Adolescents and Risk: Helping Young People Make Better Choices

Research Facts and Findings, September 2007

A publication of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence


by Eric Wargo

This article was contributed by science writer Eric Wargo, drawing on the research of Valerie Reyna, PhD. Dr. Reyna is professor of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University, and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research.


Adolescence, as every teenager, parent, and youth professional knows, is a time of risks. With greater freedom and independence, young people face new choices involving automobiles, addictive substances, and sexuality -- frequently in combination. Poor choices about these risks can have terrible consequences for individuals, families, and society as a whole.

The statistics are frightening, but they are not unknown to young people. For decades, adolescents have been bombarded by facts about the risks they face. Yet efforts to scare young decision makers with numbers and percentages have met with limited success (Reyna & Farley, 2006). There is even evidence that some risk-awareness-raising programs, such as DARE, actually increase the behaviors they are designed to prevent (see Lilienfeld, 2007). To reduce adolescent risk taking, a different approach is needed: one that recognizes how adolescents reason.

The Immortality Myth

We've all heard the cliché that young people think they are immortal and invulnerable to harm. This cherished assumption about the adolescent mind is expressed as a truism in countless public health messages aimed at parents of teens, and underlies many efforts to educate young people about their risks. The problem is, it's not true.

A growing body of scientific data shows that young people are actually well aware of their vulnerability. Adolescents estimate some of their risks, such as the odds of becoming a mother by age 20, quite accurately (Fischoff et al., 2000); and they actually overestimate their risks for negative outcomes like contracting HIV and other STDs, getting lung cancer, and suffering adverse consequences of drinking alcohol (Reyna & Adam, 2003; Romer & Jamieson, 2001). Although young individuals do sometimes display an optimistic bias -- that is, thinking they are at less risk than their peers -- adults display the same fallacy in their thinking, so this does not explain why adolescents take risks that adults avoid (Reyna & Farley, 2006).

Dr. Valerie Reyna and her colleagues at Cornell University and elsewhere have studied patterns of reasoning in children, adolescents, and adults, and they have reached a startling, highly counterintuitive conclusion about the reasons for adolescent risk taking: Young people take risks not because of a belief that they are invulnerable, but because they engage in too much rational calculation when making choices.

Even if they know the risks they run, adolescents mentally weigh those risks against perceived benefits. When risks are engaged in "only once or twice," the odds may appear favorable (Reyna & Farley, 2006). Adults, in contrast, tend to "go with their gut" -- they don't proceed down the slippery slope of trading off serious risks (such as dying in a car accident) against immediate rewards (such as approval of peers), and their choices are better as a result.

The Science of Risky Decisions

Psychologists now believe that the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves representations of our experiences in two very different ways, involving separate brain areas and distinct mental processes (see Reyna, 2004). Any decision involving risk may use either or both of these separate forms of processing.

According to "fuzzy-trace theory," developed by Reyna and her colleague Dr. Charles Brainerd (Reyna & Brainerd, 1991; see also Reyna, 2004; Reyna & Farley, 2006), one of these dual paths to processing risk judgments is highly deliberative and oriented toward facts and details. This is the type of thinking that corresponds to classical, logical models of economic decision making -- the rational balancing of benefits against costs. And it is the type of reasoning that children and adolescents rely on most when making choices (Reyna, Adam, Poirier, LeCroy, & Brainerd, 2005).

The other route to making risk judgments tends to ignore details and focuses instead on the overall meaning or gist of a situation (Reyna & Kiernan, 1994). This form of thinking is more intuitive, and relies more on emotional reactions and situational cues than on deliberative calculation. It is also more categorical -- seeing things in terms of black and white instead of shades of gray. With greater age and life experience, people increasingly utilize this second, "gist-based" path to making decisions (Reyna, 2004).

The tendency toward gist-based reasoning also characterizes relatively expert decision makers in skilled fields such as medicine. Physicians with more experience don't focus on the details of a case but follow their informed intuitions, and they are more often correct than their less experienced colleagues (Reyna & Lloyd, 2006). (Informed intuition, which is what experts have, is not the same thing as naïve intuition.) The bottom line: intuitive, gist-based reasoning leads to better and more effective decisions in all walks of life. Not only is it good to think with your gut, it's also more mature.

The Adolescent Brain

Consider a typical scenario: an adolescent alone in the house with her boyfriend thinks about whether to have unprotected sex with him. To her rational adolescent mind, educated in the facts and deliberating on the odds, it may seem like a good bet. There is only a modest chance of becoming pregnant or catching an STD from a single encounter, and the perceived benefits -- particularly in the heat of the moment, or under the influence of alcohol -- may seem to outweigh the risks.

In contrast, an adult faced with the temptation of unprotected sex would be more likely to skip the deliberation and go to the main point: the risks of disease (or death, in the case of HIV), or of an unwanted pregnancy, are just not worth quantifying and cannot be weighed against immediate rewards like brief pleasure or social approval. In other words, the grown-up brain quickly grasps the gist of the situation: nothing is worth risking one's health or future happiness.

The trouble is, getting young brains to compute a quick and categorical "no" rather than weigh the odds is not easy. In a recent study, people of different ages were asked to respond quickly to easy, risk-related questions like "Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?" and "Is it a good idea to swim with sharks?" (Baird & Fugelsang, 2004). Adolescents took about a sixth of a second longer than adults to get to the obvious "no." A sixth of a second may not seem like a lot, but it reflects a major difference between the brains of adolescents and adults.

The brain areas that quickly grasp the gist of situations and regulate judgments (specifically, the dorsolateral and ventromedial parts of the frontal lobe) are still developing during the teenage years, and don't reach full maturity until the early to mid twenties for most people (see Reyna and Farley, 2006). The adolescent brain just isn't yet optimized for making that adult beeline to the bottom line.

Intervention Strategies

The science of adolescent risk taking leads to two broad conclusions for designing interventions. First, bombarding youth with the facts won't help them make better decisions, and may actually encourage a less mature, riskier form of reasoning. Interventions should instead encourage less deliberative, more categorical thinking about risk. Second, because adolescents' brains are not yet mature, exposure to major risks should be limited as much as possible.

The safety of young people is a community concern, not solely a matter of individual choice. However, interventions that help young people learn to make better choices can be an effective component of a larger commitment to youth development and healthy communities. The following strategies can be used by parents, youth professionals, and communities to keep young people safe and help them make better choices (see Reyna & Farley, 2006):


ACT for Youth extends thanks to Cornell University's Human Development Outreach & Extension, College of Human Ecology, for contributing this article to the Research fACTs and Findings series.

Development of this publication was supported by Smith Lever funds from the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.