WSU Professors Research Reasons Behind Risky Adolescent Behavior

OGDEN, Utah – Research conducted by two Weber State University professors may provide hope for parents and others who believe that teenagers are merely acting on impulses when they engage in risky behavior about which there is nothing they can do.

Research by Leigh Shaw, associate psychology professor, and Eric Amsel, psychology professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, seems to indicate that risk-taking may not be simply the inevitable consequence of adolescents’ raging hormones or immature brain development, and that parents and others can help adolescents anticipate the ramifications and regret they will face if they undertake risky activity.

Adolescents often are seen as merely “pinballs in a pinball machine, bouncing off of this social force or that biological urge,” Amsel said. “It’s like they’re always reacting. But the story needs to be told that adolescents are designers of their own development and people can help them learn how to exercise certain control. To merely dismiss adolescents as pinballs in a pinball machine is to miss a lot, and can result in not being as proactive as a parent or teacher or coach or guidance counselor or anyone working with teenagers can be.”

Underlying the research is the belief that adolescents are indeed impulsive but also thoughtful about risk-taking. “Yes, there’s thinking behind the eyes,” Amsel said. “You don’t always see it, necessarily, but they begin to demonstrate the ability to be thoughtfully reflective.”

Shaw said the research is designed to cast light on the complexity within and among teens, “to show that they are, in some ways, more thoughtful as they approach these risky situations than they perhaps have been given credit for in the past.”

The researchers tried to go beyond the frequency-of-activity study that is common in the adolescent research literature. Instead, they delved into the subtleties and the reasons why adolescents engage in risky behavior to understand how teens prioritize consequences, in ways perhaps different from adults.

Shaw and Amsel’s research surveyed 132 adolescents, most of them 18-year-old college freshmen. In the realms of alcohol use, drug use and reckless driving, participants were asked to characterize their own risk intention as risk-seeking, curious, avoidant or opportunistic and to explore their reasoning about risk-taking. Participants were presented with hypothetical risky situations in each realm and asked to consider various consequences. The research, conducted with the help of several WSU students, serves as a window into what information adolescents see as relevant as they weigh whether or not to engage in risky behavior.

Findings revealed three types of teens who didn’t take risks. One group considered the harm to themselves and others, as well as the legal implications; another group had a generalized negative view of risk-taking as “just bad;” and a third group merely had not yet had the opportunity to engage in risk-taking, but perhaps would if given the chance.

By contrast, there were two types of teens who took risks. “The risk-seekers were pretty adamant that anyone has the right to do it,” Amsel said. “The curious, who were motivated by wondering what the experience would be like, were easily swayed by additional information — for example, explaining why it might not be a good idea to do it — and they would be thoughtful about that.”

Realizing that teens can be thoughtful about risk-taking can help parents. The researchers said many parents believe there is little hope in reining in their teens’ behaviors, that perhaps the best approach is simply to wait until they’re 18 or 25 or older — when their brains and hormones are “normal” — to have meaningful discussions with them.

Shaw said parents may be “horrified” by what their adolescents say about risky behavior, but both can benefit by discussing the reasons for the behavior, its consequences, how to regulate it, when it might even be appropriate and other issues.

The key, according to Amsel, is that adolescents need to be able to apply their thoughtfulness about risk-taking “in the moment.”

“If someone whispers in their ear, ‘Let’s go 90 mph down Harrison Boulevard,’ they may not be able to generate a reason why that’s bad. But they could, and that’s the point,” Amsel said. “You have to trigger this reflection process, and they’re not always good at doing it spontaneously. They need practice. It’s a very hard skill to acquire,” which he documents in a recently published chapter on the development of hypothetical reasoning, in a book he edited with Judith Smetana (University of Rochester) titled “Adolescent Vulnerability and Opportunities: Developmental and Constructivist Perspectives” (Cambridge University Press).

With so many negative stereotypes about teenagers, it can be difficult for parents to understand that adolescence is “a great period of opportunity” for them to help their teenagers, Shaw said. Simply placing cameras in cars or monitoring teens’ cell phones may curb risk-taking but will not help teens learn about the ramifications and regret they will experience if the risks they take go wrong.

“As adults, you have learned to take control of your life,” Amsel said. “Adolescents are novices at learning how to make these decisions. It is not that they cannot make these decisions. They’re trying to make them but they’re just lousy at it. They don’t know how to use the tools, and it’s not because their brains can’t do it. It’s like with anything else, they have to practice to develop the skill.”

Shaw and Amsel’s research is to be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Research on Adolescence and is available online through the publication’s early-view program.

Amsel and Shaw have conducted some follow-up research and plan to do more, including a similar survey of a more diverse group of adolescents.

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Eric Amsel, chair, Department of Psychology
801-626-6658 •

Leigh Shaw, associate psychology professor
801-626-7429 •

Brice Wallace, office of Media Relations
801-626-7581 •