Leaping without looking: adolescents, hormones, and risk

You’re running late. As you approach the railroad tracks, you hear the warning bells and notice the gates starting to drop. Do you stop and wait or dart across? According to recent research by Shulman and Cauffman (2013), how you assess the potential risks and benefits of these options could be influenced by your age.

As demonstrated by over a decade of research, the adolescent and adult brains operate in fundamentally different ways. The dual system theory, which is a theory of normative development, explains these differences.

The two systems are the socioemotional and the cognitive control networks, and they encompass different structures of the brain. The socioemotional network is related to desire for novel situations and sensations. It is “activated” swiftly and intensely by the hormonal changes of adolescence. In contrast, the cognitive control system aides in one’s ability to control impulses and self regulate. Unlike the socioemotional system, which comes on strong with adolescence, the cognitive control system builds its strength over time.

In the paper, Reward-Biased Risk Appraisal and its Relation to Juvenile Versus Adult Crime, Shulman and Cauffman conducted two experiments examining aspects of the dual system theory. They hypothesized that, compared to adults, adolescents have a reward bias. They perceive more rewards than risk when facing a dangerous situation.

Shulman and Cauffman also hypothesized that higher reward bias is associated with higher engagement in illegal activity. I chose to share this study because of its potential ramifications in the legal arena. For example, if ability to perceive risk is influenced by development, what does that mean for laws that are predicated on whether a person knew or should have known the risk involved with their actions?

Subjects in the first study were males and females, working or middle class and between the ages of 10-30. These subjects were not involved in the legal system. The researchers asked subjects how many times they engaged in four types of law breaking behavior (fighting, threatening someone, vandalism and theft) during the past six months. To measure risk perception, subjects were asked to imagine themselves engaging in risky behavior (e.g. having unprotected sex, stealing from a store, or fighting) and rate the likelihood of a negative outcome, the seriousness of the negative consequence, and how potential costs compare to potential benefits.

The results of the first study were interesting. Reward bias increased during adolescence (peaking for 16-17 year olds), and decreased with age. (Don’t forget these subjects were in the community, not involved with the justice system.) Males demonstrated more reward bias than females. Males, people with low IQs, and those who were younger reported engaging in more law-breaking behaviors during the past six months than their counterparts who were female, had higher IQs, and were older.

In the second experiment, Shulman and Cauffman replicated the first study but with a sample consisting of community and court-involved youths and adults. (Although the court-involved subjects were at the preadjudication phase, more than half of them had either pled guilty or had been found guilty previously.) Data was analyzed using five groups:  12-13 years old (early adolescence), 14-15 years old (middle adolescence), 16-17 years old (later adolescence), 18-21 years old (late adolescence), and 22-24 years old (young adults).

In my opinion, the second experiment’s most compelling question was:  How do age and reward bias relate for those who are court-involved? Shulman and Cauffman found that among those involved with the legal system, younger subjects displayed more reward bias than older, court-involved subjects. The impact of age on reward bias was robust and held, even when they only looked at subjects who had pled guilty or had been found guilty. It also held when they examined data based on the type of crime (property vs. person) committed.

Shulman and Cauffman demonstrated that, compared to adults, youth are less likely to see the risk involved in dangerous situations. I urge you to think about how these findings could be used to challenge areas of law that require a person to anticipate or consider the possible risks of a situation. Consider how these results might apply to ability to form intent or to a youth’s ability to appreciate the risk involved in waiving counsel in court or waiving their Miranda rights at the station. I imagine there are many other areas of law in which these findings can be helpful.

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