Nothing ventured, nothing gained?

The possible upsides of adolescent risk
clicjeroen, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
clicjeroen, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

When he was a teenager, my graduate student, Frank, would play “Carts” with his friends. By hanging out of the passenger window of a speeding car, each boy could steer a stolen shopping cart and try to smash his cart into someone else’s. Now in his late 20s, Frank recalls this game with amusement, but I find the anecdote horrifying. Risking a car crash so that you could smash shopping carts is exactly the sort of dangerous and apparently senseless teenage behavior that worries and mystifies adults.

Sensation seeking in mice and men

Why do teenagers take these sorts of risks? Part of the reason is that they are particularly high in the personality trait of sensation seeking, defined as liking intense and exciting physical sensations and experiences. Does skiing very fast down a treacherous mountain sound like fun? Do you love roller coasters that make your insides churn? If yes, then you are likely a high sensation seeker. Studies by my lab and by other researchers found that sensation seeking increases around the time of puberty, peaking around age 16 in the U.S. High sensation seekers are more likely to drink, smoke, get in fights, have unprotected sex, and commit crimes.

Human adolescents are not alone in their sensation seeking tendencies. All sorts of mammals show increases in sensation seeking behaviors after puberty. One way of studying this in mice is to place the animals on a large, X-shaped platform several feet off the ground. Two of the arms of the X have high walls, whereas the other two arms are open, with nothing to protect the mice from falling off. Guess which mice spend the most time in the open arms? Adolescent mice. Juvenile and adult mice, in contrast, spend almost all of their time safely sheltered behind the walls of the closed arms.

“Adolescents’ tolerance for risk evolved a very long time ago, shaped by the challenges that all adolescent animals face as they finish maturing.”

The value of adolescent sensation seeking

The similarities in behavior between adolescent mice and adolescent humans suggest that adolescents’ tolerance for risk evolved a very long time ago, shaped by the challenges that all adolescent animals face as they finish maturing: Separate from one’s parents. Stake out new territory. Find and compete for mates. Those who can tolerate danger – who even like danger – can have a competitive advantage in this high-risk, but potentially high-reward, period of life.

Even today, high sensation seeking can be valuable for an individual and for society. One study of Swedish men found that men with an entrepreneurial career were particularly likely to have a history of adolescent rule-breaking behavior. Another study of Israeli war veterans found that high sensation seekers were more likely than other soldiers to have received a medal for bravery in combat.

“Interventionists can now use personality traits to identify teenagers at high risk for developing substance use problems.”

My lab has recently found that highly sensation seeking teenagers are more likely to engage in both negative, antisocial risks (like delinquency) and in positive, pro-social types of risks, such as initiating a new friendship, trying out for a sports team, or running for school office.

Using the science of sensation seeking in schools

By thinking of sensation seeking as a normal – and potentially valuable – part of adolescent development, we can find new strategies to prevent teenagers from engaging in destructive risks and to foster positive outcomes. People working to curtail adolescent drinking and drug use have already started to learn this lesson. It is now clear that intervention programs that simply teach teenagers about the dangers of drug use have little positive benefit, and may even backfire, because adolescents often find danger alluring.

Instead, interventionists can now use personality traits to identify teenagers at high risk for developing substance use problems. Adolescents who are identified as highly sensation seeking are then provided with tailored, interactive activities, which take their needs for intensity and excitement seriously by exploring other, non-substance-related strategies to meet those needs.

“There are many under-explored possibilities that schools could use to help teenagers thrive.”

But beyond specific interventions for substance use, high schools currently do not meet teenagers’ developmentally normal needs for intensity, excitement, and novelty. In the 9th grade, around the time that sensation seeking is highest in development, a majority of American students say they are bored in school most of the time.

How could school be made less boring? One potential approach is to embrace technology, including video games, which can provide immersive, stimulating, complex, and highly social experiences. In addition to using immersive technologies, schools can give students varied experiences outside of the classroom, and facilitate teenagers’ involvement in projects, such as start-up businesses, that have real stakes. These are all under-explored possibilities that could use help teenagers thrive.