Teens, it seems, love the unknown.
Adults have long reckoned with ways to protect adolescents from their own misjudgments. Only recently, however, have researchers really begun to understand how the teen brain is wired and that some of what appear to be teens’ senseless choices may result from biological tendencies that also prime their brains to learn and be flexible.
Take teens’ perception of risk. It’s certainly different from that of adults, but not in the ways you’d expect. Research shows, for instance, that teens tend to wildly overestimate certain risks — of things like unprotected sex and drug use — not to lowball them as one would predict. So, it may be that teens’ notorious risk-taking behavior stems not from some immunity to known risks, but rather, as a new study now suggests, from their greater tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity — that is, unknown risks.
“Relative to adults, adolescents engage more in unknown risks than they do in known risks,” says Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral student at New York University and the lead author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If the risks are known, adolescents engage [in risk-taking] less than adults do, but if they are unknown, this is reversed,” Tymula says.