It’s true: Adolescents really do want to jump off a bridge just because their friends are doing it. But new research suggests changes in how teenagers view risks and rewards around their peers are not only a critical part of their development, but may also provide a key to motivating them.
From the DARE anti-drug program to abstinence-only curricula, education has been full of high-profile attempts to curtail risky behavior that have met with mixed success at best. The emerging evidence suggests, however, that changing teenagers’ behavior demands accounting for their social circles, not just asking them to stand up to their peers.
In an ongoing series of studies, Temple University researchers Laurence Steinberg and Jason M. Chein and their colleagues have found that teenagers take more risks and are more sensitive to potential rewards when they think peers are watching them—even if they consciously believe they aren’t affected by peer pressure.
“Although it’s very, very tempting to assign consciousness to teenagers’ motivations and behavior—to say they are doing something because ‘they don’t understand the consequences,’ ‘they think they are invincible,’ ‘they want to impress their friends'—what we think we’re finding is [risk-taking] has a much more biological basis to it,” said Mr. Chein, the director of Temple University’s Neurocognition Lab.
In studies discussed in the April special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science on “the teenage brain,” the Temple researchers found 14- to 16-year-olds take significantly more risks, and are more responsive to potential rewards, when other teenagers are around than when they are by themselves.
“In the same way a young child is developing in the context of her family environment, a middle schooler and high schooler is developing in the context of peers,” said Kevin M. King, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not part of the Temple research.
“There are huge changes in the social environment,” he said. "[Adolescents] are going from one classroom to many, from parents’ making all the early friendship choices to making [their] own.”
Focused on Rewards
And that new freedom to make their own choices comes just when students start taking more risks in the company of peers.
Mr. Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple, and Mr. Chein presented study participants with a game in which a player was shown a card labeled with a number between one and nine, and had to guess whether the next card would be higher or lower, with players told before some rounds that they would receive a reward or no reward for a correct guess.
The game was rigged: A computer randomly ensured each player guessed right exactly half the time. The participants played under functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures electrical activity in the brain, allowing the researchers to gauge how much players were responding to the possibility of rewards.
Both adults and adolescents had more brain activity for a potential reward than for none, but teenagers showed significantly higher response to potential rewards when they were told (untruthfully) that another teenager was watching from another room. Adults, by contrast, showed no change when told of being watched.
The findings build on a 2009 study by Mr. Steinberg that found, among 14- to 16-year-olds, younger teenagers took twice as many risks in a timed driving simulation when with peers than when tested alone. Older teenagers took 50 percent more risks when doing the simulation course with friends than alone.
Channeling Peer Power
In a study of binge drinking, Mr. King found adolescents who are deciding to drink weigh negative effects such as having a hangover or getting in a fight less than they weigh perceived social benefits, such as increased confidence and the ability to speak with others.
Both the Temple and University of Washington researchers are separately exploring interventions to help teenagers take a step back mentally in social situations, turning an emotional decision into a more rational one.
Mr. Steinberg’s previous studies have found that teenagers do fine on tasks that require just attention and working memory when their peers are around, as long as they don’t involve risk and reward. Fifteen-year-olds were better at basic inhibitory-control tasks than 10-year-olds, and less adept than adults, while teenagers are more sensitive to risk and reward than either children or adults.
For interventions to stop risky behavior, Mr. Chein said, “it’s not that you are trying to convince the individual that they shouldn’t be influenced by their peers; they’re not aware at a conscious level of the impact peers are having on them.” Rather than focus on preventing adolescents from doing bad things, Mr. Chein suggested that educators focus on leveraging positive peer pressure: “When adolescents are with their peers, they’re more likely to pursue rewards, and those can be academic rewards.”
Programs that give students “social rewards,” such as leadership opportunities and chances to meet other students in ways that improve their social status—such as peer-discipline courts—can channel adolescents’ natural inclinations positively, researchers have found.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Study: Teenagers’ Brains Are Wired for Peer Approval