You are not going to believe this. Your teenager’s thinking process may be more rational than yours. I said you would not believe this.
Is it a good idea to swim with sharks? Is it smart to drink a bottle of Drano? What about setting your hair on fire — is that a good thing to do?
People of all ages are able to give the correct answer (it’s “no,” in case you were wondering) to each of these questions. But adolescents take just a little bit longer (about 170 milliseconds longer, to be exact) to arrive at the right answer than adults do. That split second may contain a world of insight into how adolescents tick — and how they tick differently from adults.
A major new report by Valerie F. Reyna (Cornell) and Frank Farley (Temple University), “Risk and Rationality in Adolescent Decision Making,” in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, summarizes the present state of psychological science research on decision making, on why adolescents make the (sometimes bad) decisions they make, and on how interventions may be better designed to steer young people toward better choices.
So why do adolescents take risks? Decision research answers this with another counterintuitive finding: Adolescents make the risky judgments they do because they are actually, in some ways, more rational than adults. Grownups tend to quickly and intuitively grasp that certain risks (e.g., drunk driving, unprotected sex, and most anything involving sharks) are just too great to be worth thinking about, so they don’t proceed down the “slippery slope” of actually calculating the odds. Adolescents, on the other hand, actually take the time to weigh risks and benefits — possibly deciding that the latter outweigh the former.