In a truly shocking new study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development confirmed that teens are reckless idiots, and that they don’t listen to advice. While this might be stating the obvious, the study goes a step further and sheds some light on why, exactly, teens love risky activities–and why they refuse to listen to people who know better.
The conventional wisdom around why adolescents are prone to recklessness goes something like this: They haven’t yet learned the consequences of dangerous activities, and they don’t know what will hurt them. But if only that were the case, it would stand to reason that younger kids would be even bigger risk takers, and they’re not.
The Max Planck Institute study finds that teens don’t even want to know information about the risks involved in whatever they’re doing. Compared to adults and younger children, adolescents are much happier operating under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty: what some might call ignorance.
Generally, adolescents are healthy and strong, and capable of just about anything (or so they think). Yet rates of death and disease rise alarmingly as soon as hormones start to kick in. “One key reason for this darker side of adolescence,” the report noted, “is that young people are more likely than children or adults to engage in risky and impulsive behaviors such as reckless driving, binge drinking, unprotected sex, and experimenting with drugs.”
Despite this widespread recklessness, little scientific work has been done to study it–probably because once you put a teenager in a lab, they behave pretty differently from how they would in the wild. “Experimental studies often report a linear decrease in risky behavior from childhood to adulthood,” the authors wrote in the study. “However, these findings are at odds with actuarial data as well as with adolescents’ self-reported risk attitudes.”
To mimic real-life risk-taking, the researchers conducted three types of tests. In existing studies, the most commonly used test is called “choice under risk,” and involves making a decision while being fully informed of all possible outcomes. The problem with this is that teens tend to make choices while remaining oblivious to the consequences (even if they seem obvious to the older and wiser). “When adolescents use drugs or engage in unprotected sex, they may have only a vague idea of the possible consequences of their actions and the likelihoods of those consequences,” the authors wrote in the study.
So, a second test was added to simulate these leaps into the unknown (called “choice under ambiguity”), and a third test was designed to model another real-world option–where teens might seek advice (!) from peers, or actually do research before acting (“choice under uncertainty”).
These tests were administered to 105 people between the ages of eight and 22; each test took the form of a different kind of monetary gamble. In the “choice under risk test,” participants were told exactly how much money they could win or lose, and the probability of either outcome. In the “choice under ambiguity” model, teens were told the value of the prize but not the probability of winning. In the final “choice under uncertainty” test, subjects were told nothing about the probability, or how much money they could win or lose, but were given the opportunity to research them further.
The results showed that teenagers were happier operating under ambiguity, and searched for less information than children or young adults before making their decisions. “This tolerance of the unknown peaked around age 13-15 years,” the authors wrote in the study.
This information could have some real-world implications going forward. For example, it could explain why campaigns that try to convince adolescents to avoid drugs or be careful when having sex are often ignored, with the target teens seeming not to even notice the warnings. “If we really want to get through to young people, we need to take these insights into account when designing interventions,” study coauthor Ralph Hertwig said in a statement.
But how could you possibly get through to teens, who already know everything there is to know? Apparently, video games. “A promising alternative to information campaigns would be to give adolescents the opportunity to experience the consequences of their risky behavior—in virtual environments, for example,” Hertwig added.