Are adolescents impulsive?
Researchers created a scenario to test adolescents’ impulsiveness. Will an adolescent blow through a yellow light at an intersection more frequently than an adult would?
Remarkably, when placed in the game by themselves, the adolescent doesn’t score any higher on impulsiveness than adults do. The stats are the same. A conclusion from the research is that adolescents aren’t hardwired to make bad decisions.
Why, then, do adolescents often make bad choices?
Researchers then placed adolescents in the same scenario at the intersection with a yellow light, but added an adolescent crowd. It doubled the chance of impulsiveness when compared with adults who have a crowd of people watching them.
“In short, an adolescent’s weakness is other adolescents.”
To understand this it is helpful to know a little about brain development.
B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College shares that “the brain is being marinated in gonadal hormones” during adolescence.
The prefrontal cortex is still a work-in-progress. And it serves a vital role in our decision-making.
Professor Laurence Steinberg, of Temple University, says adolescence should be conceived of as lasting from puberty to the early 20s.
The prefrontal cortex “helps to link past experiences to the current situation,” Casey says, “and, at the same time, consider what the future consequences are of choices and actions that are made.”
The prefrontal cortex is our voice of reason. Steinberg calls it the brain’s CEO. Casey likens it to Mr. Spock from Star Trek, coldly calculating a life’s worth of cost-benefit analyses.
Casey’s analogy doesn’t stop there. To her, Captain Kirk is the limbic system — the emotional center of the brain that’s always on the lookout for threats and rewards. When it spots either, it sends a message to the prefrontal cortex. Because the limbic system can’t make sense of these things on its own. It needs the prefrontal cortex.
Kirk needs Spock.
Here’s the problem. For kids in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is still developing, and it can’t keep up with the limbic system as it goes into reward-seeking warp speed.
“It’s as if these emotional regions hijack the prefrontal systems,” Casey says, “and it leads to a choice that they make that’s a bad one. And they even know it’s a bad one.”
A 12-year-old gets a kind of high simply by being around other adolescents.