In May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the fifth in a series of Situationist posts (to link to the first four, click here, here, here, and here) excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Ann Conkie’s excellent summary of various presentations on “Risky Decision-Making Across the Lifespan.”
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Sage or Just Age?
According to Ellen Peters, Decision Research and the University of Oregon, by 2050 the number of people over 60 will surpass people under 15 for the first time in history, underscoring the importance of research into how older adults make decisions. Peters’ research shows that although the cognitive decline associated with age makes it seem that older people would make worse decisions, they actually have a lifetime of experience to draw from and that older people can bring their “deliberative capacity to bear when it matters.” . . .
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We know that adolescents are different from you and me, but does that difference extend to how they make decisions? Is their process neurologically different than that of adults? To find out, Abigail Baird, Vassar College, went straight to the source: teenagers. As adults, there are some decisions we don’t have to think about. Eating a salad? Good idea. Swimming with sharks? Bad idea. This is because our amygdala and insula, the parts of the brain that initiate our fight/flight response, give us an instinctual sense that something is good or bad. However, it’s not always that simple. When asked questions similar to those above, teenagers and adults all came to the same good/bad conclusions, but the teenagers took significantly more time to do so when the decisions involved potentially risky situations. Whereas the adults showed quick reactions of the amygdala and insula, the teenagers also involved their frontal cortex, the center of reasoning and logic. Essentially, this means that teenagers have not yet developed the gut instinct or reflex and were thinking about the questions more.
On the surface, carefully thinking over a decision is a good thing and very necessary for more complex decisions. But initial fight/flight responses to obvious decisions are necessary, too, and thinking too much can leave the brain open to being “blindsided” by emotion, most often by means of peer interactions. When teenagers are mulling over a question of right or wrong, safety or danger, they take into account what others do or think, something Baird, a Past Secretary of APS, calls “the Haley effect.” (As in, “I’m pretty sure swimming with sharks is a bad thing, but I want to know what my best friend Haley thinks before I totally make up my mind.”) This, combined with a shifting focus from parents to peers in the teenage years, as well as a new awareness of the imaginary audience (the “they” who will be so merciless if a kid doesn’t have the latest shoes or the “everyone” who will be at that party), makes peer pressure a powerful force in risky decision-making for adolescents.
Daniel Romer, University of Pennsylvania, presented a different rationale for adolescents’ seeming cluelessness when it comes to decision-making. Romer explained that adolescence is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, which has been elongated since the 1900s with the progress of the industrial revolution and universal education. Earlier generations of adolescents were expected to assume adult responsibilities at an earlier age and received adult guidance in the process. Also, studies have shown that the amount of dopamine released and the number of dopamine synapses increase during adolescence. This increase in dopamine has been correlated with an increase in sensation-seeking behavior — which in our media saturated culture often leads to your good old sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. So adolescents are left in a non-adult, “responsibility-lite” situation at just the time when they want to engage in novel and exciting behavior the most.
How can we help teenagers avoid these risks? Psychology-based public policy has come up with some answers. The U.S. Department of Education is running pilot school programs teaching problem-solving skills, starting early in elementary school. One of the most successful risk-reduction policies has been graduated driver’s license programs. In these programs, states restrict beginners’ licenses in a variety of ways (e.g., not allowing other teenagers in the car or not allowing teens to drive at certain times of night). States that have incorporated at least five of these types of measures have seen a 30 percent decline in fatal teenage accidents.
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