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See Inside The Early Years

Is the Teen Brain Too Rational? [Preview]

With the decision-making areas of their brains still developing, teenagers show poor judgment in risky situations. Thinking less logically may be the answer.

In recent years, colleagues have suggested that fuzzy-trace theory could be applied to the vexing problem of adolescent risk taking. We have taken up the challenge, and our research suggests that adding a gist-based component to intervention programs serves a useful purpose. We believe that emphasizing intuitive rather than "logical" reasoning in potentially risky situations could help many--but not all--adolescents avoid engaging in risky behavior.

We propose that there are two kinds of teens who make similarly risky choices but do so through very different routes. We have dubbed these two groups the risky deliberators and the risky reactors.

The risky deliberators encompass the vast majority of teenagers--those who are in the normal developmental stage of adolescence. Before doing something potentially dangerous, risky deliberators rationally trade off risks against benefits, just as risk-intervention programs encourage them to do. And all too often, the risky deliberators come to a conclusion that, for them, is entirely logical: they conclude that the benefits of a risky action outweigh its risks--and intentionally go ahead and do it.

Consider the extreme example of Russian roulette, which was featured so prominently in the movie The Deer Hunter. Nick, played by Christopher Walken, has made a considerable amount of money gambling on Russian roulette. We last see him in a gambling den in Saigon sitting opposite his old friend Michael (Robert De Niro) and holding a gun to his head.

Nick clearly was mentally unstable, traumatized by his ordeal in the Vietnam War and addicted to heroin. But for risky deliberators and for the standard intervention programs aimed at helping them (and for economists of a certain stripe), the decision to play Russian roulette could be considered rational if the payoff in dollars were large enough. After all, the benefit could be a fortune that lasts a lifetime... and the risk of dying is only one in six.

The young risky deliberator has relied on verbatim reasoning that is age-appropriate and logical but that could result in a tragic outcome. Most adults, on the other hand, will look at this scenario--money to win and a gun with a single bullet in the chamber--and ask, "Are you crazy? No amount of money you could offer would get me to put that gun to my head. This is not about the number of dollars or the number of bullets--were talking about a significant risk of dying here." Adults, of course, are using gist-based thinking to cut quickly through the distractions, grasp the bottom-line meaning and arrive at a simple answer: absolutely not.

Impulsive Reactors
Risky reactors, on the other hand, are not thinking deeply or analytically. Instead they act impulsively because of some temptation in their environment. Risky reactors do not intend to do something dangerous. But for any number of reasons--including peer-group pressure or the excitement of the moment--they are pulled into risky situations, often against their better judgment.

Fortunately, most risky reactors grow out of their impulsiveness once they reach adulthood. But in the meantime, efforts to influence cognitive development by encouraging intuitive thinking probably will not help these teens, who are responders rather than thinkers. Instead measures for protecting unintentional risk takers should focus on adult supervision or monitoring to minimize opportunities for reacting to temptation.

Risky deliberators--the much larger group of at-risk adolescents--stand a far better chance of benefiting from exposure to intuitive, gist-based thinking. These teens do engage in reasoning--flawed though the outcomes may be--so we may be able to influence how they reason. To that end, we are now testing a gist-enhanced intervention program in a clinical trial involving more than 800 adolescents. Results should be available by the end of the year [see box on page 65 for comments of one at-risk teenager who seems to be benefiting from this gist-based intervention effort].

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