Risky teen years due to ambiguity tolerance

07 October 2012
Posted by Martha Henriques.

The tendency to take more risks during adolescence is due to greater tolerance towards ambiguous situations rather than to actively seeking to take risks, finds
a new study in the journal PNAS.

Gambling chipsRisky behaviours, such as smoking and having unprotected sex, have long been associated with the adolescent period of life. Agnieszka Tymula and her colleagues at New York University wanted to know what is the root of in thrill-seeking behaviour in adolescents.

The New York team's experiments aimed to distinguish those who had a tendency to take more risks when gambling from those who didn't actively seek out risks but simply weren't fazed by a lack of information about a bet. Adolescents aged 12-17 and adults aged 30-50 were given a choice: to take $5 or to take a gamble where they could either win $50 or nothing, and subjects knew the exact odds involved in this bet.

Surprisingly, this and a series of similar offers ranging in the value of prizes showed that adolescents were much less likely than adults to take a risk for more money when the probability of success was known.

So why do adolescents engage in risky behaviour generally if they tend to avoid simple risks like these? Another experiment tested how sensitive adolescents and adults are to a lack of information about a gamble.

An ambiguous situation was set up with 100 red and blue poker chips in a lottery bag. The subject was told there were 25 red chips and 25 blue chips, but wasn't told how many of the remaining 50 were red or blue. If the subject picked the winning colour they would receive $20, but they didn't know prior to picking a chip which colour was the winning one for that trial. If they picked the wrong colour chip they would win nothing. Alternatively, they could choose not to play the lottery and instead take a guaranteed $5.

This means that for each trial the subject didn't have enough information to judge whether they had a greater or lesser chance than 50% of winning $20 in the lottery. This and a range of more or less ambiguous lotteries showed that only the adolescents behaved as though this was the case. The adults were distracted by the ambiguity and tended to make choices that were either overly pessimistic or optimistic of their chances of success.

Although this can't explain the whole story of adolescents' typically risky behaviour, it can help understand why adolescents seem to put themselves at risk despite being 'safer' gamblers than adults. Adolescents simply seem to be more willing to engage in activities when they don't know the likelihood of something turning out very well or very badly.

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