In many respects, then, risk-taking during adolescence can be understood and explained as the product of an interaction between the socio-emotional and cognitive control networks (Drevets & Raichle, 1998
), and adolescence is a period in which the former abruptly becomes more assertive at puberty while the latter gains strength only gradually, over a longer period of time. It is important to note, however, that the socio-emotional network is not in a state of constantly high activation, even during early and middle adolescence. Indeed, when the socio-emotional network is not highly activated (for example, when individuals are not emotionally excited or are alone), the cognitive control network is strong enough to impose regulatory control over impulsive and risky behavior, even in early adolescence; recall that in our video driving game study, when individuals were alone we found no age differences in risk-taking between adolescents who averaged 14 and adults who averaged 34 (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005
). In the presence of peers or under conditions of emotional arousal, however, the socio-emotional network becomes sufficiently activated to diminish the regulatory effectiveness of the cognitive control network. (We are currently beginning research in our lab to examine whether positive or negative emotional arousal has differential effects on risk-taking during adolescence and adulthood.) During adolescence, the cognitive control network matures, so that by adulthood, even under conditions of heightened arousal in the socio-emotional network inclinations toward risk-taking can be modulated.
What does this formulation mean for the prevention of unhealthy risk-taking in adolescence? Given extant research suggesting that it is not the way that adolescents think or what they don’t know or understand that is the problem, rather than attempting to change how adolescents view risky activities a more profitable strategy might focus on limiting opportunities for immature judgment to have harmful consequences. As I noted in the introduction to this article, more than 90% of all American high school students have had sex, drug, and driver education in their schools, yet large proportions of them still have unsafe sex, binge drink, smoke cigarettes, and drive recklessly (some all at the same time; Steinberg, 2004
). Strategies such as raising the price of cigarettes, more vigilantly enforcing laws governing the sale of alcohol, expanding adolescents’ access to mental health and contraceptive services, and raising the driving age would likely be more effective in limiting adolescent smoking, substance abuse, pregnancy, and automobile fatalities than attempts to make adolescents wiser, less impulsive, or less shortsighted. Some things just take time to develop, and mature judgment is probably one of them.
The research reviewed here suggests that heightened risk-taking during adolescence is likely to be normative, biologically driven, and, to some extent, inevitable. There is probably very little we can or ought to do to either attenuate or delay the shift in reward sensitivity that takes place at puberty, a developmental shift that likely has evolutionary origins. It may be possible to accelerate the maturation of self-regulatory competence, but no research has examined whether this can be done. We do know that individuals of the same age vary in their impulse control, planfulness, and susceptibility to peer influence, and that variations in these characteristics are related to variations in risky and antisocial behavior (Steinberg, 2008
). Although there is a wealth of studies showing familial influences on psychosocial maturity in adolescence, indicating that adolescents who are raised in homes characterized by authoritative parenting (i.e., parenting that is warm but firm) are more mature and less likely to engage in risky or antisocial behavior (Steinberg, 2001
), we do not know whether this link is mediated by changes in the underlying bases of self-regulation, or whether they mainly reflect the imposition of external constraints (through parental monitoring) on adolescents’ access to harmful situations and substances. Nonetheless, there is reason to study whether altering the context in which adolescents develop may have beneficial effects on the development of self-regulatory capacities. Understanding how contextual factors, both inside and outside the family, influence the development of self-regulation, and the neural underpinnings of these processes, should be a high priority for those interested in the physical and psychological well being of young people.