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Tolerance for Ambiguity Explains Adolescent Penchant For Risky Behaviors

January 3, 2013

It is widely believed that adolescents engage in risky behaviors because of an innate tolerance for risk, but a study by researchers at NYU, Yale University School of Medicine, and Fordham University has found this is not the case.

The findings reveal that adolescents differ from adults in their taste for the uncertain. When faced with situations that have highly uncertain outcomes, most age groups react with distaste. Adolescents, by contrast, often find these uncertain situations tolerable. Yet rather than having a taste for risk, as is commonly thought, the risky behaviors of adolescents stem from their comfort with the ambiguous.

These findings, which are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, point to basic differences between adolescents and adults, and offer new insights into how to communicate about risk to teenagers and pre-teens.

“Our findings show that teenagers enter unsafe situations not because they are drawn to dangerous or risky situations but, rather, because they aren’t informed enough about the odds of the consequences of their actions,” explains Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral researcher at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once they truly understand a risky situation, they are, if anything, even more risk averse than adults. The study also offers new possibilities for communicating with this age group—providing adolescents with statistics highlighting the risks of dangerous behavior or training that allows them to learn about risks in a safe way.”

Studies have previously established that adolescents are more likely than their older and younger peers to engage in behaviors that, on rare occasions, lead to terrible consequences. Less understood is why.

To explore this question, the researchers conducted a series of experiments using both adolescents (12-17 years old) and adults (30-50 years old). To isolate age as a factor in the decision-making process, the researchers accounted for differences in non-age demographics, personality type, and intelligence. 

In the multi-stage experiment, the subjects had to make a series of financial decisions, each carrying a different degree of risk. In each trial, subjects had to choose between a guaranteed payoff of $5 and either a risky or ambiguous lottery, in which the payoff ranged from zero to several times the guaranteed payoff.

In each trial, subjects were informed how much they could win in the lottery—$5, $8, $20, $50, and $125. In the riskier lottery trials, subjects were told the exact probabilities of winning the lottery—13 percent, 25 percent, 38 percent, 50 percent, and 75 percent. By contrast, in the ambiguous lottery trials, they were not given precise probabilities of winning, thus making the level of risk uncertain.

Somewhat surprisingly, adolescents accepted significantly fewer risky lotteries than did the adults. Thus, they were more risk-averse when the risks they faced were well understood. However, adolescents were significantly more willing than were adults to accept ambiguous lotteries. This result held even after controlling for other demographic variables, such as gender and personality type, which gauged an individual’s propensity to engage in risky behaviors.

“It is not that adolescents actually choose to engage in risks, but, rather, they are willing to gamble when they lack complete knowledge,” the researchers write.

The study’s other co-authors include Paul Glimcher, a professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science and director of NYU’s Center for Neuroeconomics. It was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.


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Tolerance for Ambiguity Explains Adolescent Penchant For Risky Behaviors

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