How many exasperated parents have asked, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” when their children succumbed to peer pressure? It is a fact of life that teens are influenced by their peers to take risks, and a new study by Temple University researchers Jason Chein and Laurence Steinberg helps to explain why.
The researchers looked at brain activity in teens and adults as they made decisions in a simulated driving game. The goal of the game was to finish a course as quickly as possible in order to maximize their reward. When approaching an intersection, each player had to decide whether to stop at a yellow light or run through and risk crashing into another car. Running the yellow offered the potential payoff of moving more quickly, but also the risk of a crash, which added a significant delay.
Each participant played the game alone and while being observed by friends. While teens and adults behaved comparably while playing the game alone, it was only the teens who took a greater number of risks when they knew their friends were watching.
When teens knew peers were looking on, the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activation. “These results suggest that the presence of peers does not impact the evaluation of the risk but rather heightens sensitivity in the brain to the potential upside of a risky decision,” Chein noted. The researchers speculate that the presence of peers heightens sensitivity to reward in teens because being with friends is so important at that stage of life.
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