Do adolescents have a natural tendency to engage in more risk-taking than children?

Compared with children and adults, adolescents appear to disproportionately engage in real-world risk-taking behavior. Is this because they’re naturally inclined to be greater risk-takers, or is something else at work?

Two adolescents walking on the top structure of a bridge, a third sits, while people are on the walkway beneath the top of the bridge.

An article published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences reviews research into whether adolescents are actually more likely to take risks than children, as some neuroscience theories have suggested. The policy review, based on an earlier meta-analysis of carefully controlled laboratory studies, finds that despite stereotypes to the contrary, the evidence does not support the notion of the out-of-control teenage brain.

Adolescents on average are no more risk-taking than children and in many cases are less so, wrote the review authors, led by Ivy N. Defoe, a recent postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). In fact, when adolescents can decide to opt out of taking a risk and choose a safe option instead, they take the safe option more often than children do.

“If adolescents are doing more dangerous things in the real world, it’s not because they are intrinsically more risk-taking than children,” said co-author Dan Romer, APPC’s research director. “The question is, what would account for the real-world difference?”

The authors note that despite the lack of evidence for adolescents being inherently more risk-taking than younger children, they are more likely to take risks than adults, even when the risks are spelled out. 

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.