Our tendency to take risks peaks in adolescence1. Automobile crashes, unprotected casual sex, binge drinking, drugs and criminal behaviour of adolescents are part of our everyday newsfeed. For the teens involved and their families, taking excessive risks presents challenges, and at times, tragedy. It is also said to pose particular costs on society – pushing up morbidity and mortality rates2. Hence, many voices call for more preventive measures to keep harmful risk-taking in adolescence to a minimum. However, when taking a closer look, disregarding and suppressing recklessness in adolescence may be a critical mistake.
Adolescence is an age of strong emotions, rash judgments and sensation seeking, which, to be frank, opens a range of opportunities. The passionate striving for experiences and the search for new encounters are fundamental for innovative thinking, affective appraisal and creativity. From an evolutionary perspective, the persistence of risk-taking as a highly expressed character trait in adolescence contributes to gaining autonomy, individuation and self-esteem3. Without this trait, we might stagnate in the early development of skills and personality traits, never testing the waters for a different kind of identity or life.
So risk-taking in adolescence may not be so harmful after all. But why does our decision-making change in adolescence? Why are we suddenly more inclined to make risky choices? And why does this tendency change again when we get older?
A closer look at the brain of an adolescent helps to explain this phenomenon. Social neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore at University College London has studied the adolescent brain for many years4. Her research and the work of others in her field suggests that taking more risks in adolescence comes from a temporary imbalance in maturation of two distinct brain networks5.
The first one is the reward system, which encodes and predicts the occurrence and size of an expected reward. One key brain structure involved in this evaluation, the Nucleus Accumbens, is also active during risk-taking6. This makes sense since a risky choice sometimes promises a larger reward: moving closer to the dangerously steep edge promises the greatest rush, the best photo or the better view. In our brain, the substance signalling that a risky behaviour may be rewarding is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps us estimate how much reward to expect from a certain behaviour7 8 9 10 11. Therefore, you won’t be surprised to hear that the dopamine system undergoes massive changes during adolescence!
In our teenage years the dopamine system is temporarily overactive: adolescents have more dopamine circulating in their brain12 13, which leads to some erratic, and at times perilous behaviour. Take for example, jumping off a roof into a pool. For a sensation seeking adult, such an extreme act would normally lead to only a moderate amount of dopamine being released. Yet, in adolescents, due to greater availability of dopamine, this leap would be accompanied by an entire orchestra of dopamine bursts within the reward network14 15 – and such exaggerated reward signal would also entice the teen to repeat the same risky behaviour again next time16 17. It seems that in adolescence we overestimate rewards making us more willing to take risks to achieve them.
At the same time, there is a second brain region, which according to neuroscientists such as Blakemore plays a role in the surge of adolescent risk-taking: the prefrontal cortex – the front part of the wrinkled neocortex sitting right above the eyes. This part of the brain only reaches maturity in our twenties, meaning that in adolescence the weeding out of superfluous connections and the strengthening functional connections are still ongoing. But why would a delayed maturation in this brain region be problematic? It turns out one of the primary functions of the prefrontal cortex is to exhibit control or inhibition over behaviour, to pull the brake on a rash decision and raise the doubt: “wait, do you really want to do that?”
With the prefrontal cortex not being quite mature yet and the dopamine system overactive, we are left with the following scenario: Taking a risk suddenly bears a massive incentive as signalled by dopamine, and the cognitive control system is temporarily out of order as prefrontal areas are not mature enough to exceed control7. As a result, the overactive dopamine system overdoses the premature control areas in the brain17 19 and – taking the risky leap suddenly seems like a good option!
Is this the entire story? Probably not. While the incentive system may be overactive and the development of cognitive control protracted, explaining the increased incidence of risk-taking in adolescence by a two-sided asymmetry would be a gross simplification. It disregards an entire scope of other vital changes of brain, body and mind occurring during this period of life. These can be changes in emotional processing, social cognition and personality that interact with pubertal hormones, (epi-/)genetics and learning experiences. Adolescents have turbo-charged feelings and at the same time, have difficulties regulating them, which interferes with decision-making and steers them towards choosing whatever option promises the largest immediate reward20.
Also, social rewards weigh much more in adolescence: peer approval is of incredible importance in this period, and very rewarding21. This could be why risk-taking is most often reported in a group context. In a study investigating risky driving, multiple types of peer pressure pushed risk-taking attitudes in adolescents through the roof, while those of adults remained unchanged22. This boosted salience of peer feedback (as well as adolescents’ strong sense of self-consciousness) is probably linked to changes in hormones such as Oxytocin that direct attention towards social stimuli23. Thus there are many more factors that contribute to the heightened number of risky decisions in adolescents.
A final one to mention may be societal pressure. Adolescence is in fact a socially constructed period in which behaviour and expectations of the younger generation may vary across different social environments. In western countries, adolescence is a period of rebellion and pushing the limits of social norms. Here, risk-taking behaviour is partially determined by their social role: a society’s rigid image of adolescents may enhance the prevalence of drunk driving, drug abuse, and risky dares, while adolescents fulfill the role assigned to them.
All in all, what can this knowledge on risk-taking in adolescence teach us? After 200.000 years of the existence of homo sapiens, evolution has continued and adolescent brains still evolve in this “maladaptive” manner with prefrontal brain regions maturing late and incentive areas temporarily out of control. Could that not signify a potential evolutionary utility of adolescent recklessness? Maybe these processes are simply part of a programmed age-related calibration or plasticity that is needed to acquire mature adult behaviour. For example, the stressful experiences we undergo when taking risks may teach us valuable strategies on how to cope in a stressful environment. Moreover, taking risks in adolescence helps us delineate our identity, evolve fresh ideas, and become the most exciting version of ourselves. Perhaps, to mature, we need to learn to take a leap from time to time.