life is making lots of money and being what most people consider to be a “success”. She never makes much money and is what some people would consider to be a “loser”. Teaching her new values has enabled her to see (it’s a long, long process) that making lots of money may be less important than, say, making good friends and of course, the emphasis on the importance of friendship goes back to Aristotle in Western philosophy.

  4. For those that seek wisdom, in the precise definition of wisdom I advise caution. Wisdom is a loose/loose scenario, a ladder that never ends, unlimited learned justifications for all actions. Some actions require no justifications. I hope people caught ironic emphasis on that last piece of “advice”.

  5. To Mike LaBossiere

    Esteemed Professor,

    according to a quick scan of this thread it seems no-one has mentioned this so far, so I’m going to: One word: Testosterone


    PS This short article on new research might be of interest:

  6. Nok,

    Good point. It does make sense that would influence behavior and would help explain the change that occurs as people age.

  7. I think the idea of children being given roles in governing communities and indeed countries is marvellous. Children are generally given great love up to the age of 5, the main formative years. Corruption is the greatest problem humanity has to face in this day and age, and children are hardly that. Furthermore as an important part of our consumer society, surely they should have a potent voice. And perhaps future generations of children will be less affected by the mind eroding evils of social media, computer games and other such, if we just gave them a say in the running of the world. Paul OGarra author the boy who sailed to Spain

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