For a change, I thought this week instead of writing about black widow spiders or praying mantids I’d write about an animal I often neglect: humans.
A topic of conversation I often seem to stumble into with people is that of risk. As an amateur rock climber, something that gets said to me frequently by non-climbers is, ‘that’s got to be so risky’. I normally explain to the person saying this that actually, you don’t have to be a risk-taker to climb, because conveniently the risks are generally pretty obvious: namely, falling to your death. Being aware of this potential outcome of climbing up vertical rock means that you can take steps to ensure this is very unlikely to happen, specifically, wearing a harness, using a rope, and learning how to ‘protect’ yourself with specially-designed equipment. I’d actually consider driving to where I’m going to climb to involve greater risk-taking behaviour, as there are more unknowns: animals running out in front of my car, skidding on wet ground or a blown-out tyre, for example. The person I’m telling this to has usually zoned out by this point of the conversation and any cool-points I might have had for being a climber have been lost.
Of course, every person’s perception of what is risk-taking behaviour will differ. Moreover, even within a single person, what you consider to be risky or not will change throughout your life. An expression I find myself using a lot nowadays is, ‘well, you live and learn’, normally after I learn the hard way that a behaviour I thought was a good idea turned out to be riskier than I realised.
However, risk-taking behaviour can lead to more than just bruises and trips to ER. The leading cause of death in adolescents can be linked to risk-taking behaviours such as binge drinking and reckless driving. Moreover, adolescents have a 200% increased mortality risk compared to children. However, studies disagree on whether adolescents actually are more likely to take part in risky behaviours than children or adults.
Recently, Defoe and colleagues from the University of Utrecht decided to work out whether, all else being equal, we take more risks as adolescents than at other times in our life. To do this, they combined the data from multiple studies on this topic (what’s known as a ‘meta-analysis’). The researchers decided to define four age groups: children (5-10), early-adolescents (11-13), mid-adolescents (14 to 19) and adults. The reason they split adolescents into two groups is because the onset of puberty may be related to risk-taking behaviour, and so the researchers wanted to see whether risk-taking behaviour might differ between adolescents just starting puberty versus those in later puberty. The data they used were from experiments where individuals had been tested in similar conditions (i.e. playing a ‘game’ under lab conditions). They did this to control for all other factors and to see whether adolescents were actually more risk-taking when tested under the same conditions.
What they found was surprising: adolescents, while being more risk-taking than adults, didn’t seem to be more likely to take risks than children when all else was controlled for. Therefore, there seems to be nothing per se that makes adolescents more risk-taking than children.
However, in the ‘real world’ outside of the lab, adolescents do take more risks than children, so why might this be? We can’t be certain, but perhaps adolescents just have a greater opportunity to take risks than children. In other words, they are more frequently exposed to situations where they have the chance to take a risk than children are. Children generally aren’t allowed into most of the situations where the biggest risks are taken: driving a car by yourself, taking drugs and drinking. If children were given these opportunities, it’s likely that they would be just as risk-taking as your average teenager.
Interestingly, adolescents seemed to be especially keen on taking risks when they could see the immediate outcome of their behaviour, regardless of whether it was good or bad. This wasn’t the case for adults, and explains why adults were less risk-taking than adolescents. The researchers suggest then, to combat risk-taking behaviour in teenagers, that you should immediately reinforce them for not taking a risk (i.e. by giving them a present, presumably not a car or alcohol) so that they get some of the kind of feedback that they might have expected to get from taking that risk.
Defoe, I. N., Dubas, J. S., Figner, B., & van Aken, M. A. (2014). A meta-analysis on age differences in risky decision making: Adolescents versus children and adults, 141: 48-84.