Reading: Dodds, “Beautiful Teenage Brains”

David Dodds

David Dobbs is known for his many articles, essays, and stories on scientific and environmental topics. He has written Reef Madness (2005) and is now working on a new book, The Orchid and the Dandelion. He lives in Vermont.

Beautiful Teenage Brains

As Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence at Temple University, points out, even 14-17-year olds—the biggest risk takers—use the same basic cognitive strategies [ways of knowing] that adults do, and they usually reason their way through problems just as well as adults. Contrary to popular belief, they also fully recognize they’re mortal. And, like adults, says Steinberg, “teens actually overestimate risk.”

If teens think as well as adults do and recognize risks just as well, why do they take more chances? Here, as elsewhere, the problem lies less in what teens lack compared with adults than in what they have more of. Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus rewards differently. In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

A videogame Steinberg uses draws this out nicely. In the game, you try to drive across town in as little time as possible. Along the way you encounter several traffic lights. As in real life, the traffic lights sometimes turn from green to yellow as you approach them, forcing a quick go-or-stop decision. You save time—and score more points—if you drive through before the light turns red. But if you try to drive through the red and don’t beat it, you lose even more time than you would have if you had stopped for it. Thus the game rewards you for taking a certain amount of risk but punishes you for taking too much.

When teens drive the course alone, in what Steinberg calls the emotionally “cool” situation of an empty room, they take risks at about the same rate that adults do. Add stakes that the teen cares about, however, and the situation changes. In this case, Steinberg added friends: When he brought a teen’s friends into the room to watch, the teen would take twice as many risks, trying to gun it through lights he’d stopped for before. The adults, meanwhile, drove no differently with a friend watching.

To Steinberg, this shows clearly that risk-taking rises not from puny thinking but from a higher regard for reward.

“They didn’t take more chances because they suddenly downgraded the risk,” says Steinberg. “They did so because they gave more weight to the payoff.”

Researchers such as Steinberg and Casey [a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College] believe . . . the willingness to take risks during this period of life has granted an adaptive edge. Succeeding often requires moving out of the home and into less secure situations.


David Dodds. “Beautiful Teenage Brains” by David Dodds from National Geographic, October 2011. Copyright © 2011 by National Geographic Creative. Reprinted by permission of National Geographic Creative.